Subjective Correlative

Mary-Kay Wilmers

In January 1961 I came to London and started looking for a job. I’d graduated the previous June and been told by the person in charge of women’s appointments that the best I could hope for was a job as a typist. In March I started work at Faber, as the advertising manager’s secretary. Faber was T.S. Eliot’s firm: my father was very impressed. I shared an office with two other secretaries, one of them Eliot’s. She was called Angela, not Valerie: Valerie had married Eliot four years before, in 1957. (We all know now that she’d decided to marry him long before she first came to Faber, but some people knew even then that she kept a pair of white shoes in a drawer in her desk to wear when he summoned her to his room.)

I had some bad moments with him. I hadn’t been there more than a few months when he caught me looking out of the window onto Russell Square. I had my back both to my colleagues and to the door, and I was saying: ‘Look at all those lucky people in Russell Square doing bugger all.’ My colleagues were silent and when I turned round I realised why: Eliot had come into the room and was glowering at me. I might as well have been tearing at the grapes with murderous paws. After I’d graduated to blurb-writing he showed all the directors a blurb I’d written, saying: ‘Surely we can’t publish this.’ It was for Ann Jellicoe’s play The Knack and I’d said that the knack in question was the knack of getting girls into bed. Once, early on, I pointed out a discrepancy between two printings of one of his early poems – I can’t remember which. I was quite proud of myself. He said it didn’t matter.

The disapproval wasn’t all one way. When no one else was in the room I’d look at the letters his secretary typed up for him and turn away dismayed to have found him thanking people for their ‘courteous’ or ‘gracious’ letters. How could he use such awful words? Then there were the clothes, the light blue flannel suits: surely a poet, even an elderly poet, should dress in normal tweeds, or in black, or in something more outlandish altogether. Worst of all, I saw him one evening standing at the top of the stairs holding hands with Valerie. How could someone so old and so grand allow himself to be seen in public holding hands with his wife?

The stories of Eliot’s unhappy first wife, Vivien, or Vivienne as some people have it, were more appealing. Not that they were told very often. She was no longer alive in my day – she died in a mental hospital in 1947. In my mind it was the fact that she was crazy, or crazy-ish, that made her so much more suitable to be the wife of a poet, but it’s also the fact that she was crazy – by the last ten or fifteen years of her life properly crazy – that makes her so appealing to me even now. In the late 1930s, before she was committed, she’d sometimes come to Faber in search of her husband, and while Eliot slipped out of the back door his current secretary would go downstairs to explain to Vivien that it wasn’t possible for her to see him. She was a ‘pathetic, worried figure, badly dressed and very unhappy, her hands screwing up her handkerchief as she wept’, one of those secretaries later recalled. But she was also a very determined, stubborn woman, unlikely to give any ground. When she wasn’t allowed to leave some of her husband’s favourite hot chocolate for him she poured it through the letterbox, and if she got to know that he was giving a lecture somewhere in London she would stand outside the hall holding a placard that read, as I’ve always (and wrongly) remembered it: ‘This is the wife he abandoned.’ Sadly, but no doubt accurately, the various biographies substitute ‘I am’ for ‘This is’.

It wouldn’t have been unlike her to say ‘this is the wife he abandoned.’ For her, as for him, there was no clear demarcation between objective and subjective reality. It is far more important, Eliot said, to have a sense of sin than to be good or bad. And in Vivien’s diaries her own subjectivity presides like a god, or a prophet who should have known better. ‘King Albert of Belgium is killed,’ she noted in February 1934. Unlike other Belgian kings he was a popular figure who died in a mysterious climbing accident. ‘I should have foreseen this on Ash Wednesday,’ Vivien wrote, ‘when Jack put the ashes in the Rose ashtray. Or before that, when I passed St Cyprian’s last night, and the dry leaves of the Bay tree shivered in the cold wind, and a queer figure passed me and slipped into the Church. Or when I found a tiny dead leaf outside the Pink room door.’