The Independent Arts + Ents
What Val has to say about Tom and Viv
Sunday 24 April 1994
The two Mrs Eliots: Since the death of T S Eliot in 1965, his second wife, Valerie, has been an exemplary literary widow, fiercely guarding her husband’s estate and turning the editing of his letters into her life’s work. She rarely gives interviews. But the release of Tom & Viv, a glossy film about Eliot and his first wife Vivienne, has prompted her to talk
RECLUSIVE. Gregarious. Obstructive. Vivacious. Calm. Incandescent. The adjectives commonly used about Valerie Eliot can’t help but arouse curiosity. Can one person possibly be all these things at the same time, or even at different times? It seems unlikely, but in any case they are not the adjectives that come to mind as Valerie Eliot enters the penthouse boardroom of Faber & Faber’s offices in Queen Square. Anxious would be nearer the mark, jumpy, apprehensive. Her nerves are bad today: newspapers have been putting her under increasing pressure to talk – ‘Speak . . . Why do you never speak. Speak’ – and finally, with gentle encouragement from her publishers, she has agreed to an interview. ‘I feel sick,’ she says, as John Bodley (who, a fellow Faber editor once teasingly wrote, ‘earns his salary / by looking after Valerie’) ushers her into a seat and pours her a calming glass of red wine.
In her position, who wouldn’t feel sick? A film has just appeared which alleges, or has caused journalists to allege, and which will allow large audiences to believe, the following things about her late husband:
- That he took the credit for writing poetry, notably parts of The Waste Land, in fact written by his first wife, Vivienne.
- That he betrayed his deep love for Vivienne (and his muse) in his crawly eagerness to become a member of the British literary and religious establishment.
- That he was cold, ruthless, self-absorbed.
- That he got hold of Vivienne’s money by becoming an executor of her father’s estate.
- That he incarcerated Vivienne in a mental institution when she was in sound mental health, cruelly refused to visit her, and – while he went on to enjoy world renown – allowed her to languish there for nine years until, cheated and neglected, she died of heart failure at 58.
Tom & Viv, claim those who made it, is a ‘truly passionate, tragic and wonderful story about an extraordinary couple who found great love but couldn’t handle it’. It will, they say, ‘enhance’ T S Eliot’s reputation by showing how his art, which he liked to pretend was ‘impersonal’, grew directly out of his life. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? But they have been saying other things as well. Michael Hastings, who wrote the original play Tom and Viv and co-wrote the screenplay for the film, last week characterised T S Eliot for readers of the Evening Standard as one of five American ‘fascists’ who have had a malign influence on modern culture (the others were D W Griffith, Walt Disney, Henry Ford and Frank Lloyd Wright). And while Tom is being written off or written out of literary history, Viv is being instated as ‘an exceptional talent, a vivacious and brilliant woman, who . . . was brave enough to put her vision of what a woman’s role could be into practice’. That’s the view of the film’s producer, Harvey Kass. Miranda Richardson, who plays Viv, takes a similar line, describing her as ‘a truth-seeker . . . a free spirit who spoke her mind. (She) was a writer herself but nobody noticed. They were too busy lionising her husband.’
The celebration of the first Mrs Eliot as the real writer in the marriage must leave the second Mrs Eliot feeling very odd. For nearly half a century, Valerie Eliot has devoted herself to the service of TSE. As a 14-year-old schoolgirl she experienced a ‘revelation’ on hearing John Gielgud read ‘Journey of the Magi’. At 18 she resolved to work for Eliot. At 22 she was taken on as his secretary. At 30 she married him (he was then 68). At 38 she became his widow and the executor of his estate.
It is Valerie Eliot who edited the marvellous facsimile edition of The Waste Land. It is she who is editing his collected letters. It is she who grants or denies permission to quote from his work – a position which has led some to portray her as a dragon guarding a cave of ugly secrets. And now there’s this film, based on a play which has already done damage enough to her husband’s reputation, threatening to lodge him forever in the public imagination as a mean old bastard who locked up his first wife and didn’t even compose his own work.
Despite reports of her ‘fury’ at the film, the truth is that Valerie Eliot hasn’t seen it yet. Some weeks ago I invited her to a press preview, but word came back from Faber that the Daily Mail had made the same proposal and that she thought it rather a hack idea: ‘A press showing would be too public, anyway,’ I was told. ‘She’ll probably sneak in somewhere incognito.’ So far she hasn’t. She didn’t see the original Michael Hastings play, either, though she did hear it on the radio. Nor has she read Peter Ackroyd’s biography. So her alleged anger with the book, the play and the film is not based on an intimate knowledge of them.
Valerie Eliot is tempted to let the brackish waters ebb away and simply get on with her work. She feels that when she does open her mouth to journalists she is always misrepresented or sold short. For example, one diarist quoted her as saying that in editing Eliot’s letters she had ‘learnt rather a lot about my husband I didn’t know’. What she actually said, more interestingly, is that she had discovered things he didn’t know – such as the fact that the last letter he sent to Ezra Pound, which he feared had never reached him, was found in Pound’s dressing-gown pocket by his daughter two years after Old Ez’s death.
So Mrs Eliot is wary of dishing out quotes. But silence at present will imply an acceptance of the thesis of Tom & Viv. And though she may not have seen the film, she can’t escape it. Not even the dentist is safe: when she went there the other day, she was told that he’d just done the teeth of a woman boasting that her daughter had written the film’s theme music. There’s no getting away from it. It’s time to speak up for Tom. This is why Mrs Eliot is feeling sick.
ONE OF the key scenes in Tom & Viv shows a spry and sane Vivienne being asked to solve two difficult logical puzzles. Tom is present during the interrogation. Viv gets one of the answers wrong and is declared insane. A few days later, with his implied consent or acquiescence, she is dragged brutally out of a cafe (where she has been calmly taking a toast and tea with her friend Louise Purdon) and hauled off in a van to the loony bin.
I describe these incidents to Valerie Eliot, who sits across the table, light blue eyes, royal blue dress, powdery face, golden hair, golden earrings. ‘Oh, it’s pathetic, isn’t it?’ she says. ‘The whole point of Vivienne going into a nursing home was to be cared for, because she wasn’t capable of looking after herself. Tom wasn’t even there at the time of the committal – they’d been separated for five years, and he was away in the country. There . . .’ she says, fishing in her bag. ‘Read that.’
‘That’ is the photostat of a letter written to Tom by Vivienne’s brother, Maurice Haigh- Wood, on 14 July 1938. It seems to blow Tom & Viv out of the water.
I am very sorry to have to write to you on your holiday but I’m afraid I must. Viv was found wandering in the streets at 5 o’clock this morning and was taken into Marylebone Police Station. . . . The Inspector at the Police Station told me she had talked in a very confused and unintelligible manner and appeared to have various illusions, and if it had not been possible to get hold of me or someone to take charge of her, he would have felt obliged to place her under mental observation.
As soon as I got to the City I rang up Dr Miller . . . He got a reply from (Allen & Hanbury’s, chemists) this morning in which they said that V. called every day for her medicine, that she appeared to be in a deplorable condition and that they had no idea of her address. Dr Miller was therefore on the point of writing to me because he feels that something must be done without much more delay . . . (He) feels V. must go either to Malmaison (a sanatorium near Paris) or to some home, and I am also inclined to think that, because there is no telling what will happen next.
Viv had apparently been wandering about for two nights, afraid to go anywhere. She is full of the most fantastic suspicions and ideas. She asked me if it was true that you had been beheaded. She says she has been in hiding from various mysterious people, and so on.
I have made a provisional appointment with Dr Miller for 3.15pm tomorrow (this was before I discovered you were away).
I really don’t know whether to suggest your running up to town tomorrow and returning to Gloucestershire in the evening, or not. You will be able to decide that yourself, but I would be grateful if you would send me a telegram in the morning to say what you decide.
Yours ever, Maurice
There is also a second letter from Maurice to Tom, dated 14 August 1938, exactly a month later. This describes how Vivienne had been taken to see two different doctors, Dr Hart and Dr Mapother, and the subsequent committal:
Both doctors felt strongly that she should be put into a home. They handed me their certificates. I then had to go before a magistrate to obtain his order. I got hold of one in Hampstead.
I then went to Northumberland House, saw the doctor there, & arranged for a car to go with 2 nurses to Compayne Gardens that evening. The car went at about 10pm. Vivienne went very quietly with them after a good deal of discussion.
I spoke to the doctor yesterday evening, & was told that Vivienne had been fairly cheerful, had slept well & eaten well, & had sat out in the garden & read a certain amount . . .
I gather . . . that Vivienne was in the habit often of saving up her drugs & then taking an enormous dose all at once, which I suppose accounts for the periodical crises.
As soon as you get back I should very much like to see you . . .
Yrs ever, Maurice
It is not clear what action Eliot himself took during the month between these letters, but it is clear that he was not directly involved in Vivienne’s committal.
‘The point,’ says Valerie Eliot, ‘is that if the doctors and police hadn’t acted with the best of intentions, Vivienne would have had an early grave. She was put there for her own safety, because the doctors thought she was in need of care and she wouldn’t go voluntarily. Maurice was desperate to have Tom involved, because he wanted his hand held. But Tom was away, and separated from Vivienne in any case, so Maurice had to see to things himself.
‘Northumberland House, where Vivienne went, wasn’t a mental hospital as we understand it today, but a glorified nursing home, where degrees of restraint were necessary. It had a big garden, which Vivienne liked. It was divided into three houses – Vivienne was in the nicest part, the Villas, where the patients who needed least watching lived. They only moved her when she began stealing from and worrying other patients. She stirred up a lot of havoc in the place, apparently.’
Why didn’t Tom visit her?
‘Because the doctors had told him he mustn’t. He lost his hair, you know, at one stage earlier, worrying about her. But he did get regular reports, through his solicitors, on how she was doing. And because she’d been made a Ward in Chancery, there was this outside person looking after her interests. I’m quite sure that if a doctor had said, ‘She can come out,’ Tom or Maurice would have done something about it. Hastings says that Maurice later regretted keeping her there, but I talked to Maurice for many hours – he used to come and see me to discuss his problems, especially with his son, who was unstable, too, and who eventually comitted suicide. I’d pour whisky down him and he’d talk and talk – but he never expressed regret to me. He must have realised it was for her own good.
‘In any case Vivienne didn’t want to leave. During the war, Tom wondered if she shouldn’t be moved to Brighton or somewhere, with a private nurse, in case of being bombed. But she felt safe and protected there.’
To reinforce the point, Valerie Eliot produces another letter from her bag, written by someone who’d been a friend of Tom and Viv when they were married, and who had visited Northumberland House. The letter quotes a remark Vivienne once made – ‘I think it must be dreadful to have children, to think that you might pass on something of yourself’ – and describes how ‘every time she was found a place, she refused to leave. Either she’d become friendly with a nurse, or a doctor, or she said she had won a privilege where she was and didn’t want to give it up. Sometimes she would seem fairly normal, though the frightening glare was almost always there.’ The ‘frightening glare’, says Valerie, was something that had also alarmed Ezra Pound’s wife Dorothy some years earlier, when she’d been left alone with Vivienne over tea and saw her eyes fix on a knife on the table.
What does Valerie think of the theory that if Vivienne had lived today, her illness – the hysteria, her almost constant menstruation, her hormonal imbalance – could have been cured?
‘It’s pure speculation, like the idea that if Keats had been born later he might not have died of TB. You have to remember that Vivienne went to see some of the top doctors of the day in both France and England, and also one in Germany recommended by Ottoline Morrell. Anyone they’d heard was any good, Tom tried – he took every care, I think. She had the best treatment – you can’t tell me that all the doctors were half-witted.’
VALERIE ELIOT takes another sip of red wine and begins to feel less sick. It isn’t a pretty or endearing position to be in – having to insist on the madness of your husband’s first wife. Still, if clearing Tom’s name requires it, it’s work she seems quite willing to undertake.
‘Tom used to say that Vivienne had one emotion only, and that was fear. He thought she’d been philandered with before he knew her. She was in Paris once, and lay under the bed at the Pounds’ house, cowering in terror because there was a storm. When a friend told her about going to a weekend cottage where the electricity was normally turned off, she replied: ‘How horrible: you could be murdered before the light came on.’ And she requested in a letter that when she died her body was to be cut open to make sure she really was dead – she was so afraid of being buried alive.
‘I think if Tom hadn’t taken the job at the bank, the marriage would never have lasted as long as it did. Even there she would ring him up, you know, and ask him to come home to make her hot carrot juice. And he’d have to slip out and get it, while a friend at the bank covered up for him. Whereas Tom would come back from giving an evening WEA lecture, scour the fridge and there’d be nothing there.
‘After they separated Vivienne wrote sad letters to him – there’s one where she says she’ll be in tomorrow evening and will leave the door ajar, but some are incoherent. She went round wearing a hat with ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ on it. Of course, since she could be totally dotty, Tom and Maurice were made executors of the Haigh-Wood estate – one a City man, a stockbroker, the other who’d been a banker. It would have been quite wrong to put her in charge. She was always running up debts – she’d go out and buy a piano or a car, and someone else would have to pay. In the 1930s Tom had to give some lectures at Harvard because he couldn’t meet his income-tax bills. She just drained him of money. She couldn’t help it, she was ill. But I assure you Tom was scrupulous about money, absolutely scrupulous.’
The film, I point out to her, does acknowledge the eccentric side of Vivienne: there is a scene where, denied access to the Faber office where her husband works, she pours melted chocolate through the letter box in revenge.
‘Hastings completely invented that. The doors at Faber were always open, so there was no problem about walking in. But there was a Miss Swan, the telephonist, just inside. Swannee was a wonderful telephonist: you only had to speak to her once, and she’d recognise your voice next time – T E Lawrence couldn’t get over it. She was also very tactful and kind with Vivienne, and had a certain way of ringing Tom’s bell which meant: ‘Don’t come down.’ She used to say the smell of ether on Vivienne was frightful – it nearly knocked her out.
‘So there is no basis for the chocolate story. What Tom did like was a vanilla ice cream with hot chocolate sauce. He was eating it in a restaurant once and a man opposite said: ‘I can’t understand how a poet like you can eat that stuff.’ Tom, with hardly a pause, said, ‘Ah, but you’re not a poet’, and went on eating.’
Was there a time, early on in the marriage, when Vivienne might have been not just a pain and embarrassment but a supportive, even inspiring companion?
‘She was obviously very witty and sparky, and talked to him a lot and was a help in that way. But it was really Tom who tried to get her going as a writer, not the other way about. She wanted to be a ballet dancer. She wanted to be a musician. She was restless and had a go at everything – I think with her illness she couldn’t focus properly. Tom wrote to Leonard Woolf, asking how he handled Virginia during her breakdowns and wanting advice. He also sent one of Vivienne’s stories to The Dial, and had quite a row with them when they turned it down. Tom would say to Vivienne: ‘Why not write me something for The Criterion?’ I think he was trying to steady her with all that.
‘I often think of Ted Hughes, and all he’s had to go through. But Vivienne was more like Zelda Fitzgerald than Sylvia Plath. Tom did tell me that sometimes he’d finish things which she couldn’t finish, so you can’t be sure the things she published are all hers. Her importance is that she made him suffer and we got The Waste Land. We owe the poem to her, no question: he wouldn’t have written it if she hadn’t given him such hell.’
This is not quite what the film suggests. There Viv says ‘I am his mind’ (‘I think that can be disputed,’ giggles Valerie), and it’s claimed that she not only gave him the title The Waste Land but wrote parts of it, too.
‘I think it was Ezra Pound, if anyone, who gave him the title,’ says Valerie. ‘What Vivienne gave him was the title to his magazine, The Criterion. Michael Hastings says you can’t tell the difference between Tom and Vivienne’s handwriting on The Waste Land, but I can: you can’t mistake it. Even lines which are in Vivienne’s hand, like ‘What you get married for if you don’t want children?’, were things she and Tom had heard said by their maid, Ellen, and which they both thought hysterically funny. And when Vivienne did publish a bit of The Waste Land which Ezra had kicked out, under the initials ‘FM’ in The Criterion, two years after the poem had appeared, she was simply playing about with his rejected lines. It was a joke between them.’
Valerie Eliot refrains from making the point that the manuscript of The Waste Land is littered with Vivienne’s enthusiastic comments (‘Splendid’, ‘WONDERFUL’), comments which she’d be unlikely to have made if the words had been her own. But isn’t it time for an edition of her work, so that people can judge for themselves which partner in the marriage was the prime mover?
‘Vivienne asked that when she died her papers go to the Bodleian. The Bodleian didn’t really want them, and for a long time there was no interest in her work, and they sat in a brown paper parcel in the basement. Now anyone who wants to can look – it’s a hotchpotch, poems, stories, some rather pathetic diaries. At the moment we can’t do much, because I can’t break off from the letters to help. But we’ve someone in mind, to do a selection of her work with a biographical account. She has to be protected from people who are indulging their egos. It has to be scholarly.’
There is a great deal more about Tom & Viv which Valerie Eliot wishes to correct. The film depicts Viv’s brother, Maurice, as a duffer; he wasn’t – she shows me a moving letter he wrote from the trenches, in the spirit of Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, on 17 June 1917. Viv’s father wasn’t a despised philistine; he was a painter, and she was devoted to him. Viv’s mother, far from reproaching Tom for his treatment of her daughter, wrote saying she’d like to see him, even after the separation. Viv didn’t resist Tom going into banking; it was through her family that he got in. Viv didn’t resent his becoming religious, or batter at the doors during his baptism and confirmation ceremony in 1927. Viv was much less of a poetic mentor than Ezra Pound, who doesn’t appear in the film. Viv wasn’t even Viv – she was Vivienne, or Vivien (as she liked friends to spell it), or Vivie, but never Viv.
Above all, for understandable reasons, Valerie doesn’t accept the idea of Vivienne as the woman Tom loved most passionately and ‘forever’. I mention the disaster of the honeymoon in Eastbourne in 1915, which the film dramatises with blood-covered sheets and a smashed-up hotel room: ‘It’s rather awkward to talk about: I don’t know if it was to do with sex, or what, but there was nothing wrong with Tom, if that’s your implication. I think when Vivienne came his way he decided ‘I may as well burn my boats,’ then quickly realised he’d made a mistake. They were just two people who shouldn’t have married: each should have married someone else. But Tom tried very hard and for a very long time to make a go of it, and he’s never given credit for that, is he?’
NO ONE now is likely to make a film called Tom & Val. And Valerie Eliot (nee Fletcher) would not welcome it: she is shy about discussing her private life. But the story of her relationship to Tom is as unlikely, and as romantic, as anything in Tom & Viv.
She was born in Headingley, Leeds, in August 1926, and christened Valerie, though only just: ‘I was going to be called Vivien. But my mother’s best friend had a daughter 24 hours before I was born, and called her Vivien, so my name was changed. Tom had a lucky escape there.’ Her father was in insurance, but he wasn’t the Bradford millionaire with a silk hat sort, but rather bookish: ‘His father had been keen on poets. And Daddy got into trouble in the First World War because of all the poetry he had in his knapsack. There is a wonderful library in Leeds, and he was chairman of its committee. I used to do all my reading there.’
Their family butcher, meanwhile, was a Mr Bennett, and his son, young Alan (born eight years after Valerie), used to do occasional deliveries to the Fletchers. Much later, Mrs Bennett met Mrs Fletcher out walking with her daughter’s new husband: ‘He did look a nice man. He had a lovely overcoat.’ That was T S Eliot, Alan told his mother, the most famous poet in England. He’d even won the Nobel Prize for literature. ‘I’m not surprised,’ said Mrs Bennett, ‘it was such a lovely overcoat.’
Valerie grew up in Leeds, but her older brother went off to Repton and she to Queen Anne’s School in Caversham. During the war, while her future husband carried out firewatching duties as an air-raid warden and had a lucky escape when the offices of Faber were bombed, she, too, came under fire: ‘One afternoon, walking down the school fields, a plane suddenly came out of the sky and began machine-gunning. We wore long red cloaks, and you couldn’t run in them, it was like wearing a blanket. I can still see the face of the pilot now. He was firing and the windows were going in ahead of us. Everybody else was lying down, but it was raining and I thought, ‘Blow it, I’m not going to get my cloak wet,’ so I ran for it. We were told later that a store in Reading had a bomb dropped on it, and that a bus going over Caversham Bridge had had its entire top deck machine-gunned.’
She had read Murder in the Cathedral even before hearing Gielgud’s recording of ‘Journey of the Magi’, and later sought out the rest of Eliot’s work. It was some years before she saw him in person, giving a reading at the Wigmore Hall, but even before she met him, ‘I felt I knew him as a person, and evidently I did. I even knew a lot of things about Vivienne, I don’t really know how.’
A family friend, Colin Brooks, editor of The Truth, persuaded Eliot to send a signed copy of his poems to his young admirer in Leeds. It was to Brooks that Valerie, at 18, disclosed her ambition to work for Eliot, and he encouraged her. Her father wasn’t keen on her going to London, since she’d been away at school, but reluctantly agreed she could take a secretarial course. She found the work boring: ‘One afternoon I felt I’d had it, so I went to an agency and asked if they had anyone literary.’ They sent her to a man called Paul Capon: ‘I told him: ‘I shall practise on you.’ I had to play chess with him every lunchtime. He was generous with money when he had it, but often he didn’t: he used to pawn the typewriter at weekends.’
When Capon let her go because he couldn’t afford to pay her, she worked for another writer, Charles Morgan. But one day Colin Brooks, who belonged to the same club as Eliot, came rushing round to tell her Eliot was looking for a secretary. She walked up and down outside Faber’s offices for two hours before finding the courage to apply and be given an appointment:
‘I was terrified. In my excitement I’d cut my hand the night before and had a light bandage on it. There were people on the stairs waiting to be interviewed. Tom chatted with me about Herbert and the 17th century. At the end he held the door open for me – I can still picture him with his chin against it – and said: ‘I’m not allowed to say anything, but I hope that hand has healed enough for you to type in 10 days’ time.’ I thought: ‘Well, I’m in the lead at the moment.’ Two days later I heard I’d got it.’
She was his secretary for eight years before he proposed. It was a friend, Margaret Behrens, who brought them together:
‘She had a house on the Italian frontier, in Mentone. She asked me to stay, which I did, twice, and which Tom was frightfully curious about. Then she wrote to him and said: ‘Look, why don’t you come out for the winter. Valerie can stay with me, and you can go to the hotel next door, it’ll be fine.’ Tom wrote back and said: ‘I can’t: I’m in love with her.’ So Margaret wrote back and said: ‘Get on with it.’ And she wrote straight to me, too, and told me, then wrote back to him again and said: ‘Good heavens, don’t you realise she’s in love with you?’
‘His friend Hope Mirrlees came to the office once and said to him: ‘Is Miss Fletcher engaged by any chance? She looks so radiant.’ Tom wasn’t even egotistical enough to think he was the cause of it. He told my mother he hadn’t even been sure if I particularly liked him, because, of course, I was trying so hard not to give signals. And he was worried about the age gap: the day he was due to meet my parents, he wrote to a friend saying, ‘I have an awful feeling I’m going to turn out to be older than her father,’ which he was. You can see the worry – that it would seem improper.’
For a time, to avoid the danger of office gossip, they met in secret: ‘We used to go the Russell Hotel separately, after work, and meet there behind a pillar. There was a nice old waiter we were very fond of who looked just like Rab Butler. When we went back there after we’d been married my father said ‘I’m glad you’ve made an honest waiter of Rab.’ For a time after I had my engagement ring I wore a finger stall. And when Tom went to Garrards to buy the wedding rings he said: ‘I’ll pull my hat down so no one will know me.’ Afterwards, when he went back, he said to the man there: ‘You know you were very unwise to let a stranger come in and take two rings out.’ The man burst out laughing: ‘We knew exactly who you were, sir.’ ‘
They married in January 1957, 10 years to the month after Vivienne’s death: Eliot’s penance was over. Many people remarked on his rejuvenation. There are photos of them together which show Tom looking handsome and smiling. He even allowed himself to publish a love poem to her, rather soppy and sensuous, very different from the lines in The Waste Land inspired by marriage to Vivienne. He called it ‘A Dedication to My Wife’,
To whom I owe the leaping delight
That quickens my senses in our wakingtime
And the rhythm that governs the repose of
The breathing in unison
Of lovers whose bodies smell of each other
Who think the same thoughts without need
And babble the same speech without need
‘He was made for marriage,’ says Valerie, ‘he was a natural for it, a loving creature, and great fun, too. We used to stay at home and drink Drambuie and eat cheese and play Scrabble. He loved to win at cards, and I always made a point of losing by the time we went to bed. We had a magnetic set we travelled with. Every time we finished a game, he used to write a message on it for when I opened it next day. When he died . . . Well, I’ve never opened it to this day: I sometimes think, shall I?’
They travelled, they read, they socialised: one visitor was Groucho Marx, who described Valerie to Gummo as ‘a good-looking, middle-aged blonde whose eyes seemed to fill up with adoration every time she looked at her husband.’ But Tom’s health was declining and the marriage had only eight years left to run. He was plagued by emphysema, and the travelling was mainly to improve his health: ‘He loved to lie pretty much naked in the sun, and he swam. But we used to cross off the days till we could go home again. As he said, you get the best climate in the most boring places. When we were in Marrakech once, the buildings began rattling. Tom said, ‘It’s an earthquake, I recognise this from St Louis.’ The earthquake was as far away as Agadir, but there was dust in the air and Tom began coughing.
‘The doctor in England said he could have only one cigar a week. Every Tuesday he’d give me an innocent look and say, ‘It’s my cigar day, isn’t it?’ and I’d have to say, ‘No, two more days to go.’ He had smoked so much, that was the sadness: I think it was because of Vivienne.’
Did they talk about Vivienne? ‘If it came up naturally, yes. But he’d gone over the past in his own mind often enough, now he wanted to go forward, and I didn’t see much point in lingering on unhappiness. I felt the same when the manuscript of The Waste Land, which had been missing for so many years, turned up in the New York Public Library after his death: I was angry at first that he hadn’t had the chance to see it again, but once I began work on it I thought: ‘God knows best, it would have been too painful for him.’ ‘
T S ELIOT died in 1965, at 76. Valerie, then 38, his literary executor, was left instructions that there should be no biography. Some have described her as difficult to deal with, but she says that she co-operates with genuine scholars: ‘Most of the material is there in libraries, for people who want to look. I just write and say, fine.’ As for her intransigence towards biographers, she sees this as ‘sticking to what Tom said and carrying out his wishes. Peter Ackroyd knew when he set out that Tom had said: No biography. So to start bleating at the end about not being able to quote from the poetry, when everyone else has had to obey the same rules, is pretty feeble.’
But she granted permission to the makers of Tom & Viv to quote from the poetry: isn’t this inconsistent? ‘Left to myself I wouldn’t have given permission – to an honest attempt, maybe, but not to a sensational thing like this. But I was advised by Faber to do so, and the film- makers paid a fee into my charitable trust – it’s tainted money, but there’s a young man who’s an up-and-coming musician who I sent the money to, and it will help him.’
She also accepts that there should eventually be an authorised biography: ‘The world has changed since Tom’s death, and so much mischief has been made, I shall probably commission somebody one day. Plenty of people volunteer, of course. But I’ll only do it when I’ve found the right person – and after I’ve done the letters, because there is a lot of information which only I know that’s going into footnotes and can later be used.’
Originally her husband was against publishing the letters, too. But he and Valerie were in the habit of reading aloud to each other in the evening, and she began to drop hints by reciting writers’ letters during these sessions, and ‘one night he just burst out laughing and said: ‘All right, you win. But if there’s going to be an edition, you’ll have to do it.’ ‘
She has been doing it for nearly 30 years, and the projected four volumes now look like being six. There have been some grumbles (and some flutterings within Faber) at the slowness of the enterprise: the first volume appeared six years ago, there is no sign of the second yet, and Mrs Eliot, in her late sixties, is no longer young. One interpretation is that she’s reluctant to complete the task because to do so in effect means letting go of Tom. But she herself speaks persuasively of the vastness of the task (she has a secretary three days a week, but for the rest, ‘by the time you tell somebody what to do you could do it yourself’) and of the numerous problems that delay its completion:
‘When Vivienne typed things for Tom, there were pages missing, the type would go off the page. There’s one where he’s writing about Shelley which just gives out – I’d love to know what he goes on to say. And then there are letters which I know exist but can’t trace.
‘Tom was also very casual about keeping letters. There were some to Middleton Murry, including ones from 1925 where Tom had been asking Murry for advice about Vivienne, because Murry did try to reconcile them. Murry’s widow returned them after his death, and Tom burnt them in front of me. That’s his privilege. They were his letters. But he did tell me he had another bonfire, earlier, destroying lots of letters, and that if he’d known he was going to marry me he wouldn’t have.’
AFTER the interview, we go to an Italian restaurant just round the corner from Faber, where Mrs Eliot is greeted effusively and cracks a lot of jokes. For a supposed recluse, she has a remarkably public life, and is often to be found at Faber parties, sometimes wearing a bracelet on which hang silver miniatures of her husband’s books with their titles engraved. There is something almost nun-like in her life’s devotion to a single cause. And something old- fashioned in a woman choosing to sacrifice herself to a man in this way. But Valerie Eliot doesn’t look old-fashioned, or like a nun. Florid and full of appetite, she is the firm’s most colourful link with its illustrious past.
Now that past is a biopic, where – in order that (as its makers put it) Tom & Viv ‘seem a universal experience and not a film about two long-dead literary figures’ – truth goes by the board. Michael Hastings’s licence with the facts distresses Valerie Eliot. She can’t understand what motivates him: is it some grudge against Faber? Was he merely inspired by a throwaway remark by Edith Sitwell, that ‘at some point in their marriage Tom went mad and promptly certified his wife’? Hastings claims that Eliot ‘Stalinised’ Vivienne. What about Hastings’s own Who’s Who entry, which declines to name his first wife and states baldly: ‘one d by previous m’? Could it be that Hastings was drawn to the story of Tom and Vivienne by something in his own past?
Valerie Eliot’s upset isn’t just with Michael Hastings, though, but with the general raking over of the TSE past. Many a widow, many a second wife, would prefer not to know too much about her husband’s early life and loves – the bits Before He Met Her. But as Eliot’s literary executor, the keeper of his flame, the guardian of his name, it is Valerie’s business to know. She has had to face up to his relationship not just with Vivienne but with two other women: Mary Trevelyan (‘She was hot on his trail’) and Emily Hale (‘A woman, now dead, who was a close friend of Emily sought me out specially to say that this theory of Tom’s great love for her was all rubbish’). Vivienne, Mary and Emily: she speaks rather tartly of them. But she feels honour-bound, as the editor of his letters, not to suppress the truth.
In the meantime, her greatest distress is the thought of a public who don’t know T S Eliot’s poetry, or who will be turned off it by the film.
‘A lot of people come by, taking photographs of my flat, because they know it’s where Tom once lived. I keep wondering, now the film’s out: Am I going to get a brick through the window? The film can’t hurt Tom any more, but it’s the inaccuracy and dishonesty that make my blood boil. I worry that people will never look at his words but know him only as the author of Cats and then see the film and think: What a monster, a monster of depravity, like Macavity the cat.’
But she is heartened by the letters that come, from those who find The Waste Land or the Four Quartets still speak to them. And she has not given up hope yet that plays of his, such as The Cocktail Party and The Family Reunion, will be revived on the London stage. One day, too, she knows the letters will be there, complete, on the shelves: her life’s work, in effect her autobiography. And then posterity can judge her – not as a muse, but as the woman who made Tom Eliot happy.