This is my account of the first day at Princeton, 2 January 2020, published in Time Present and in the T. S. Eliot Studies Annual, Volume 3, edited by John D. Morgenstern (General Editor), Julia E. Daniel, and John Whittier-Ferguson.
I read T. S. Eliot’s first love letter to Emily Hale side by side with Daniel Bates, a Brooklyn-based stringer for the Daily Mail. After a few paragraphs we looked at each other, speechless.
We had been surprised but not speechless when we read Emily Hale’s brief statement, her account of the relationship. It had been Hale’s words that everyone had wanted to read before anything else on that first day, 2 January 2020, at the Firestone Library at Princeton.
I don’t know why we were so entirely on the same page about this, except that it was the only overview or introduction we would have, and as good scholars we wanted to read a summary before digging deep. But I had another reason: I simply wanted to be sure that the document existed, that Hale had not destroyed it and left Eliot’s side of the correspondence as the only record.
I had been terrified about this for weeks, during the period the Firestone Library staff was cataloging the letters. When the reference to it came up in the online Reading Guide sometime in December, I was deeply relieved—not only because we would have a chance to hear Hale’s voice, her side of the story, but because she hadn’t capitulated to whatever internal or external pressure there had been to let herself be seen only as reflected in Eliot’s words.
When I got to the library at 8:15, thinking I was very early, the lights were on in the two-story entrance hall, the doors were open, and there was a group of six or seven cautiously introducing themselves. I spotted Lyndall Gordon, whom I’d heard speak about Eliot’s women at the Eliot Summer School in 2018. We’d had coffee in Hampstead once, after my article about Valerie Eliot was published in the Guardian in 2005, and I had been rereading everything she had written about Emily Hale.
“Karen,” said another woman, “I’m Sara.” This was Sara Fitzgerald, whose novel about T. S. Eliot and Emily Hale had just been published; we’d corresponded a little the week before, and I was glad to see a friendly face, another writer who was not an academic.
When I checked in, I was handed a square of paper with the number 6. That is, I was the sixth reader. This would not be a problem later, as the library had made a full set of copies of all the boxes and had 3 laptops loaded with the entire collection. This meant there were five complete sets available at all times. But we all wanted to read Emily Hale’s account, and there were only five copies.
The man in front of me, No 5, a tall Englishman in dark trousers and wool jumper, turned and said, “We could share.”
This sympathetic gesture changed my experience entirely. I got to see Bates’s reactions, and we pointed out revealing details as we saw them. This was true as we read Emily Hale’s statement, but even more helpful when we turned to the first folder of love letters. We were both wide-eyed at how passionate Eliot was. I had read many of Eliot’s letters and handled hundreds of them when I worked for Valerie Eliot, but I had never gasped over them before.
I found out that Bates was not a grad student but a journalist. When he began typing up his story (which, incidentally, was heavily rewritten and published under another byline), I turned to the letters of 1947, the year Vivien Eliot died. I had seen an edit in the folder with Hale’s statement, in several drafts, clarifying her memory of exactly what he had said: “The second change should read ‘against marrying again’ – not ‘marrying me.’” That is, she wanted it to be clear that he had presented the decision as one about marriage, not about her.
I read the 1947 letters expecting to be angry with Eliot for leading Hale on and then not fulfilling his pledge. To my surprise, I felt a surge of sympathy for him. He sounded so tired and so sad. His explanation of how he felt unable to undertake a new start seemed credible, and I could understand that the kind of change that marriage to Hale would require too much, and be too risky. They weren’t ancient, but they were not young, and they had lives on opposite sides of the Atlantic.
This was a period I heard about from Valerie Eliot, when I worked as her editorial assistant in the Eliot flat in Kensington. We were compiling and editing the letters that went into the centenerary Volume 1 of 1988. Valerie often came into the study where I worked and sat for a while recounting stories or musing over a particular letter. One day she told me a story she had heard, I think, from Eliot’s sister-in-law, Theresa Eliot, about the visit Eliot made to Massachusetts later in 1947. “Tom said to me over breakfast, ‘If Emily refuses to release me, I shall kill myself rather than marry her.’” The story made Hale seem presumptuous and demanding, a woman who had pursued a great man and was now trying to hold him against his will.
Finally, I do not agree with those who say Eliot was furious about her giving his letters to Princeton. I read the letters of 1956 carefully, in part because I was looking for references to Valerie Fletcher and Mary Trevelyan. What I saw was his worry about anyone reading the letters then, rather than long years later, because he knew that he had made remarks that might hurt or offend. And rightly so. I thought of my friend Linda Melton Benson, Eliot’s secretary during the 1940s. Linda was a lifelong admirer of Eliot and felt that they had had a special connection after going through the War together. She treasured the few letters and mementos she had from him, including a photo of his trip to Sweden during the War. She would have been crushed by remarks he made about her in letters to Mary Trevelyan that are at the Houghton Library.
Eliot knew that he would have made many remarks to Hale, his confidante, that needed to be kept under wraps. He may also have been thinking of Valerie, given that they were courting during 1956 when Hale and Eliot were discussing the Princeton bequest. He had a tendency to downplay his connections with other women, and it’s rather eye-opening to think that a man of 68 who had been hospitalized the year before because of constipation and complained of athlete’s foot and an abscess on his hip, was keeping three women on a string.
This solitary and seemingly self-sufficient man needed the love of a good woman – the love of several good women, in fact. I have always felt for Hale and Trevelyan, but I came away from that first day at Princeton with a sense that Valerie Eliot had had also lived in the their shadow, in spite of the fact that at 68 he had been so energized by love that he was able to start a new life together.