Note: At Berkshire Bookworld, you’ll find my interview with Sara Fitzgerald recorded 10 days after the opening of the collection. Click here to get the podcast.

I first heard about the Emily Hale letters from Valerie Eliot herself, in 1986 or 1987. Valerie led me to believe that Hale had been a hanger-on whom T. S. Eliot had had to push away, who had exaggerated her relationship with him and placed the letters Eliot had written to her at Princeton against his wishes. I believed what she said, and in any case I was expecting much because he was never an effusive or revealing correspondent. Love letters?? I didn’t really believe it.

But I was wrong.

There were only 7 or 8 of us when the library opened – and that number included several journalists. Biographer Lyndall Gordon has written several books about T. S. Eliot and is now contracted to write about the women in his life. Frances Dickey, an English professor, is blogging about the letters here. Sara Fitzgerald, a journalist and author, had just published a novel about Eliot and Hale, The Poet’s Girl, and was about to see how accurate her surmises about the relationship were. Listen to the podcast with Sara.

The library had taken great pains in preparing for this day. University archivist Dan Linke and librarian Sara Logue were there to welcome us and explain exactly how they had set things up to allow us all the easiest possible access.

During the course of the morning, Harvard released a counter-narrative written, at least primarily, by Eliot. The letters themselves contradict many of its claims, and everyone seems to have his or her explanation for this. I worked with, and am writing about, Valerie Eliot, Eliot’s second wife and heir, and I saw her hand in the Harvard letter, but that’s a story I’ll be telling later.

To give you a sense of both Eliot and Hale, here are the final lines from the last letter in the collection at Princeton, from T. S. Eliot to Emily Hale on 10 February 1957:

Anyway, as this is my second letter [that is, the second letter written after his honeymoon, the first being to his sister Marian], it means that I wanted to thank you before anyone else, for the very fine letters you write me, and which I found at Carlyle Mansions on my first call there; also, Valerie was very much pleased by your writing to her, and will write to thank you – I have explained above why she can hardly cope with correspondence yet, her time being divided between secretarial work and house-agents. I do hope that you will be able to come to England and meet her: I should like to ring her over to American on a visit, but I don’t see how that can be managed until I can get some lecture engagement lucrative enough – such as the Norton lectureship is.
. . . With much love, Tom

What happened between then and 1960? That’s a story I look forward to telling.

PS: Will Pavia of The Times and I were the last people downstairs by the reading room that day, having a long conversation about the letter released by Harvard and Valerie Eliot. He took everything down in shorthand, which impressed me and also reminded me that I don’t know for certain that Valerie actually knew shortland. His article appeared two days later: “How TS Eliot dashed hopes of his muse Emily Hale.”

karen christensen's corona typewriter on t s eliot's desk

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