This article appeared in Chinese in the Shanghai Book Review on 25 September, but I didn’t see it until I woke up on the 26th, my birthday as well as T. S. Eliot’s. It’s wonderful to have it in Chinese, of course, because I’ve already heard from colleagues in China who saw it, but for those who don’t read Chinese and would prefer something other than the Google Translate version, here’s our original English exchange, which Qiu Xialong then translated. The Chinese version includes photographs I provided.

QIU Xiaolong: It’s such a pleasure to talk to you again, Karen. [We previously spoke on the podcast QIU Xiaolong on poetry, detective fiction, & a search for cross-cultural understanding.” We have long talked about the possibility of doing something together. Among others, something for Eliot. And for Valerie too. Eliot’s one of the most popular western modernist poets in China. It was a surprise to myself that in the mid-eighties some young people actually put a copy of Chinese translation of Four Quartets on top of dowry in the delivery tricycle parading through the streets. It was considered as modern or modernist at the time. A Chinese friend of mine, Yu Guangming, even memorized the whole poem of The Waste Land in translation. So I would like to start by asking you to introduce yourself to Chinese readers as Valerie Eliot’s secretary, as a literature publisher in your own right with a focus in China, and as a scholar working on a project about T. S. Eliot and Valerie Eliot.

Karen CHRISTENSEN: I’m an American, but I lived in England for over a decade after graduating from the University of California Santa Barbara. I was looking for a part-time job after having a baby, and happened to notice a small boxed advertisement in The Times. Valerie Eliot interviewed me at Faber & Faber a few days later. I was awed, but surprised because I had expected her to be about a hundred years old—I hadn’t realized there was a second Mrs. Eliot! She liked the fact that I shared her husband’s birthday, and that my baby son was named Tom. (Incidentally, he lives in Beijing.)

For Valerie, I was a companion and assistant as well as a secretary. For Fabers, I was the one who was supposed to keep pressure on to get a first volume of the TSE letters done in time to publish for his centenary in 1988. It’s a good thing that I am deadline driven, because she was reluctant to finish – it was hard for her to let go.

I was eager to make a writing career and when I got a contract to write a book I couldn’t wait to tell her and immediately telephoned. But from her point of view it was probably not a great thing, though she was kind enough to offer me TSE’s old desk when she bought a new and much more attractive one. I had to contain my excitement, as you can imagine.

I became an environmental author, and then a publisher of academic books, known for a focus on China. In fact, we publish the Dictionary of Chinese Biography, which has become part of the Oxford University Press biographical collection.

I never intended to write about Eliot, but people often asked me about my experience working on the letters. This led to my writing a long cover feature, entitled “Dear Mrs Eliot,” in the Guardian Review in 2005. When Valerie died in 2012, I was quoted in various newspaper obituaries because no one else who knew her well had written about her, and she gave only three interviews during the entire period of her widowhood. I became curious about who she really was, as a woman, and what it had meant to become the guardian of the flame for so many years. This led me to begin work on a book that will be in part her biography.

QIU Xiaolong: In 2015, John Hopkins University Press published The Annotated Text, The Poems of T. S. Eliot, Volume I, Collected & Uncollected Poems, Volume II, Practical Cats & Further Verses, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue. It was in accordance to the request made by Valerie that some hitherto unpublished poems could not come to light until three years after her death. In the new collection, we can read and a number of Eliot’s poems for the first time. They are quite personal, in sharp contradiction to his impersonal theory. In fact, some of them are very passionate, almost erotic love poems he wrote to Valerie. So what do you think of the contradiction?

Karen CHRISTENSEN: I think, and everyone seems to agree, that they are dreadful poems. His “Dedication to my wife” is much more impressive and touching. I have read many descriptions now of what Eliot was like, over the decades, and it seems clear that he had a public face that was quite impersonal and austere, but a private character that was very different. Beyond that, he was transformed by his late marriage. He didn’t write anything of significance then, but he was happy in a way I don’t think he had been since he was a little boy. Valerie refers to him as being like a little boy and she treated him rather like a nanny sometimes, and they played practical jokes and obviously enjoyed each other’s company. I’m personally doubtful that there was much in the way of physical passion, and I’ve always wondered if Valerie had hoped to have his child. You might be interested to hear that the intense religiosity that he is known for seems not to have been much of a factor in his life after marriage. Perhaps personal contentment changed his perspective on religion as well as on impersonal theory.

QIU Xiaolong: I’m a huge fan of Eliot, so I cannot help feeling grateful to Valerie for all the work she did for Eliot, such as the editing of the 1974 facsimile of The Waste Land, and the compiling of the two volumes of Eliot’s letters, not to mention her foresighted decision of letting Andrew Lloyd Webber turn Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats into a musical, which she believed would have delighted her husband T. S. Eliot. And in the personal life, she made him so happy in his late years, as is evident in these poems. I remember you once mentioned to me that Valerie was a shy woman. So can you tell us a bit more about Valerie?

Karen CHRISTENSEN: She was shy and quite insecure, which always surprised me. But I have learned that she did very poorly at school and didn’t have many friends, so I think she didn’t have much confidence with people in general. But she was also remarkably determined and persistent. Think how she must have felt, in a time when women married at 20, to have been approaching 30 as a humble secretary with no professional future, hoping against hope that Eliot would return her love. And after they married many people were quite dismissive of her because she came from an ordinary background. Even when I knew her, she was defensive about her social class. (As an American, I found the English class system fascinating!) She must have been very self-critical, too. She found it very hard to write letters and would do them over and over again. She was afraid of the critics, probably one reason she kept delaying publication of the letters.

The fact is that she was only relaxed and talkative was when she had been drinking. Her family were very heavy drinkers, and she unfortunately became an alcoholic, which may have contributed to her decline into dementia. I feel very sad about this, knowing how happy she made Eliot but that she also paid a heavy price.

QIU Xiaolong: The interest in Eliot has never waned among Chinese readers. As early as the thirties of the last century, the well-known translator Zhao Luorui published the first Chinese translation of The Waste Land, and just recently, there’s a Chinese translation of Eliot’s biography T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life  by Lyndall Gordon. I do not want to say too much about the biography, as I’ve read two earlier biographies by Gordon, Eliot’s Early Years and Eliot’s New Life, so the new biography reads more or less like a rehash of the previous two. On the other hand, the Chinese translation is quite well-done and readable by a young Chinese scholar, and it was named as one of best books for the year, which in itself speaks of Eliot’s popularity among Chinese readers. In this biography as well as in some others, however, there seem to be a popular tendency to present Eliot as an exploiter—though probably not in comment sense of the word—of the women in his life. For instance, some lines in The Waste Land are supposedly said by Vivien: My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me. / Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak./ What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? /I never know what you are thinking. Think. That might have come from Vivien, but it’s way too much to claim that Eliot exploited her. As it seems to me, a poet’s achievement lies in rendering the personal into the impersonal. What do you think?

Karen CHRISTENSEN: I prefer to think of what the poet does as rendering the personal into the universal, speaking to all of us, finding common meaning and feeling. Is that impersonal? I know that Eliot did not want a biography written, and I can sympathize with that. He burned many letters, too, feeling that it was his life, not something that belonged to future scholars and writers. (Valerie would no doubt feel the same about being written about.) But we humans look to other lives for understanding, and we’re curious about other people. I think it’s no wonder that we are now so curious about the women in Eliot’s life. For an austere man who took a vow of celibacy when he separated from Vivien, it’s quite intriguing that there were so many women. There are four who are now getting attention, and there were others who loved him and at least one asked him to marry her.

When I was working with Valerie, I spent a lot of time with the letters from the 1920s, and I got to know Vivien Eliot quite well, in a way, from all those hours transcribing her handwritten letters. She was a troubled, erratic, ambitious woman, and Eliot obviously thought her judgment of his poetry was significant. And she contributed to it in various ways: certainly with her vivid voice, her way of looking at the world, but also in her edits to The Waste Land. I was looking at the copy of the Facsimile that Valerie gave me on my first day working for her (I am sure she was very proud of it). I didn’t notice then that while she indicated Vivien’s edits, she, nor Fabers, credited Vivien: only Ezra Pound. I think today in a similar publication, Vivien would be more clearly acknowledged.

The idea, however, that she was somehow a coauthor seems to me rubbish. Every writer picks up ideas, stories, and phrases from other people. I should note that Eliot tried hard to get Vivien’s writing published, and was very angry with Marianne Moore for rejecting a piece. I used to wonder if that too was hard for Valerie, to think that Vivien had been more talented. She joked about it, saying that she had “majored in ironing,” but she really wanted to be respected for the scholarly quality of her editing.

QIU Xiaolong: Perhaps what we are discussing can also be applied to the movie Tom and Viv , and to the recent uproar about the relationship between Emily Hale and T. S. Eliot with the letters unearthed. And in a New Yorker article titled “The Secret History of T. S. Eliot’s Muse”, such a tendency is more pronounced. Chinese readers are also very much interested in the letters unearthed in Princeton University. My daughter registered for me at the university, so that I could have a close look at these letters, but due to the pandemic, I was unable to make the trip. So you may be able to tell more about it.

Karen CHRISTENSEN: I was there on the morning the library released the letters to Emily Hale and it was unforgettable. The most dramatic event, however, was the release of the letter Eliot had left at Harvard, saying that he’d never really loved Hale and that Valerie was the only woman who really mattered to him. Since we were there reading his passionate letters to Hale, his letter was not very convincing. And it was mean-spirited. There is considerable suspicion that the letter was written to reassure Valerie, and perhaps partly crafted by her. It’s not a pleasant part of the story, but I suppose it’s one that most of us can understand. Valerie wanted to be the only woman in his life.

QIU Xiaolong: We’re ushering in the centenary of Eliot’s The Waste Land. People are arranging various activities and celebration for it. A Dutch movie company is making an Eliot documentary, in which I shall participate. You’re more informed us more about the various events for the occasion. In this global age, in one way or another, some Chinese readers would love to participate

Karen CHRISTENSEN: The US and UK T S Eliot societies are doing a great deal more via Zoom, including a conference in two weeks. But I’m sure there will be more in 2022. I wonder if Chinese readers would want to join these organizations and get their publications? It isn’t expensive and I’m sure would be happy to have more Chinese members.

QIU Xiaolong: There are so many questions I would like to ask you, but given the time limit, I have to contend myself with sharing a real story with you. When the movie Tom & Viv was shown in St. Louis, it took all my persuasion power, plus a promise that I would wash dishes if the movie failed to move her, to finally bring my wife to the theater. Believe it or not, in the hometown of Eliot, there were only four people watching the movie, my wife and I, and an old American couple. It turned out to be a movie that disappointed me too, and I had no choice but to keep the word to wash dishes. Indeed, I am more of an idiotic fan than of a “perfect” critic and interviewer, though it gave me the inspiration to rhyme “Eliotic” with “Idiotic” years later in a poem supposedly penned by Inspector Chen.

Karen CHRISTENSEN: I always smile when I realize that I am writing about Tom and Val. There’s one more thing I’d like to tell you. I was in Beijing shortly after Valerie’s death, thinking about her. I walked into a subway station and saw that the columns were wrapped in advertisements for Cats. That would have pleased her very much and I wished she could see it. [Photograph included in the Chinese version.]

 

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

Thanks for stopping by! Please drop your address below so I can send you a letter every now and then, or send me an email. Warm regards, Karen.

We don’t spam! And it's super easy to unsubscribe any time.