Too Near the Flame is the title of the book I’ve been researching and writing since 2013. It began as a dual biography of two famous keepers of the flame: Sophia Wittenberg Mumford (1899-1997) who was married to the US social critic Lewis Mumford and Valerie Fletcher Eliot (1926-2012) who was the second wife of Anglo-American poet T. S. Eliot. Sophia and Valerie were young typists who eventually became keepers of the flame and guardians of the legacies of the men they loved. The stories of the Mumfords and Eliots intersected over many decades, and when I was young I became Valerie’s confidante in London and then Sophie’s friend in upstate New York. When Sophia died at 97, she and I were working on a book about her life.
“Dear Mrs. Eliot,” my memoir about working with Valerie Eliot, was the cover story of the Guardian Review on 29 January 2005, but I only saw the connections between these keepers of the flame after Valerie died in 2012. I was indignant about the way their stories were being told , and hoped I could learn something from Sophia and Valerie’s live – not least because I myself knew what it was like to have a famous, older lover, and because I was worried about how my Cinderella story might end. After all, Valerie had become a lonely alcoholic guarded by the people who managed the fortune she’d made from Cats.
As I began to look for other examples of intelligent, ambitious women drawn to charismatic, dominating men, I found similar patterns in the story of Heloise and Abelard, in the Victorian novel Middlemarch, in early feminist writing, and in accounts of Chinese concubines and modern dragon ladies (this is a subject I’m working on as an associate in research at the Fairbank Center at Harvard). Women have long sought independence and power, as well as love and passion and motherhood.
I found many examples in fiction (think of Pride & Prejudice). Here is a passage from Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn, from Madame Goesler’s letter to the Duke of Omnium turning down his proposal of marriage:
I will own that I have been ambitious, too ambitious, and have been pleased to think that one so exalted as you are, one whose high position is so rife in the eyes of all men, should have taken pleasure in my company. I will confess to a foolish woman’s silly vanity in having wished to be known to be the friend of the Duke of Omnium. I am like the other moths that flutter near the light and have their wings burned. But I am wiser than they in this, that having been scorched, I know that I must keep my distance.
In Middlemarch, I found a passage that summed up the kind of woman I was writing about – not women who sought money but who were looking for a path that would take them into a bigger world.
Theresa’s passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life: what were many-volumed romances of chivalry and the social conquests of a brilliant girl to her? Her flame quickly burned up that light fuel; and, fed from within, soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self.
To write the stories of the Sophia and Lewis Mumford, Valerie and Tom Eliot, and the other women in their lives, I traveled around England, went to Wales and France, interviewed dozens of people who knew the couples (including women who’d been at school with Valerie during World War II), discovered new material, and uncovered stories that they hoped would stay under wraps. I’ve also discovered how resourceful these women were in facing challenges that we still struggle with. Too Near the Flame has become a subversive study of the Cinderella myth, a blended narrative that is primarily about the interconnected lives of the Mumfords and Eliots but includes other stories and explores wider issues. It’s scheduled for publication in the autumn of 2024.
During the years I’ve been doing the research, I have also been writing and speaking about the women whose stories are central to the book. Information about #Thanksfortyping, Women and Leadership, and the 2021 Organization of American Historians panel “Three Loves” is below.
Biographer Carl Rollyson hosts a popular podcast, “A Life in Biography.” This episode, he explains, is “A wide-ranging discussion with Karen Christensen, publisher and biographer, about libel, indemnity clauses, the widow Eliot and others widows and wives. Click here to listen.
Valerie Fletcher Eliot (1926-2012) was the much younger second wife of T. S. Eliot and guardian of his legacy for nearly 50 years. My memoir about working with her, “Dear Mrs Eliot,” was a cover story in the Guardian’s literary review . Here’s a response to a New Yorker article about the James Joyce estate that mentions me, and here is Valerie Eliot (1926-2012) [obituary] in the New York Times.
Sophia Wittenberg Mumford (1899-1997) was married to Lewis Mumford for nearly 70 years. Her obituary in the New York Times refers to the book about her life that she and I were working on, and the podcast “Sophia Mumford Talks about Working at The Dial in the 1920s” comes from one of the conversations we recorded in 1996.