Washington Independent Review of Books, January 6, 2020
From the Winter 2019 issue of "Exchanges," the quarterly membeship publication of the T.S. Eliot Society
My saga began five years ago, when a member of my longtime women’s group said, “I loved this poem when I studied it in college. And now I’d like for us to read it again.”
Thus began my introduction to “Burnt Norton”--and the world of Emily Hale. Like many well-educated American students in the late sixties, I had read T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock” in high school or “The Waste Land” in college. But I went on to study American History instead of English Literature, and turned my academic interests to the burgeoning field of women’s history, and stories of women that were yet to be told.
My Google search for “Burnt Norton” turned up the verses of the first of the poems that became the “Four Quartets.” The Wikipedia entry explained that in 1934, Eliot had visited a deserted manor by that name with a woman named Emily Hale. Then came this intriguing sentence: “Even though Eliot was married, he spent a lot of time with Hale and might possibly have become involved with her had he not been married.” Digging more deeply, I learned that Eliot wrote Hale more than a thousand letters over the course of their lifetimes and that she had donated them to Princeton University with the proviso that they remain sealed until fifty years after the latter of their two deaths. Hale died on October 12, 1969, and I learned that the letters would be made public on January 2, 2020.
As a retired journalist, biographer and novelist, I quickly became obsessed with finding a way to tell Hale’s story. After I learned from Lyndall Gordon’s ground-breaking biographies that Eliot arranged for Hale’s own letters to be destroyed, I concluded that a biography might never be possible because there were too many gaps in her story. So I decided to write a novel, in the hope of bringing Emily Hale to life when the letters were finally opened. I tried to hew, as much as possible, to the known facts of the Hale-Eliot relationship, but because they were both so discreet, there was much that had to be left to a novelist’s imagination.
As my work progressed, I acknowledged that when Eliot’s letters were opened, they might turn out to be quite tame, discussing literary matters, the minutiae of their lives, or news of mutual friends. Scholars might conclude that Hale had spun a fantasy of the life she and Eliot would share if and when his wife, Vivienne, died. But when Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue published their annotated collection of Eliot’s poetry, they included an excerpt from the letter Eliot sent after he learned of Hale’s gift to Princeton: “My God! Does this mean that a complete stranger, a professional librarian, is already reading letters which were composed for your eye alone? I seem to have heard of dying travelers in a desert, with the vultures starting to dismember them before the end. I feel somewhat like that.”
Although Eliot was a notoriously private person, his response suggested his letters might include some intimacies, and that he was concerned that details might become public just as he was contemplating marriage to a much-younger woman.
The bulk of what remains of Hale’s own papers are stored in the Smith College Archives. Other materials are in the archives of other institutions where she taught speech and drama: Simmons College, Milwaukee-Downer College (now part of Lawrence University), Scripps College, Concord Academy and Abbot Academy. Interviews with some of Hale’s Abbot students, now close to age 80, convinced me that she indeed was a remarkable woman, fondly remembered by many of the students she taught and directed.
Among the most poignant of Hale’s existing letters are those she wrote Margaret and Willard Thorp, who guided her donation of the Eliot letters to Princeton, where Willard taught for most of his career. They encouraged her to include a memoir of her own. But after Eliot’s death, Hale changed her mind and asked Princeton to return it. She could do the math and realized that Valerie Eliot might still be alive when the letters--and her story—became public. She wanted to spare Eliot’s second wife any possible embarrassment and decided to let Eliot’s letters speak for themselves.
Several years earlier, Willard Thorp had encouraged Hale to specify “in which poems of Tom’s, or parts of poems you figure? In twenty years, fifty years, this will be the question to which writers and scholars will very much want to have an answer.”
Now, after a fifty-year wait, we writers and scholars will finally get our chance.
Sara Fitzgerald is a retired Washington Post editor and the author of the novel “The Poet’s Girl,” published by the Thought & Expression Company.
November 15, 2019
Podcast of Conversation with Karen Christensen, CEO of Berkshire Publishing. Christensen was with me on the day the letters were opened at the Princeton Library.
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