He was a graduate student at Harvard and she was an amateur actress when Tom Eliot first fell in love with Emily Hale. But that was before he set off for Oxford and published the poems that turned him into the international celebrity known as T.S. Eliot. Across two continents and over more than 40 years, Emily was a comforting force in the poet’s emotionally turbulent life, guarding their secrets in the hope that someday the two of them would marry.
In the spirit of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank, The Poet’s Girl brings to life another little-known woman behind a famous man. The novel by award-winning writer Sara Fitzgerald arrives as Hale’s own gift to Eliot scholars—the more than 1,000 letters the poet wrote her over the course of their lifetimes—is opened after a 50-year embargo. The Poet’s Girl tells the story of a woman whose own story will never be fully known: the woman behind one of Eliot’s most treasured poems and a woman whose greatest act of love was to bury her side of their story.
“In her well-written and memorable novel, Sara Fitzgerald has brought to life the ill-starred romance between T.S. Eliot and the talented actress Emily Hale. Narrated from Hale's first-person point of view, the book explores the faithful love and frustrations of a resilient woman constrained by the mores of her social set.”
--Meryl Gordon, best-selling author of
Bunny Mellon: The Life of an American Style Legend
“In the spirit of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank, The Poet's Girl explores the rich, compelling life of Emily Hale, T.S. Eliot's earliest love and longtime confidante. This is a literary love story of the highest magnitude, and Sara Fitzgerald brings a journalist's keen insight into the back story of one of our most renowned poets--and the woman who stood by him. "
--Susan Coll, best-selling author of Rockville Pike
"Sara Fitzgerald has found a compelling and little-known story, and brought the relationship between Emily Hale and TS Eliot to vivid life. An enthralling novel about love, betrayal, and thwarted dreams."
--Louisa Treger, best-selling author of the The Lodger
I completed "The Poet's Girl" before T.S. Eliot's letters to Emily Hale were opened by Princeton University Library after a 50-year embargo. Those materials included several drafts of a short memoir Hale wrote, describing their relationship. The day the letters were opened, January 2, 2020, Harvard's Houghton Library released a letter that Eliot wrote in 1960 in anticipation of the future release of Hale's papers. Eliot's letter denied things--namely the nature of his deep love for Hale-- that the content of his letters clearly refute.
When I wrote my book, I wanted to give a sense of who Emily Hale was, knowing that because Eliot arranged for her letters to be destroyed, we would never fully know her side of the story. I tried to stay within the parameters of the facts as we then knew them.
I have been part of a small group of scholars (mostly women) who have been reading the Eliot letters. As I have gone through the letters, I have, not surprisingly, discovered some things that did not happen, or were different from the way I imagined them. In the coming days, I will describe these points so that persons can know what is true and what is not. This will include "spoilers" so don't read these details if you don't want to ruin your fictional reading experience or if you don't really care!
In 1931, Eliot wrote Hale that he first fell in love with her when he stepped on her foot during an evening of charades at the home of his cousin, Eleanor Hinkley. A short time after that, they performed together in a "Stunt Show" that his cousin organized to benefit a Boston charity. That night is the starting point of my book.
In the same letter, Eliot recalled to Hale that he had gotten to know her better through their weekly rehearsals for the "Stunt Show," where they performed together in a skit based on an episode from Jane Austen's "Emma." In my fictionalized telling of this story, I imagined Eliot missing their single rehearsal because of the demands of his graduate studies.
Needing to create outings for their courtship, and knowing that Eliot enjoyed attending opera during his graduate school years, my novel sent them to a performance of "Madame Butterfly." In the letters, Eliot recalled that they went to see "Tristan and Isolde,." Both operas were performed during the 1913-14 season of the Boston Opera.
Both T. S. Eliot and Emily Hale agreed that he was the one who was first attracted to her. However, in 1931, Eliot provided a different version of what he told her when he left for Europe in 1914 than the version he supplied in the angry letter he wrote in 1960. Eliot recalled that he was very shy and awkward, which I believe I captured in my book. But it appears that at that time, Hale was not as attracted to Eliot as I portrayed her to be. The letters and flowers Eliot sent her in the first months after he left apparently stirred thoughts inside of her about what might happen when he returned home.
Hale began saving Eliot's letters in October 1930, shortly after she and her aunt and uncle were invited to tea with Eliot and his first wife, Vivien Haigh-Wood. Eliot confessed that he had been so nervous about the meeting that he nearly spilled the tea. He also reported that his wife had been delighted by Emily. I surely would have tried to work in this key episode if I had known about it.
Shortly after their performance together in Eleanor Hinkley's "Stunt Show," Hale played the female lead in the Cambridge Social Dramatic Club's performance of a 1907 parlor comedy called "The Mollusc." The group's members included young men and women, including Eliot and the poet e.e. Cummings. In my novel, Hale is disappointed that Eliot did not attend her performance, but his letters make clear that he did, because he could still recall the costume she had worn in a letter 18 years later.
Having now read all of the letters that Eliot wrote Hale in 1936, I believe my chapter The Waste Sad Time, which was based on his letters to mutual friends and previous biographical accounts, does not accurately depict what happened. In the months after Hale returned to the United States, she had trouble finding a job and had some health issues, including problems with her sinuses. She was undoubtedly somewhat depressed about her relationship with Eliot. But the letters show that she and Eliot were planning a reunion early in the year, and the timing related more to their mutual schedules, it seemed, rather than any need on his part to rescue her from depression. She wrote regularly and was an active participant in the planning. Indeed, she was the one who arranged for the two of them to stay for a week at the Woods Hole home of her friend, Dorothy Ellsmith. Eliot was eager to carve out as much private time with her as he could. He did not want her to join in his family visit because there would be too many people about, and only his favorite sister, Ada, knew the nature of their relationship. In reading Eliot's letters, I wondered whether his letters to others were a bit of a smokescreen to hide what was happening with Hale. During this period, Eliot expresses concern that it will be harder for them to hide in Boston than it would be in London, and, indeed, when he visits her in Northampton before returning to England, their departure scene is disrupted when he runs into someone he knows on the train platform.
In June 1953, Washington University awarded Eliot an honorary degree on the occasion of its centennial, and he traveled to St. Louis to deliver the commencement address at the college his grandfather founded. Dorothy Elsmith told Lyndall Gordon that she and Emily Hale accompanied Eliot and his sister Marian on the train trip. In the letters, however, Eliot simply reports to Hale about the trip west.