Opening the Archive: T. S. Eliot’s Letters to Emily Hale. An Interview With Lyndall Gordon

Cécile Varry, Université de Paris


Will you do me a great favour? I enclose a money order for $4. Will you go to Galvin, or to Howard in Cambridge, and order some red or pink roses, Killarney I suppose. I understand that Emily is to act in the Cambridge Dramatic play which will be early in December […]. I enclose a card; please put it in a small envelope and address it to her simply Miss Hale, ‘Brattle Hall’, and have the roses for the Saturday night performance. 

Letter from 26-year-old T. S. Eliot to Conrad Aiken, Saturday 21 November 1914. The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume 1: 1898-1922, ed. Valerie Eliot & Hugh Haughton (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), p. 76. 

Somewhere on or around the year 1912, T. S. Eliot fell in love. He was a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard University; she was an amateur actress from Boston, and they shared a passion for drama. It did not work out; but Emily Hale remained Eliot’s confidante for years. When he separated from his first wife, Vivien, in 1933, after eighteen years of a particularly unhappy marriage, he seemed very close to marrying Emily, but never did. The traces of this relationship, which Eliot kept secret, are stored away in a dozen boxes. Wrapped in thick brown paper and sealed with tape, wood, and steel, they are now in the Manuscripts Division of the Princeton University Library: 1,131 letters, written between 1930 and 1957. They have been lying there for fifty years. This is the biggest collection of Eliot’s letters, and the longest embargo in the history of Eliot studies. When the archive opens to the public on 2nd January 2020, Lyndall Gordon will be one the first scholars in line. Her biography, The Imperfect Life of T. S. Eliot, played a major role in uncovering the central place of Emily Hale in Eliot’s personal and poetic development. I asked Lyndall Gordon to share her guesses, hopes and fears about what she would find in the archive. This is the tale of one determined researcher trying to piece together Eliot’s secret love story. 


TMR: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview! This is an exciting time for Eliot studies, and an event you have been anticipating for a long time. When did you first hear about the Emily Hale letters?

Lyndall Gordon: That was in the early 1970s, when I was a doctoral student at Columbia. I was being very loosely supervised, and I was working largely on my own. I spent every day at the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library, looking at the manuscripts of Eliot’s early poems and The Waste Land. I began dating the fragments by looking at the watermarks on the paper. It was actually very fascinating work, and I got completely absorbed in it, but it was lonely, too. At the end of two years, in 1972, my advisor sent me to a professor at Princeton named A. Walton Litz. And it was there, that day, that I heard about Emily Hale. Walt told me that there was, in the Princeton archives, this huge cache of Eliot papers, containing more than a thousand of his letters to Emily Hale, and that they were sequestered until the next century. 


TMR: 1972 was only three years after Emily Hale’s death  —that must have felt like a long way away!

LG: It did! I knew that the archive would be sealed until October 2019 [now 2nd January 2020], and I remember making a vow to myself, that I had to live to this day. I was so keen to see it! Walt Litz encouraged my keenness by telling me of a very lawless fantasy he had, he who was a very proper, very obeying southern gentleman. If he was nearing death, he said, he would creep into the archives and read the letters for his own private enjoyment. He never did —I think he knew he wouldn’t do it. Alas he isn’t alive now —I wish he were! But he did give me a sense that this archive was something very exciting. 


TMR: So reading the letters was out of the question. Nevertheless, after working on your own for so long, it must have felt good to share the excitement and discover you were part of a scholarly community!

LG: I felt wonderfully encouraged. I was doing something that nobody else was doing: nobody had dated the early poems from the point of view of the paper, and I hadn’t been trained to do this, but it made sense to me. Walt Litz was then editing a book called Eliot in his Time, which came out that year in 1972, following the publication of The Waste Land Facsimile in 1971. The real luminaries of the time were contributing to this book, but somehow what I was doing was complementary. After Walt told me about the letters, he wrote to the great Eliot scholar in Oxford, Dame Helen Gardner, and told her about my dating of the manuscripts. What happened then was incredible to me as a graduate student: Dame Helen wrote to me, and asked me questions about the work I’d been doing! Some months after that I saw a notice on the English notice board in Columbia, advertising the Rhodes Trust’s first postdoctoral fellowship for women, at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. St Hilda’s was an all-women college then, and I had never heard of it. People at the Rhodes trust were very uneasy about women —they weren’t used to having to deal with them, you see— so instead of having you interviewed in your home country, as they would do for the men, they paid for the female candidates to come to Oxford and be interviewed by the women, in the women’s college. Dame Helen came to Oxford to viva me. I don’t feel like I was well read at all, compared to people who had been educated at Oxford, and I think she could have wiped the floor with me. But she was very hospitable to me, and she took me to her home to show me photostats of the Four Quartets manuscripts. I remember not being too worried about the interview, because she had told me ahead of time about those photostats, and I couldn’t wait to see them, so I concentrated on that! It was Dame Helen Gardner who alerted me, during the time I was in Oxford from 1973 to 1975, that she had just discovered that Emily Hale had gone with Eliot to Burnt Norton, and she gave me to understand, with hints and tones of voice, that Emily Hale was really important. Nobody knew much about her at that point, but Dame Helen had a very good, almost intuitive, understanding of Eliot. It was the first attempt to link Four Quartets directly to biographical evidence. 


TMR: Do you think that your position as a young woman working in Eliot studies in a world of men influenced your desire to look at the women in Eliot’s life?

LG: Well —I think that I am of my time, and I was a student in Columbia in 1970 during the first tremendous wave of women’s liberation. I certainly felt rage. Columbia was a very misogynist place, and all the women in my generation who had been there felt it. It was blatant and shameless. So when I started my thesis on Eliot, I was very determined that the women in the story must be brought out, and that has been there with me, always. I made a point of writing about Eliot’s mother, and I wanted to give Vivien Eliot, his first wife, her due. I was really quite positive about Vivien, and was very worried about that too because the norm at that time was to see her as just a drag on Eliot, to realise he was suffering. He was suffering in the marriage, and he stuck it for about 18 years —they were totally unsuited. But it was a tragedy for her too! She was also a good short story writer. She had something to offer Eliot, and I wanted to bring that out. And then, of course, there was Emily Hale. 


TMR: The first volume of your biography, Eliot’s Early Years came out in 1977. You didn’t have a lot of information on Emily Hale, and yet she was a central figure in your book. How did you know that you had got it right?

LG: After the book was published, people who were still alive then and had been Emily Hale’s friends started contacting me. Three women came to visit me: two of her close friends, and one of her last pupils (Emily Hale was a teacher of speech and drama), who arrived with a great bouquet of flowers. Those women told me I’d got it pretty right. I think I may have made the links from some of Eliot’s poems: La Figlia Che Piange, the hyacinth girl from The Waste Land, and passages from Ash Wednesday and Burnt Norton


TMR: You were one of the first scholars to involve biography in a study of Eliot’s poems. Do you remember being criticised for this approach?

LG: It’s hard to explain now how illegitimate it was at the time to link work and life. I wasn’t just criticised —I was savaged! Some reviews savaged the book, and some admired it. It felt like two different books. Mostly, the negative reviewers believed that Eliot was an impersonal poet, and that I had gone too far in treating him as confessional. And there were some men who were outraged that an unknown young student had had access to poems that nobody seemed to have seen. But the truth was that archives are open to students. You can go and stay as long as you like!  


TMR: How did you deal with the harsh comments?

LG: I’m a great admirer of Virginia Woolf, and in one of her essays, she talks about the master of the house finding the housemaid reading in his library. He is angry, but Woolf treats it as a joke: ‘What can he do’, she writes? ‘It is difficult to say. It is extremely amusing to see’. Men are going to be outraged if you say that you’ve got a mind of your own, and you just mustn’t get upset —just be amused. But I must be honest, at the time at was very upset about those reviews. I was still at St Hilda’s when the book came out, and then I sensed that people in the Senior Common Room felt sorry for me. I didn’t have any trouble with reviewers with subsequent subjects I wrote about, if they were women. I wrote about Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Brontë, Mary Wollstonecraft, and they’re all very autobiographical in their fictional writings, but nobody objected, because I think we were just being women together —who cares! But when you started writing this about a man, there was a lot of antagonism. I don’t think it’s true now necessarily, but it was for those first reviews. 


TMR: Your second book, Eliot’s New Life, came out in 1988. By that point, had you managed to obtain more information about Emily Hale?

LG: I started looking into Scripps College in California, where Emily Hale taught at the height of her relationship with Eliot. He crossed the continent to see her at Christmas 1932-33. The 1980s were an interesting time for me, when I had assumed that Emily Hale’s former pupils wouldn’t be alive anymore, but they were, and I got to talk to some of them. All of them had very warm, fond memories of her, and were very excited about the theatre productions she put on. I also met some of her friends. Lorraine Havens, whose husband was on the faculty, brought me a very important letter that Emily Hale had written to her, in 1947, when Eliot’s first wife died, and Emily Hale, in shock, realised he wasn’t going to marry her. He’d given her a ring, which in their generation meant a lot, it was like an engagement. When Eliot remarried in 1957 it was a very sad time for her. I got a visit in Oxford from Mrs Elsmith —a midwesterner, a Jo March sort of older woman— who had provided a kind of refuge for her in those difficult times. There was also Mary McSpadden Sands, who wrote to me; she had entertained Eliot and Emily Hale in her mother’s holiday house on Balboa island, near La Jolla (San Diego, California). They spent some happy times together there, where they could be private, away from all the furore that already surrounded Eliot, as he was already famous. Judy Sahak, the librarian at Scripps, was also incredibly helpful, and went far beyond her duties to put me in touch with former students. I got to hear stories from many women who had known Emily Hale —all the names are coming back to me as I’m speaking!


TMR: Do we know exactly what happened to Emily Hale’s side of the correspondence?

LG: We won’t be able to read Emily Hale’s letters. When I was working in the mid-80s on Eliot’s New Life, I interviewed Peter du Sautoy, who’d been a colleague of Eliot’s at Faber & Faber. He took me for lunch to the Russell Hotel —he had picked it because this was where Eliot would court Valerie Eliot. And he told me a crucially important fact. In 1963, a year and a half before Eliot died, when he was old and infirm, Eliot gave him a kind of cash box, packed with letters, and asked him to burn them. He knew about the relationship with Emily Hale, but he said that Eliot kept it ‘under wraps’. He duly burnt those letters, and gave me to understand that as an honourable man he did not read them, but he was sure they were Emily Hale’s —and now the estate tells me there is further evidence that’s correct. So what is there at Princeton is only one side of a correspondence. 


TMR: So Eliot wanted those letters to disappear. How do you feel about your role as a scholar and a biographer, entering the intimacy of a poet who was very private about his personal life? 

LG: This is a tough question. Janet Malcolm wrote that ‘[e]very journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.’ This applies to biographers, I think, and I agree: it’s morally indefensible. It’s doing something that the law allows you to do because the person is dead, but the person himself did not want. My only defence is that I’ve tried to lend myself to a kind of biography which is about the inner life, the creative life. If one is to tell a story about a life, one has to tell a story as close as possible to the one that the person, if he or she had written an autobiography, would have relayed: that’s the secret life. Eliot was an imperfect man who was great because he had a vision of perfection, but great also because he knew he wasn’t perfect and couldn’t be: that was the tension in his life. I learned a lot about Eliot from my mother, who was a housewife in South Africa and didn’t have any scholarly training — when I said this publicly, I think that people didn’t believe me! But she had read Eliot very closely and she had a very balanced sense of Eliot’s imperfections: she would point them out to me, but they didn’t detract from the fact that he was great. I believe one must do justice to greatness, and that one shouldn’t take sides. You’ve got to try to see the complexity, but also have the honesty to admit that the full truth is impossible. 


TMR: Do you think that there is a strong temptation to take sides in the story of Eliot’s life?

LG: Sometimes you can get into trouble for not taking sides! During the 20th century, there were two camps. The first view, which prevailed until the mid-1990s, was that Eliot could do no wrong. When I published Eliot’s New Life, with all this new work on Emily Hale, a very prestigious critic, Frank Kermode, said that it made him sick, that he couldn’t even bring himself to read it (I can’t remember his exact words). It stuck in my mind very painfully: it was like a crude kick. He wasn’t saying this was correct research or not correct, he just didn’t want to hear it. And it was because if you know about Emily Hale, then there is the question whether Eliot did her wrong. I don’t want to push that, because I don’t know to what extent she lent herself to it, and one’s got to keep an open mind. Then, in 1995, Anthony Julius published his book on Eliot and anti-semitism and there was an extraordinarily swift swing to hatred of Eliot. I went to a lecture by the the poet James Fenton, who was the Oxford Professor of Poetry, where he started by saying, I quote, ‘Eliot was a scoundrel’. There was a dead silence, and then the audience clapped. I did not. I thought it was very crude. To say that Eliot was a scoundrel was as crude as to say that he was perfect! But now I feel we’re in a good time, where we can take a nuanced view. 


TMR: Is the Emily Hale story is important to understand the poems?

LG: I think it helps, but I don’t think it’s the most important thing to know about Eliot. You should be able to read the poems on their own to get the feeling of them, but if you know the facts of his life, it will deepen your understanding. Eliot had this theory that you’ve got to draw the poem out of some deep emotional space well beneath the surface of your life, and then find some external representation of it. So on the surface the poem might be depersonalised, but the whirls of emotion are coming from somewhere. I don’t believe in the death of the author; I think that poems come from somewhere. They come from a particular place in time and a particular person. 


TMR: In your book, you discuss the influence of Hale on images like that of the ‘Lady of silences’ in Ash-Wednesday. Did Eliot ‘use’ Emily Hale as an idealised motif in his poetry?

LG: I think that it’s difficult to say he used her — It’s a very difficult question, writers using people for their material. All writers use the material around them. But it would be fair to say that Emily Hale lent herself to this, although we won’t fully know, until we look at the letters, to what extent she lent herself to Eliot’s re-imagining of her. 


TMR: And finally, the question on everyone’s lips: do you have any speculations about what’s going to be in the letters?

LG: Of course I do! I’m strung between two views. One is Walt Litz’s fantasy that it’s going to be something very exciting to read; and the other one is Helen Gardner’s view, which I asked her for a year before she died, in 1985 —and she gave me a very disappointing answer. She thought that we were going to find familiarity and humour, but nothing amazing: they were such proper Bostonians, so comfortable with each other, coming from the same New England background. And Dame Helen understood Eliot very well, so I’m worried! But as a researcher, I want to see a nuanced truth, and I’m trying not to come with preconceived ideas. All serious reading is a two-stage process: first, you give yourself to the material, and take in what it has to tell you; and then, only then, you stand back and assess. And so that’s what I would expect to do: take in the nuances. 


TMR: I seem to remember from your book that Emily Hale thought of doing a commentary to go along these letters. Is this going to be in the archive?

LG: Of course I would love it if the curator of that time, Mr Dix, saw fit to include it. What seems to have happened is that Emily Hale did an interview with a view to including it with the letters, but had second thoughts, and asked them to kill it. That may have happened —we don’t know.


TMR: At least this proves that Emily Hale thought that the correspondence was important, that it wasn’t just boring chitchat. 

LG: Absolutely! As I said I’m very affected by Dame Helen’s expectations, but what gives me hope is two things. First, there are so many letters that the correspondence has to be important to Eliot, even if the surface of the letters is boring. What feeling is there that makes him write over a thousand letters to one person, far more than to anybody else? The second thing that encourages me is Emily Hale writing to Willard Thorp, saying that she wished she were going to be here when the letters ‘burst upon the world’. She didn’t think they were boring. I don’t know what she meant, and I’m not going to venture to say.


This interview was conducted by Cécile Varry (Université de Paris) in July 2019. The Emily Hale Archive opens on 2nd January 2020 and reports will be posted on a blog hosted by the International T. S. Eliot Society. The Modernist Review team wishes you a very happy New Year!

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