Back in 1914 when he was around 26 and a graduate student at Harvard, T.S. Eliot professed his love to his friend, Emily Hale, a speech and drama teacher at various schools. Hale did not appear to reciprocate his feelings at the time and Eliot moved to England where he quickly met and married another woman, Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Eliot has said they were miserable together, and over the course of their marriage, which ended in 1947 when Haigh-Wood died in a mental hospital, Eliot exchanged passionate letters with Hale, whose feelings for Eliot it seems changed over time. When Haigh-Wood died and Eliot was single once again, Hale expected him to propose to her. Instead, he married another woman and that’s where things get interesting.
Hale, upset that she was rejected by Eliot, gave all the love letters she had saved from Eliot over the two and a half decades of their correspondence to Princeton University to share publicly fifty years after their deaths. Upon hearing this, Eliot gave a statement to Princeton that was to be publicly shared along with the letters, which finally happened last week. In his statement, Eliot did what no man has ever done before (ha)
: he denied ever having feelings for Hale, the woman who had previously rejected him.
In his statement, he writes in his statement that after his wife’s death -a wife whom, remember, he emotionally cheated on during the entire course of their marriage and who died in a a mental hospital — he realized he had merely been in love with the memory of Emily Hale. He said: “I was not in love with Emily Hale. I had already observed that she was not a lover of poetry, certainly that she was not much interested in my poetry. I had already been worried by what seemed to me evidence of insensitiveness and bad taste.” Oh, snap.
In one of the love letters he sent Hale, however, he had written: “You have made me perfectly happy: that is, happier than I have ever been in my life. I tried to pretend that my love for you was dead, though I could only do so by pretending myself that my heart was dead.”
So, was he lying to himself about having ever loved her, did he truly realize he only was in love with her memory, or did he feel guilty after his wife’s death that during their whole marriage he was professing his love to another woman?
One scholar at Princeton suggests: “My theory is that he couldn’t bear the thought of being happy. My theory is he really did love Emily, but he was too scared of developing a relationship.” Another scholar speculates that Eliot wanted “to prove he was never as vulnerable as the letters suggested, and also may have been eager to protect the feelings of his second wife, Esmé Valerie Fletcher, whom he married in 1957,” in case the letters were leaked and she read them.
Indeed, in his statement, Eliot wrote of his second wife: “I cannot believe that there has ever been a woman with whom I could have felt so completely at one as with Valerie.”
Finally, Eliot does something else no man has ever done before (ha): he reminds the world that it is his contribution to society through his brilliance and art, and not the feelings of a couple of women, that matters the most, writing. “Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me,” he writes in his statement. “Vivienne nearly was the death of me, but she kept the poet alive.”
Hmm, I wonder if this is what he meant by, “Not with a bang, but a whimper”?
[via The NYTimes]
Fyodor January 6, 2020, 1:25 pm
I don’t think that his explanation is implausible – we’d probably have told him the same thing – he was attached to the idealized memory of someone he loved when he was younger.
Fyodor January 6, 2020, 2:02 pm
I will also add the following in TSE’s defense.
1. It was extremely difficult to get divorced in England then.
2. It is extremely difficult even today to navigate living with a spouse with significant mental illness.
3. Almost none of the support structures that exist today for managing mental illness existed back then. If you had a mentally ill spouse you lived with it alone.
It seems to me very forgiveable that he might have sought out the fantasy of exchanging letters with his youthful love interest.
allathian January 8, 2020, 1:40 am
Indeed. And the mental illness of a spouse was specifically excluded as grounds for divorce.
That doesn’t excuse the way he treated Hale. Even if it was a shame that she didn’t reciprocate his feelings when he confessed his love to her at Harvard.
Ange January 6, 2020, 2:14 pm
I believe he probably did romanticise her but it doesn’t mean his feelings weren’t true to him at the time. He certainly kept it up far longer than most people would with a passing fancy. While it’s good he had the solace of letters to keep him going there was a living, breathing person at the other end who was pretty callously used if she was just a distraction from his troubles. No wonder she was mad.
SavannahAnna January 6, 2020, 8:31 pm
Actually, two and half decades of correspondence with her, but marriage to 2 other women instead sounds a little to me like the very definition of “Muse”! After all, a muse is not necessarily someone who shares his life, or makes his favorite meals, or bears his offspring, or excites him to name her “Grandma of the Year”, or even loves his poetry. “A muse is that ‘mental power’ that enables poets to craft verses—the Muses were the Greek poets’ divinized conceptions of the faculties that help them to create and recite poetry.” Poetry. Verses. That’s not life. Eliot might have tried to walk it back, but I don’t see any conflict here.