While I was off at the excellent Stoke conference the week before last, the BBC broadcast the climax of its poetry season, a long Arena programme about T.S.Eliot.
This was quite a good introduction for newcomers to the twentieth century’s most interesting poet, but there wasn’t much new, apart from a glimpse of the scrapbooks compiled and treasured by the second Mrs Eliot. Until now she has been rather miserly about allowing scholars access to Eliot’s archive, but recently she has changed her mind. There will be new editions of the poems, the letters and the uncollected prose – and to be going on with there is this TV programme.
The story of Eliot’s second marriage is well-known. In 1957, Eliot, in his late sixties, announced his marriage to Valerie, his adoring secretary, aged 30. Speaking as a bloke in his sixties, I can well understand why he did this, and the result seems to have been much happier than might have been expected. By all accounts they had a very good marriage, which lasted for eight years, until his death in 1965.
Since Eliot’s death, Valerie has been a fierce guardian of the flame. She published the Waste Land manuscripts, and has allowed Christopher Ricks to edit the March Hare notebooks, but stopped publishing the Letters after the first volume got negative reviews. Much of Eliot’s most interesting early writing remains unavalable to anyone without acces to a first-rate library. There has been no authorised biography.
Do Valerie Eliot and her friends at Faber realise how negative the effect of this has been? A few years back Anthony Julius published his attack on Eliot for being anti-Semitic, a book that one can only describe as seriously under-researched. Had the letters and collected prose been in the public domain, more reviewers would have asked why Julius ignored, for example, Eliot’s letter to the Church Times, responding to a peculiarly ghastly vicar who conducted church services for Mosley’s Blackshirts:
The point is not whether a large number of people, with or without the inspiration of Sir Oswald Mosley and Lord Rothermere, are both zealous Fascists and devout Christians. The human mind is capable of containing the most contradictory ideas at once, especially when in a state of emotional excitement. The point is not what some people at the moment actually maintain, but whether the Christian and Catholic idea and the fascist idea are, in themselves, compatible.
For Eliot they were not – as he made completely clear in The Rock (another text that Valerie has not taken the opportunity to reprint).
Now that she is over eighty, Valerie Eliot has arranged for publication of full (I hope) editions of the collected works. This TV programme, however, might give one cause to ponder. In many ways it was excellent, with nice soundbites from Eliot experts such as Ronald Schuchard, Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue. It also used clips from the 1936 Cover to Cover film that I have mentioned here before. But the new Valerie material was disappointing. The camera panned over neat scrapbooks with menus, and programmes for My Fair Lady and an Agatha Christie play. This was the record of a dull upper-middle couple in the late fifties. They probably enjoyed their nights out, and I would be the last person to grudge Eliot a bit of pleasure after the torment of his life with Vivienne. But it added nothing whatever to our understanding of the poetry.
More seriously, the programme seemed very much to be Valerie’s version of Eliot’s biography. We heard something of Eliot’s marriage to Vivienne, but nothing of the humiliation she caused him by her adultery with Bertrand Russell. More importantly, we heard nothing of the two women with whom Eliot had serious relationships in the space between his two marriages – Emily Hale and Mary Trevelyan. Both had hoped that Eliot might marry them. Emily especially felt seriously rejected when he married Valerie. In the TV programme these were airbrushed out of the picture. In return for access to her treasures, how much editorial control did Valerie have. And will these new scholarly editions published under her loving eye also be influenced by Valerie’s version of the story?