May the record speak

02 Jan 2020 12:17 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)

The scene in the Princeton Library Special Collections was calm and orderly this morning, with about six readers lining up before the doors opened at 9 a.m.. As promised, three high-resolution digital versions are available, in addition to the originals and a complete set of facsimiles printed from the digital scans. I am working from the scans, which include the back and front of every page and envelope. The following rough and ready account of what I found will, of course, be superseded by more scholarly studies and the printed version of the Hale letters edited by John Haffenden. This morning Houghton Library, Harvard, also published Eliot’s response, written in 1960 to be opened at the time of the Hale collection.

Many people are interested to know about Emily Hale’s narratives of her relationship with Eliot. The folder (box 14, folder 8) contains at least two versions of her narrative, a manuscript from 1957 and several typescripts from 1965. My summary draws both from the earlier, more personal account and the edited typescripts, with a few limited quotations of her words (in contrast to Eliot’s words, which I will not quote). 

Hale narrates their meeting at the house of Eleanor Hinkley’s family in 1911-12 where they performed in a dramatization of Jane Austen’s Emma. She found his low voice difficult to follow, but others alerted her that she was the exclusive object of Eliot’s attention. He confessed his love to her before leaving for Germany in 1914 but did not propose marriage. She found herself surprised by his confession and did not feel the same about him.

She writes that they renewed their acquaintance in England in 1922 (when she was visiting her aunt and uncle in London) and on subsequent visits. Eliot’s feeling for her had not abated and he was still in love with her.  Their correspondence began in 1930 (the first letter in the collection is dated October 3, 1930, and is indeed a love letter, about which more in a moment). She became his confidante. He visited her at Scripps College in 1933 ostensibly for an academic residence, but his real purpose was to sort out his emotions and their relationship. 

After Vivien entered the sanatorium, Hale writes, she and Eliot saw each other regularly in the summer at the house of her relatives, the Perkins, at Chipping Campden, where he experienced the happiest times of his life to date. He proof-read The Family Reunion in the back garden, and they walked to the house of Burnt Norton, a visit that inspired his poem (as she writes). In a later version of the narrative, Hale adds that Eliot told her that “Burnt Norton” was his love poem to her. She had also developed feelings for him, but she writes that they kept their relationship on as “honorable” a basis “as we could.”

Hale then writes of the two breaks in their relationship. When Vivien died, Eliot chose not to marry her, a decision she accepted but could not understand and found very painful. They kept in touch and he saw her when he came to the States, but after Eliot married his second wife Valerie, there was a further break: she never saw him again.

She ends her 1965 version by expressing the hope that her account will keep future generations of curious students from drawing the wrong conclusion (presumably, she means that they had a chaste relationship, which Eliot also corroborated more explicitly in his just opened response). At the end of the 1957 version, with less resignation, she observes that “Vital Truth is a priceless heritage in the world of letters,” and so “May the record speak.”


  • 02 Jan 2020 12:50 PM | Christopher McVey
    Thanks for this update, Frances! The account is a helpful reminder to biographers and scholars alike that relationships are as dynamic and dimensional as the people whom they concern.
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  • 02 Jan 2020 3:44 PM | Megan Quigley
    Fascinating. Thanks, Frances: "Hale adds that Eliot told her that “Burnt Norton” was his love poem to her." Not new, but her confirmation is still startling.
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  • 02 Jan 2020 4:59 PM | Hannah Sullivan
    Yes, thank you so much, Frances! It's terrific to have a report from the field. How long will you be there for? The bits quoted by Edward Helmore in The Guardian (was he one of the trusty six?) are quite remarkable. I'm hoping to come one or two days next week and any information you can provide about how busy the archive is, the best times to come etc. would be extremely useful to those planning visits, I think.
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    • 02 Jan 2020 9:45 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)
      Hi, friends. There was a reporter from the Daily Mail taking notes. I don't know if the people in the room included Helmore, but Lyndall Gordon was at the other end of the table and I thought it must have been an extraordinary experience for her. So far it's not that crowded, but patrons are served in the order that they line up in the morning, so I recommend arriving when the library opens at 8 a.m.
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  • 02 Jan 2020 6:43 PM | CR Mittal
    So reassuring. Can’t thank enough, Frances.
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  • 03 Jan 2020 8:18 AM | Sara Fitzgerald
    Thanks for your speedy, well-written reports, Frances. It was fun to sit next to you as we reviewed the digital materials. I thought you captured everything we both read very well.

    Now on to Day Two!
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