Box 1: A Confession of Love

02 Jan 2020 9:30 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)

There was always a possibility that the opening of the Hale letters would turn out to be a disappointment, merely adding to the volume of Eliot’s correspondence but not the depth of the correspondent. However, the first box dismisses any such worry. The collection begins with an extraordinary sequence of letters in which Eliot unrestrainedly confesses his feelings for Hale and credits her with both leading him to his religious faith and inspiring his poetry. This is not the reserved Eliot we are accustomed to; he pours out an account of himself that is remarkably similar to Lyndall Gordon’s interpretation of his “new life.”

Eliot handwrote the first letter (Oct. 3, 1930) after having Emily to tea with Vivienne, an occasion that seems to have opened the doors to communication between them. He expresses deep regret for his failure to answer a question that Hale put to him years before in London. Despite that mistake and the pain it has caused, he professes his love for her, which, he says, has led him to love of God. He remarks that she must now understand “Ash Wednesday” as nobody else can. He hopes that she will allow him to write to her after this revelation of his feeling for her. 

The second letter, typewritten a month later, responds gratefully to Hale’s reply and lays out a fuller account of the origins of what can only be called his passion. The language is openly reminiscent of Ash-Wednesday especially in his form of address. He explains that when he was a student at Oxford, he convinced himself that he didn’t love her in order to make it easier to throw over his career as a philosopher and remain as a poet in England. A year after his marriage to Vivienne he began to realize what he had done. He tried to fulfill his marriage vows but he could not. Since adultery was permitted in his social circle (Eliot specifically refers to Bertrand Russell), he tried that avenue, but it did not satisfy him. After writing The Waste Land, he told himself that his feelings were dead, but an earlier sighting of Hale in London, referred to in the first letter, dissolved this illusion and his spiritual life began. 

In a brief paragraph Eliot emphatically states his love for her and its importance throughout his life. He praises Hale and her spirituality, and suggests a similarity between her and his mother (who had died in 1929).

He states his intention to write to her regularly now about his life and hers, and he concludes by recommending to her certain passages in his poetry that will prove his love for her: the hyacinth garden scene in The Waste Land and the “Datta” section at the end of “What the Thunder Said," “A Cooking Egg,” and Ash-Wednesday.

There may be many further revelations in the letters to come, but it is hard to imagine any clearer acknowledgement of Hale’s importance to him as a man and a poet. These letters tell a very different story from the belittling counter-narrative Eliot wrote in 1960, and in my view, a better one. You might have to see it to believe it.

Comments

  • 03 Jan 2020 7:33 AM | Mary Grace McGeehan
    Thanks for these updates! It's wonderful to be able to follow along as these letters are read for the first time.
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  • 03 Jan 2020 7:39 AM | Matt Seybold
    In addition to being a generous service to your fellow scholars, this is delightful to read, Frances. I expect I'll be refreshing the page all day long in anticipation of further reports. Thanks!
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  • 03 Jan 2020 11:37 AM | Hannah Sullivan
    Gosh, this is all so interesting! Thank you again. I’m assuming from the style of the report that you probably don’t feel able to quote directly from the letters and we will have to read TSE’s words ourselves. (As far as the adultery avenue goes — are there any details of with whom...?)
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    • 03 Jan 2020 12:11 PM | Jayme Stayer
      Hi Hannah! In Lois Gordon's biography of Nancy Cunard, she claims that Cunard had an affair with TSE.
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    • 04 Jan 2020 8:54 AM | Sara Fitzgerald
      I am sitting next to Frances, and we are comparing notes as we read. In his confession to Hale, Eliot describes the woman as a young, wealthy society woman who was living apart from her husband and who had some notoriety, in case that helps. He further noted that this happened when he was living among people who condoned adultery. As Frances noted, the Eliot estate is prohibiting direct quotations.
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  • 03 Jan 2020 12:34 PM | John Whittier-Ferguson
    Thanks for this writeup, Frances: most interesting blog post on the Internet, by far!
    This makes the dedication of "Ash Wednesday" "to my wife" even more powerfully fascinating than it already was . . .
    can't wait to read about what you turn up next. thanks for being our Eyes in Princeton . . .
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    • 06 Jan 2020 11:19 AM | Gabrielle McIntire
      Yes, John, I was thinking precisely that about his "Ash-Wednesday" dedication "to my wife" . . . . Fascinating, indeed.
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  • 03 Jan 2020 1:21 PM | Schaefer
    Emily Hale was T.S. Eliot’s Beatrice.
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  • 04 Jan 2020 10:42 AM | Sarah Kennedy
    This is all so fascinating, Frances, thank you! Even though we were prepared for revelations, it is astonishing that Eliot is so forthcoming in pointing to specific passages in his poetry as being inspired by Hale. The confession of his own adultery also casts things in a very different light, I think.
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  • 14 Jan 2021 10:42 AM | Anne Gormley
    The 'counter-narrative' of Eliot was exactly how he felt then after a life of normal fallibilty and mistakes. Are we not all entitled to change our minds about the things we did in the past? TSE makes it very clear in his letter that he changed as a person. Let's hope we all are given that chance to change and become a different person.
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