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.