Disclosures (February - March 1931)

06 Jan 2020 8:21 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)

In previous posts I have said little about the form of Eliot’s letters. With a few exceptions of short handwritten notes, he typed the letters himself on Faber or Criterion stationery, penning the salutation and closing. The salutations are of particular interest because each one is slightly different, developing during January and February into a repertoire of poetic endearments. While his letters of 1930 typically begin “Dear Emily,” he starts using the first person possessive adjective at Christmastime.  In January he adopts a form of address used in Part II of Ash-Wednesday, which begins “Lady, three white leopards…” He employs this term in many permutations. In February, Eliot calls Hale by the name of a bird associated with the Holy Spirit, which becomes a recurring pet name for her in their correspondence.

In February 1931 Eliot’s feelings seem to stabilize and his letters take a happier tone, seemingly due to her reassurances. On February 4, Eliot translates and explains the quotation from Canto XV of the Inferno quoted in my first post, which she must have asked about. He tells her that his only worry is whether their relationship will harm her in any way; for himself, he says, it is only good. For one thing, he feels released from feelings of sexual frustration and can open himself more fully to his friends. And, contrary to his 1960 statement about Hale, he assures her that his marriage to Vivienne and its failure had nothing to do with her. He now remains in the marriage because of Vivienne’s dependence on him; this is a theme he returns to throughout the spring as Hale seems to question his reluctance to separate from or divorce her. 

Eliot negotiates the sensitive question of whether and when they will meet in person, apparently trying to accustom Hale to the idea of a permanent long-distance relationship. Writing to her is a joy in itself, and so is a successful state of resignation. Through thinking of each other and their love, they can achieve a happy life even apart. He returns to this matter on March 12, acknowledging that while fulfillment is best, great happiness can come from an incomplete but mutually understanding relationship. He predicts (somewhat chillingly) that all this will be clearer in twenty or thirty years. He points out that most couples are not happy, and even the Fabers, a paragon of conjugal bliss, seem to lack passion; in a humorous passage he describes how he would like to disturb Geoffrey Faber’s respectability by making him go berserk in the street.  

Nothing can be done to improve his marital situation, Eliot tells Hale on March 4. He goes into detail about Vivienne’s state of mind, explaining that she has the mentality of a child—sometimes a good one, more often bad. Being jilted by another fiancé before their marriage was the straw that broke her self-esteem; twenty years of taking sleeping medicine has finished her off psychologically. For himself, it took him a long time to realize that her faults were not universal to all the English, but were only her personal neuroses. If she had married a different man who didn’t expect anything from her except to be pretty, she might have been all right. And if perhaps he had been able to love her, she would have been happy, but he would never have been satisfied with her. He tells Hale not to blame Vivienne, while also seeking to shift the blame from himself.

On March 19 Eliot feels a rush of life in the spring weather and the lilacs blooming in London’s squares, but he is cut off from enjoying it. He compares himself to Alice, who can never get through the door into the garden because first she was too small to reach the key, and later she was too big to get through the door, so could only lie down and look through. In closing he alludes to something Hale has told him about a girl in Milwaukee. He picks up this thread in the next letter, March 24, with a frank discussion of mutual attraction between members of the same sex who are of different ages. Such relationships can be beneficial, he assures her. However, he says, the inequality of power between an older and younger person of the same sex also can pose dangers. As an example, Eliot tells of his own experience with the fascinating Matthew Prichard in Paris, who exerted great influence on his views on art and philosophy but also caused him to experience a mental and spiritual crisis (Eliot’s exact words here are obviously important, so keep in mind I am paraphrasing. Also see Letters3.132). Eliot reflects that Prichard’s love of power over young men seemed to have a sexual element although his life was ascetic. Eliot makes the remarkable aside that the figure of Mr. Silvero in “Gerontion” is a reference to Prichard. Finally, Eliot concludes his discussion of same-sex relationships by relating an incident in which Lytton Strachey unexpectedly kissed him, which shocked him into laughter; since then, he says, the two have not met alone.

One of the surprises of these letters is Eliot’s specific identifications of figures in his poems: I posted earlier today on the identity of “Marie” in The Waste Land, apparently not Marie Larisch but a woman named Marie von Moritz whom he knew in Munich. The revelation about Mr. Silvero joins this group of disclosures.

Comments

  • 07 Jan 2020 2:50 AM | Sara Fitzgerald
    Fresh in my mind from Monday's letter reading is another reference to a "Marie," in a letter from June 1, 1933, when Eliot was preparing to return to England following his holiday visit to Hale in California. I had assumed it was a reference to Marie McSpadden, the Scripps student who told Lyndall Gordon she drove Eliot and Hale to their weekend on Balboa Island. In this particular context, Eliot told Hale he understood her feelings about "Marie," then went on to say that the two of them depend on people like Marie more than they rely on Eliot and Hale. Perhaps the allusion was to an earlier Marie, but I had assumed (always dangerous!) that Hale might have had second thoughts about involving her student in their outing. In a 1986 letter, McSpadden (now Sands) wrote Lyndall that Eliot had sent her a copy of Marina.
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