For readers joining since my first post, I just wanted to reiterate that these reports can only gesture to the contents of Eliot’s letters, which I know you will be eager to see when you can either make it to Princeton or purchase Faber’s edition of the letters (the editor, John Haffenden, estimates publication in 2021). Paraphrase is a very feeble approximation of a poet’s deeply considered words, and of course I am only mentioning some highlights.
Eliot's letter of July 24, 1931, includes one of the heart-stopping passages of their correspondence. On this day, he received a letter from Hale asking a question that caused him to drop what he was doing and respond immediately with a detailed narrative of how he fell in love with her and what came to pass before he departed for Europe in summer 1914. His narrative begins on an evening spent with the Hinkleys and a few other guests during which he accidentally stepped on her feet while performing in a charade, and afterwards was eager to see her again. He then became more conscious of his feelings through the rehearsals for Eleanor Hinkley’s dramatization of Emma and other skits. Finally, when they went to the opera together (see my post from January 4), he found himself in love. However, much held him back from acting on his emotions: a sense of personal unattractiveness and the mistaken (as he later realized) conception that a man shouldn’t declare himself to a woman unless he is in a position to support her financially. It was this scruple more than anything else that prevented him from asking her hand in marriage before he departed in 1914. He did almost break through on one occasion, when he had contrived to see her two days in a row; it makes him dizzy, he says, to remember how he almost spoke to her then (“the heart of light, the silence”?). In the end, they had a conversation, but an unsatisfying one, for he felt he could not ask for, nor offer anything definite. Perhaps the question in Hale’s letter that prompted Eliot’s narrative was why had he not asked her to marry him then?
If you are seeking funding to come to Princeton to read the letters, the library does offer generous travel grants for the use of their special collections.