"How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot"

29 Jan 2020 7:13 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)

Settling into his new life at Harvard, Eliot writes to Hale with diary-like detail about his social activities and opinions. Some of this material can already be found in Volume 6 of his letters, such as his complaint about tea bags (6.465) and his discovery that, after 17 years apart, he and his sister Ada still understand each other well (6.459). He misses London, especially his office and club, and being in America makes him feels patriotic about England—strange, he admits, as he was never happy there. He sees quite a bit of his family, especially his sisters: to Ada he quickly reveals the real state of his marriage, which does not surprise her; he feels a warm affection for Marion, though he wouldn’t take her into his confidence; and as for Margaret, he dismisses her as a vampire who seeks to devour his time (in fairness to Eliot, his brother and mother expressed similar views of her). 

Eliot sees his cousin Eleanor Hinkley and her parents frequently. The friendly tone of his published letters to Eleanor conceals an irritation that he expresses freely to Hale, her lifelong friend. He criticizes the Hinkleys as narrow and undeveloped intellectually, even egotistical. Their house no longer holds the same thrill for him as it did in the days of her “stunt-show,” and he comments that they seem less well-bred than some of his other relations. Eleanor’s dramatization of Jane Austen’s life, Dear Jane, is opening in New York, and Hale asks him whether he will be attending. Not on your life, he replies. He conveys Ada’s comment that perhaps the Hinkleys’ political views will be swayed by the good press Eleanor’s play is receiving in The New Republic and other left-wing periodicals. Eliot also lashes out at Mary Ware, a wealthy Bostonian who is close to Hale. In both cases he seems to be objecting to their conservative politics. His negativity about the Hinkleys is not new; back in April, he wrote harshly (to the unmarried, forty-something Hale) about the spinsterish feminism found in their house.

Even as he makes such remarks, Eliot seems conscious that they may strike her as hypercritical and ill-tempered. His enclosure of “How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot” might be offered in the spirit of an apology, although it was written before he sailed (PoemsII.460). He worries out loud that her silence may be a rebuke for his splenetic outbursts (later she reassures him that she had food poisoning and was worried about her institutionalized mother). He delivers his first Norton lecture on November 4 to a packed hall, and he writes in early December that he is happy, perhaps has never been happier in his life. As Christmas approaches, he becomes increasingly nervous about how she will receive him when he arrives in California at the end of the year.  


  • 29 Jan 2020 9:32 PM | CR Mittal
    Time to revise our opinion of Eliot as a conservative.
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    • 29 Jan 2020 10:01 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)
      Well, it's Eliot, so nothing is simple, but I think he's just seeing his Brahmin milieu through a different kind of UK conservatism that is more invested in providing a social safety net. This is the 1930's, and well-dressed people are begging him for money in the streets of Boston (he notes this with disturbance in a letter). But his reactions to Smith and Mt. Holyoke, for example, or to California, are just what you would expect of a social conservative.
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      • 30 Jan 2020 7:33 AM | CR Mittal
        Yes, Eliot may not be that simple. Thanks.
        My impressions of him were solely based on his poetry.
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