Time past and time present

06 Sep 2020 9:08 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)

Perhaps encouraged by his greater intimacy with Hale, Eliot reminisces about his family and upbringing in the letters of early 1936. On 6 January, he writes that his grandfather (William Greenleaf Eliot) may have been less a Saint than a Personality, whose accomplishments were built on sand; he thinks the Unitarian service is only effective if led by a Saint. About his parents, Eliot says they always seemed distant to him: kind and indulgent, but also neglectful. He did not entrust them with confidences, and he believed they cared more about Henry than about him. After marrying, he decided not to ask them for help (though in earlier letters he explained that his father continued paying his rent after he married, and this was why he could not separate from Vivien); his father probably thought he had got what he deserved. Eliot was not intimate with his mother, he says, but his literary reputation consoled her for her own lack of acclaim as a writer. When she was older, he writes on 19 February, he felt that he had to keep up a pretense of being happy and successful. He devotes the most attention to his sister Ada, whom Hale occasionally sees in Cambridge; Ada is his favorite family member, he tells Hale, and the affection is mutual. She is shy and reserved, but not cold; indeed, he himself is extremely reserved with other people apart from Hale (19 January). Ada never received the approbation she deserved from their parents, fighting for a college education and professional training (she became a social worker); Eliot hints that the two of them share a bond from feeling unappreciated by their parents. He thinks Ada, who takes a maternal attitude towards her husband, Sheff, has been lonely and emotionally unfulfilled (19 February). Like Ada, Eliot says, he is reserved and constrained; only with Hale, he repeats, can he be himself, rather than making up a selection of himself in order “to meet the faces that you meet.” Finally, responding on 19 March to Hale’s description of an extended family gathering, Eliot remarks wistfully that he envies people with an old house in the family; his family has never stayed long in one place, always picking up and moving to another house ("Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,/Are removed, destroyed, restored.." East Coker I).

Eliot’s letters also reflect on current events: Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland on 7 March, violating the treaty of Locarno, and the Italian invasion of Ethiopia intensified, with aerial bombing and use of poison gas. Eliot understands how Germany’s actions were driven by wounded national pride, and he blames the League of Nations (9 March). By 23 April, he sees the European situation degenerating into chaos, driven by an inhuman and impersonal fate, which people watch apathetically as if hypnotized by a snake. A dictator lets a genie out of a bottle and can’t get it back in; in order to keep control he must always do something more. When Henry criticizes Murder in the Cathedral, referring to his brother’s “notions of persecution” (Letters 8.184), Eliot tells Hale with a trace of irritation that England is much closer to Europe than New York is, and events in Germany are very real from such a short distance. To his brother, he replies drily on 28 April, "The 'satire' on the totalitarian state I should hardly expect to convey very much to an audience in a country where the problem does not exist as it does throughout Europe" (L 8.184).

Next time: Eliot's trips to Little Gidding and East Coker.


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