When​ T.S. Eliot asked John Hayward in February 1938 to act as his literary executor (‘in case some unexpected calamity cuts me down like a flower’), he told him to prevent publication of his literary remains – including ‘any letters at all of any intimacy to anybody’. ‘In fact,’ he added, ‘I have a mania for posthumous privacy.’ Eliot was preoccupied by remains and their dispersal, and by our mixed feelings on the subject. ‘I am to lecture at Yale on the 23rd ($225) on “Letters of English Poets”!’ he wrote to Emily Hale in February 1933, halfway through his year as Charles Eliot Norton professor at Harvard. The lecture included the following considerations (transcribed by his brother Henry):

The desire to write a letter, to put down what you don’t want anybody else to see but the person you are writing to, but which yet you do not want to be destroyed, but perhaps hope may be preserved for complete strangers to read, is ineradicable. We want to confess ourselves in writing to a few friends, and we do not always want to feel that no one but those friends will ever read what we have written.

Eliot’s considerable correspondence with Hale had begun in October 1930, and in 1933 they were still in the foothills. Describing his Yale lecture – she was teaching in California – he added: ‘If you don’t see my private joke in talking about how a poet should write letters, no one will.’ The joke is perhaps that the lecture is unaware of Eliot’s epistolary life (‘Love letters are monotonous; the recipient of the letter should be a mature friend’) – and that it conceals how hard he is thinking about the subject.

Put differently: here are 1131 letters (eight thousand pages or scans, including envelopes and enclosures), deposited by Emily Hale at Princeton University Library in 1956, not one of which Eliot wrote in the hope of it being read by strangers. Under embargo for fifty years after Hale’s death in 1969 – she outlived Eliot by four years – they were unsealed in January 2020 and can now be consulted in situ in Princeton. ‘A good deal of publicity is possible without publication (in print),’ Eliot wrote sceptically in his posthumous ‘statement’ about the correspondence, opened at the same time as the Princeton deposit.

Eliot first met Hale in Boston in 1912, in the house of his cousin Eleanor Hinkley, while a doctoral student at Harvard; they appeared together in amateur theatricals in the spring of 1913; there were concerts and operas (one of Hale’s uncles was a music critic and wrote the programme notes for the Boston Symphony), including a performance of Tristan. By 1914 Eliot believed himself to be in love, and to lack encouragement. He left for Germany en route to Oxford for the academic year 1914-15, at the end of which he abruptly married Vivien Haigh-Wood and settled in London. Contact with Hale eventually resumed. In 1927 he told a friend (a fellow American, William Force Stead): ‘I had a letter from a girl in Boston this morning whom I have not seen or heard from for years and years. It brought back something to me that I had not known for a long time.’ In October 1930 she came to tea in London. Vivien liked her – ‘You were triumphant all round,’ Eliot wrote unhappily. Their correspondence started in earnest. On his side a headlong offensive: 92 letters in 1931, 100 in 1932, followed by a letter or more a week until autumn 1939; a more limited correspondence during the war, under the eye of the censor; and a resumption thereafter.

On Hale’s side we don’t know how many letters there were – Eliot destroyed them in 1960, perhaps later – but we can read how she was coaxed and cajoled into keeping up her end. At times she falls silent or goes missing, usually during her American holidays, and Eliot often writes to the wrong places – a striking aspect of the Princeton haul is the quantity of misaddressed and readdressed envelopes (‘By the time I know that you are somewhere you are somewhere else’; or, more reflectively: ‘I think that perhaps you are not there, or anywhere, to be written to’). Since 1916 she had been teaching speech and drama at various women’s colleges, with a succession of residential appointments at half a dozen private schools and girls’ colleges up and down the Eastern seaboard and further afield (Wisconsin, California). In each case she stayed for several years: not long enough to put down roots, but long enough to feel uprooted when she left, as she often did, with no alternative in view. Her arrangements were provisional, but so were his. Neither of them owned property for the quarter-century of their correspondence, or even furniture. ‘It comes as a surprise to me and always as a kind of shock,’ Eliot writes in September 1931, ‘when I realise for a moment the continuity of most people’s lives. Whereas for me, and I think to a large extent for you, life has been discontinuous.’

They met again in California, during Eliot’s year at Harvard as Charles Eliot Norton professor. On his return to England, he formally separated from Vivien and avoided further contact, though without seeking a divorce. Relations with Hale remained confidential, and they continued to meet intermittently in America or London – or Gloucestershire, where her guardians (aunt and uncle) rented a cottage every summer in the late 1930s. Apart from a period in 1934 and 1935 – when Hale was in England or Europe, and when they saw each other more than perhaps at any other time – the letters weren’t just an aspect of the relationship: they were the relationship. At moments he would have said they were his life.

In January 1947 Vivien died, suddenly, and after 16 years of correspondence, Eliot found that he couldn’t offer to marry Hale. The correspondence continued, at a slower pace, and ended in January 1957, when he married his secretary, Valerie Fletcher. A few months before the marriage, of which she had no prior knowledge, Hale deposited Eliot’s letters at Princeton. He had always insisted that they were hers to dispose of, and agreed to the terms of the deposit – not to be opened for fifty years after the death of the surviving party, as he wished. Nonetheless he was dismayed, and regarded the donation – during Hale’s lifetime rather than posthumous – as a breach of confidence. His reasons were unclear. That the gift was an act of valuation, perhaps, belonging to the realm of publicity and reputation, rather than a legacy. Or that Hale had chosen to show his letters to others, however symbolically, by giving them to Princeton. There was little further contact between them, and some years later he wrote a brief account of their correspondence and relationship.

This ‘statement’ was released simultaneously with the opening of the Hale archive – though parts of it had been made public earlier, in Valerie Eliot’s introduction to her 1988 edition of the first volume of The Letters of T.S. Eliot. Valerie Eliot’s request to consult the Hale letters – as editor of her late husband’s correspondence – was declined. But she had seen his statement (‘a private paper, written in the 1960s’) and excerpted a passage at the close of her introduction as having particular testimonial force: ‘To explain my sudden marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood would require a good many words, and yet the explanation would probably remain unintelligible … To her, the marriage brought no happiness … to me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land.’ Eliot’s original text continued: ‘And it saved me from marrying Emily Hale. Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me; Vivienne nearly was the death of me, but she kept the poet alive.’ The march of symmetries informs the document as a whole, its subsequent praise of Valerie Eliot balanced by its asperities towards Emily Hale.

Two months after Eliot’s death in January 1965, Hale drafted a brief review of ‘my years of friendship with T.S. Eliot’, at the request of the Princeton librarian. It’s one of the few surviving specimens of her writing, and it contains an error: ‘The second marriage in 1947 I believe took everyone by surprise.’ Eliot’s own statement is also erroneous or unclear: ‘During the course of my correspondence with Emily Hale, between 1932 and 1947 …’ Their correspondence continued for a further decade – 180 letters, 15 per cent of the total – and ended only with his marriage to Valerie. In February 1948, Hale had in fact rationed Eliot to writing one letter a month, and he protested at the flattening out of experience and recollection which this entailed. It takes all of Eliot’s letters to Hale to show what is at stake in these slippages. In part because Vivien’s death in 1947 did in several senses stop all the clocks, in part because the correspondence with Hale lasted for so long – a quarter of a century – that it established its own temporality. Eliot was concerned, from the start, to prevent the letters from floating free of everyday realities. But he was also consistent in wishing them to be a private domain – ‘Don’t let us write for anybody but ourselves.’ As if they depended on a combination of clockwork regularity and never being able to tell the time.

Eliot’s letters to Hale are compositions, usually long, almost invariably typed, with only the occasional faltering of phrase or finger, and few erasures or marginal additions. Eliot didn’t keep carbon copies of private letters, as he reassured Hale at the start, ‘however strange such things will look to me in type’. They are mostly typed on headed paper (‘The Criterion’, ‘Faber & Faber’, ‘The New Criterion’, ‘The Virgil Society’ – any headed paper he could get his hands on, except when travelling). Early on they were written in the office. As with Kafka’s heroic epistolary feats in respect of women he didn’t marry – five hundred letters to Felice – the life of the letters to Hale is played out against office gossip, the views from windows, ‘the noise of typewriters’, the business of the day. If, as Eliot told her, a letter is the photograph of a moment (and a different hour would produce a different light, a different letter), then his early efforts are studio portraits: ‘My room is in cream yellow with bookcases (for review books etc), two chairs and a desk and an armchair, a green carpet (to come) and an electric stove, very high looking down over Woburn Square.’

In January 1931 he describes his working day: ‘On Friday morning when I arrived the flamboyant Mr Alfred A. Knopf of New York (Inc.) with brilliant tie and stickpin was filling the whole room talking to Morley, and then he collared me, and wasted most of the morning jawing about nothing.’ Eliot’s ear is cocked, recalling earlier instances of how a name can betray its bearer. Alfred A. Knopf, with his publisher swagger, has the ‘jaw’ and superbia of Apeneck Sweeney, but his secret sharer is J. Alfred Prufrock, who filled no room, whose ‘modest’ necktie was ‘asserted by a simple pin’. The animus is compressed, even as the scene ripples outwards. (This was the same Knopf who a decade earlier had passed on the chance of publishing The Waste Land in America.) Eliot’s own words echo in his mind. This had been a feature of his epistolary economy before Hale. But there is a recurrent and unemphatic recourse throughout the letters to earlier usages, which are also reflections on an earlier self.

His writing to Hale coincided with his acquiring a room in Russell Square – ‘and I need not see secretaries or visitors unless I want to.’ A year later he was prompted to recall wrathfully how long it had taken to reach this small ledge of independence: ‘Virginia’s Room of One’s Own irritates me; and I have wanted to tell her that I have never had £500 a year of private (unearned) income or anything like it, and that I have never had a room of my own except a bedroom at a Lausanne pension for a month where I wrote most of The Waste Land.’ Writing on the hoof – ‘I never can be sure when I am going to have a whole hour free’ – sets a tone for the correspondence. ‘Most of the time one works away like a mole, or a seaman on a submarine – or half a dozen similes of the sort.’

He responded early and at length to close questioning about his sudden and by now famously unhappy first marriage, which he tries to make credible if not intelligible (‘I can never make a perfectly irrational act seem rational’). ‘The last 18 years like a bad Dostoevsky novel,’ he wrote to Paul Elmer More in June 1933, on the cusp of his separation from Vivien. In an essay of 1924 he remarked that Dostoevsky’s characters are aware of ‘the grotesque futility of their visible lives, and seem always to be listening for other voices’, which catches both the lassitude and the telepathy of the Eliot home, as told to or seen by other witnesses – the claustrophobia but also the collusion. There is an undertow of reluctance, and Eliot prefers to speak of Vivien in a formal and fenced-off manner. ‘One has to wait and let things come up as occasion suggests, and not try to write an autobiography!’ he suggested to Hale in April 1931. Hale no doubt sensed that a dimension was withheld. Their long tussle over meanings – the slow-motion wrangles over divorce, over religious practice, over his reticences, over the final destination of their correspondence – begins here, with the meaning of Vivien. Sixteen years later, after Vivien’s death, he was still trying to explain why he married her (‘One rationalises one’s paralysis as the performance of a duty’).

After​ their meeting in autumn 1930 there follows a series of packed letters, an embarkation of sorts. They tell of Eliot’s prior wanderings, an account of his flight (‘I felt obscurely that I should never write in America’), his quick marriage, his slow misery, a passing mention of Bertrand Russell, or of a single forsaken attempt on Eliot’s part at an extramarital liaison. He needs to persuade Hale of his knowledge that ‘seeing you last month was not at all the revival of something dead; I knew exactly how I felt and had known for years.’ Paradoxes are part of the checked baggage: the permanence of his feelings for her is what has led him to the Church and the struggles of the spiritual life. ‘Of course there were many concurrent paths leading me to the Altar … but I doubt whether I should have arrived but for you.’ The destination has been reached before setting out on the journey, which he nevertheless hopes will be a long one.

His declarations to Hale don’t ask for a new life, or a way out of his current life. Indeed, he asks for nothing except that she keep writing to him. Least of all does he expect that their understanding of each other will ever be whole. What he looks forward to is an ever more consummate apartness. His Lenten thoughts for 1931 acknowledge her suggestion that they might wish to see each other more as time went on. He agrees, adding: ‘The new life demands a new resignation.’ With no prospect of another meeting in view, the need was to make an epistolary present, to synchronise their days. Eliot introduces Hale into his porous and amorphous London, rather than wanting much to do with her Boston, which is also his Boston. ‘I have no really intimate friends, though a vast acquaintance’ speaks for a different model of social life. He immerses her in a series of brief atmospheres, enclosing letters he has received from others, without explanation but with occasional comments or character sketches. Letters from Joyce or Woolf or Spender, or Pound or Hayward or Middleton Murry are mixed in with press clippings or missives from bores and autograph hunters and archbishops. Sometimes he sends a variety of enclosures with no accompanying letter: a collage of his life for her to arrange as she sees fit. In February 1931 he justifies it thus: ‘I like to bring in my birds, mice and rabbits, like a good dog, to lay at your feet.’ But they are the reverse of mementos – he is not entrusting them but dispensing with them. From early on there is a curious insistence on the disposability of all materials: ‘None of such letters need be returned; keep or destroy as you like.’

If they were to share a life apart, over the course of so many years (‘For there will be twenty and thirty and perhaps more, I hope’, he calculated in March 1931), the question arose as to how to fill their epistolary days. Reading Keats’s letters in the latter part of 1931, he encountered the journal-letters to George and Georgiana on the Western frontier of the United States. Eliot earmarked Keats’s strategies: ‘These are trifles – but I require nothing so much of you as that you will give me a like description of yourselves, however it may be when you are writing to me.’ In one of his Norton lectures in 1933, he remarks that these ‘are what letters ought to be; the fine things come in unexpectedly, neither introduced nor shown out, but between trifle and trifle.’ Eliot has a firm sense that what will sustain them is close to hand, and that he will know Hale by what he terms ‘the informality of self-revelation’. So will she please send him the remains of her days: ‘Even if you go out to tea with Mr and Mrs So-and-So whom I never heard of, that will interest me immensely.’

As well as things unbidden he wants the letters to leave room for things unsaid. The Yale lecture was prescriptive on this point: ‘The recipient of the letter should be … sufficiently understanding so that a good deal need not be said.’ Sometimes he wished he didn’t have to use words when he talked to her. ‘There are times when my mind and my life seem wholly vacant; perhaps corresponding to some of the times in real life, as distinct from correspondence, when two people sit and say nothing “all the day”’ – enlisting Donne’s conceit of the lovers’ souls negotiating soundlessly while their bodies are laid aside like statues: ‘All day, the same our postures were,/And we said nothing, all the day.’ This suggests Eliot’s ambitions for their correspondence: that it might acknowledge what there is beyond talk.

The fact that he wanted what was unsaid to figure so prominently in a relationship that was based entirely on words was a difficulty. He thought explanations in a life were a bit like ‘meaning’ in a poem – a diversion to keep the reader occupied, ‘much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog’ – and he sometimes suspected that it might take longer than a lifetime to explain a life. Hale seems never to have signed up for this epistolary model, with its room for the unsayable and its canvas as broad as daylight. Her different view of the matter was that a letter posed a question – preferably a lot of questions – or supplied an answer. Thus, despite the continuity of their preoccupations over time, there is little continuity between one of Eliot’s letters and the next. This is not simply a question of the time it took for a letter to reach its destination, or the ongoing farce of crossed letters. On the one hand, Emily doesn’t return his serves. On the other, she plays the same shot again and again. His responses frequently record an initial shock at the fixity of her concerns. The same things are discussed, decades apart, especially their disagreements. There was the added difficulty of Eliot’s unanswerability, his tendency to serve aces. One of his self-ironising enclosures is a brief note of October 1931 from Virginia Woolf, asking will TSE please put Harold Nicolson to death in the pages of the Criterion (over some misdemeanour), ‘with that finality of which he is the supreme master’.

In November 1935 he looks back on ‘the gossip and information of day to day small events and personalities that I have always provided, I think, as a way to compel you to share my life with me when apart’. From the outset, he felt compelled to speak his needs, as he hammered down the planks of their epistolary ark. He begins to write every week, expressing disappointment if Emily doesn’t respond in kind. Like Kafka to Milena Jesenská, he sends regular updates of blighted expectation: ‘a disappointment for a Friday morning to find no letter and to have had none this week,’ he writes on 8 January 1931. He is panicked by her silences (‘If I ever offend you please don’t be silent but write at once and let me understand’), though the giving of offence will soon become the central means by which he discovers anything about her (‘I would really rather hurt you deliberately than out of stupidity’). Throughout their correspondence, beyond Vivien’s death and his decision not to marry Hale, he complains of epistolary undernourishment.

‘Ilike to believe that I am capable of more intense and deep devotion to one person than are most men.’ He started as he meant to go on, and the high-flownness was a blend of amour courtois and mariolatry. Distance and longing served to keep open the question of physical desire: Eliot intuited that otherwise the inspiration would run dry. He presents himself early on as a stranger to illness: ‘I shall write every Monday or Tuesday, unless some slight illness (I am almost never ill).’ But it is only when he begins to acknowledge illness as a frequent visitor that he finds a language of desire: ‘I should not mind your being ill now & then, if I could nurse you,’ and – warming to his theme – ‘I picture myself preparing beef tea (scumming the fat off with blotting paper) or dabbling eau de cologne on you.’

If Hale is alone of her kind she is also, quite simply, alone. Eliot weaves a circle around her from the start: there are to be no confidants to their story, no witnesses, since there is no one to trust – least of all in Boston, least of all relatives, least of all friends or intimates. He makes much of her isolation and unsettled status, as an itinerant teacher of drama and speech in a variety of educational establishments which both tolerate and marginalise the role of drama in their curricula. Her solitariness is as inveterate as his own: ‘It is very lonely, standing in a shrine.’ Hale’s re-entry into Eliot’s orbit was consistent with her being so far away, and distance was what he craved. Elizabeth Bowen summarised an evening at home with the Eliots in August 1932 as ‘two highly nervous people shut up together in grinding proximity’. When he accepted the invitation to give the Norton lectures, he was thrown by the thought that being on the same landmass as Hale might ‘interrupt our intimacy’. He writes anxiously in praise of ‘the separate satisfaction of writing’, as if their correspondence needed the oxygen of elsewhere for its fictions of here to remain credible – like Kafka realising that if he married Felice he might have to stop writing to her.

As it turned out, Hale was offered a teaching job in California, where Eliot visited her briefly, in December 1932. Otherwise she remained as far away during his time in America as she had been before he went. They were twin compasses, and Eliot would at all times have endorsed Donne’s words to Sir Henry Wotton: ‘Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle Soules,/For thus, friends absent speake.’ He apprised himself on arrival in Boston of a daily mail service coast to coast, a vast improvement on mail boats. He threatened to write three times a week, and wrote on average twice-weekly for the next ten months.

In other senses he needed Emily to stay still until he found his voice. The early letters, especially, aren’t so much addressed to her as dedicated to her, a listening silence. And he must learn to talk, to break his own accustomed silence: their correspondence was also a correspondence course. Eliot senses that she is in touch with a dramatic principle, knowledge of which he craves. She had wanted to become an actor but had been discouraged by her guardians, and his curiosity about her stage life – ‘Acting must have freed you (anyway something has) from the restrictions which Boston birth and breeding impose upon one’ – was constant. He remained convinced that she was in possession of a plurality of personae – ‘the Emily of Fire & Violence’ – like a closely kept hand of cards.

Eliot’s need initially was to find common ground (‘You and I were brought up in the same sort of society and tradition’). When he realised how unalike they were he began to feel more hopeful for the epistolary future. He found his idiom in ideas of distance and difference rather than proximity and closeness: ‘I do not like to think of any two people just taking for granted at any point that they understand each other.’ Marriage remained his persistent model of misunderstanding throughout the letters to Hale. The year after Vivien’s death he wrote, in Notes towards the Definition of Culture: ‘It is human, when we do not understand another human being, and cannot ignore him, to exert an unconscious pressure on that person to turn him into something that we can understand: many husbands and wives exert this pressure on each other.’ With even less reason could individuals whose bond was epistolary – whose bond is their words – lay claim to each other’s meanings, however much they might aspire to ‘unity of mind’.

The letter epitomised the limits to knowing. On the other hand there are kinds of knowing that are the special province of the letter, transmitting messages from elsewhere. At once close and far or, as Keats wrote to his brother in America, ‘as near each other as blind bodies can be in the same room’. Eliot had referred in 1918 to Henry James’s ‘merciless clairvoyance’ as a perception of relations rather than entities: ‘It is in the chemistry of these subtle substances, these curious precipitates and explosive gases which are suddenly formed by the contact of mind with mind, that James is unequalled.’ The idea of such wovenness is closely linked to Eliot’s intimations of underlying pattern, ‘which we perceive in our own lives only at rare moments of inattention and detachment, drowsing in sunlight’. Eliot believed – in this correspondence if nowhere else – that letters were ideal conductors of inattention. He suggests to Hale that their letters might associate more freely, more wanderingly, that they might catch each other’s drift. In October 1931 he produced one of his obscurely menacing analogies:

Have you ever talked to a very deaf person? If so, you know that nothing one has to say seems good enough to be worth speaking at the top of one’s lungs … It is the same thing in writing; and I try, in writing to you, to let my fingers trip over the keys and say what is in my mind at the moment, without anticipating what I am going to say.

The notion of typewriter talk sounds close to improvisation at a keyboard. Two years later he was pleading for the same from her, long reports in which ‘you could let your mind and pen run on about whatever came into your head over ever so many pages.’

During this time Eliot was preoccupied by questions of ‘awareness’ in the theatre. A decade earlier he had written of the hold over an audience exerted by Marivaux’s wafer-thin characters: ‘Though each of them is shadowy, a roomful of them is very real.’ And in 1920: ‘A “living” character is not necessarily “true to life” … the dramatist need not understand people, but he must be exceptionally aware of them.’ Eliot’s hopes for a modern poetic drama included the capacity of poetry to address ‘a fringe of indefinite extent, of feeling which we can only detect, so to speak, out of the corner of the eye and can never completely focus; of feeling of which we are only aware in a kind of temporary detachment from action’. In his critical prose there is a penumbra of inexplicability around his most powerful responses, which he is careful to stop short of pursuing, but towards which his sentences point and twitch. This connects to a larger trust in somatic processes when it comes to poetic composition. For Eliot, illness stood in for unconscious life. Citing Housman’s claim that he had seldom written poetry ‘unless I was rather out of health’, he adds: ‘I believe that I understand that sentence. If I do, it is a guarantee − if any guarantee of that nature is wanted − of the quality of Mr Housman’s poetry.’ Eliot’s relations with Vivien had been transacted through illness – it was the kind of intimacy he knew best.

In America in early 1933 he suggests a curiously Freudian model of knowing, as of doctor and patient: ‘I want to know, How Are You? I mean, frankly and uncircumspectly, as if I were a doctor or a priest.’ And again: ‘I wish you could write to me merely as if you had to speak to somebody, and would be willing to consider myself as happening to be the only person available for the purpose’. But in truth Hale was the listener, and the talking cure was Eliot’s own. He found his voice, and told Hale she had improved his prose. The surprise is that what was released by her mild listening should be so vehement. His calm manner – page after perfectly typed page – also suggests composed fury, one of the characteristic effects of the letters as a whole. He leaves behind the strangled idiom of devotion and soon becomes as querulously intent on his own meanings as Kafka to Milena. The most unruly material is often confined inside parentheses, an adverse weather system inside the sentence. Eliot settled gratefully into the roughhouse of his views. In December 1931, in response to Hale’s having referred to some of his remarks as ‘blasting’, he responds with surprise: ‘Dear me, I must control my elephantine gambolling.’

The Yale lecture proposed that ‘letter-writing permits us to forget ourselves and to express the worthwhile things that come spontaneously.’ Spontaneity meant frankness: ‘There should be sufficient sentiment to release the writer’s mind to speak freely, without fear of betrayal … The two correspondents should have interests in common and should be able to be brutally frank.’ One of his earliest modifications to his epistolary contract with Hale was to suggest that ‘now that there is more communication between us, I feel that I must be frank.’ Spontaneity was a contact sport, and frankness a drama rather than a cold dish. As early as March 1931: ‘It is better to expose to you my moods from day to day than to try to have one set mood to write to you in.’ Three months later: ‘I don’t want you to try and be “at your best” when you write to me – I had rather think of myself as one to whom you do not in the least mind writing when you are at your worst!’ He was more interested in the blows he might receive than in those he might administer.

There are scenarios of spontaneous combustion even in the earliest letters to Hale. In March 1931, in response to the suggestion that being separated by an ocean was not ideally conducive to fulfilment: ‘Let’s look at the happy couples, e.g. the Fabers – their respectability sometimes oppresses me … I should like to inject a little Bang, or Hasheesh, or whatever the Malays use, into him [Geoffrey Faber] just to see him run howling down the street with flaming eyes like a Malay amok. I don’t think I say this in malice. There is no one I like better.’ A month later: ‘It would make me rather lonely to think you were quite flawless … I should almost like to think that you occasionally Bust Out, and scratched people’s faces, my Lamb, and threw objects about the room … and if you have Ill Humours to vent, then vent them on me, who am the worthiest object.’

Eliot’s new voice in the letters to Hale had much to do with the prospect of a return to America. Having told his brother that it would be years before he felt up to coming back, he felt the need – after accepting the Norton offer, in October 1931 – to prepare a shield against family, relatives, the Unitarian ministry, Harvard, polite society. To defend what he had secured by leaving, he went on the attack. He arrived in September, just before his 44th birthday. As well as the Norton lectures at Harvard, the Turnbull lectures at Johns Hopkins and the Page-Barbour lectures at Virginia, he gave undergraduate classes at Harvard and dozens of readings and public talks over the next nine months, in California, Washington, Minnesota, Chicago, Buffalo and Providence – in all, between seventy and eighty engagements. And he wrote as many letters to Hale. Like Henry James and Henry Adams, Eliot returned after a long spell in Europe and felt – hauntedly – that coming back was the real rite of passage. In 1919 he had reviewed Adams’s autobiography, seeing him as fair game for epigrammatic malice on account of his being a relative (Eliot’s father’s third cousin). Eliot diagnosed in Adams a severe case of ‘the Boston Doubt’, a shallow disbelief, and a related condition that might be termed chronic like-mindedness. One of Eliot’s exquisite and listless early poetic life studies imagines readers of the Boston Evening Transcript swaying in the wind of its opinionation ‘like a field of ripe corn’. In 1933 he complained to Hale that in Boston, ‘where everybody, if not nearly related, is at least a cousin of everybody else’, he keeps encountering sameness: the same people ‘over and over’. Everyone was a member of the Adams Family.

Eliot in America suffered from a residual conviction of having failed his impossibly estimable parents, not to mention their parents. His father died in 1919, before Eliot could justify himself; his mother knew his success but not the truth of his marriage (unless perhaps she did). When he got to St Louis in early February 1933, after staying over New Year with Hale in California, he made straight for their graves in Bellefontaine Cemetery: ‘Certainly the town was full of sadness for me; not so much on account of my mother as on account of my father; it was his city not hers; he was born there and worked for it and died there; and also I shall be haunted by my last sight of him until my dying day.’ Eliot’s pietàs aside, the real struggle was with ancestors rather than parents. ‘Sometimes one is just oneself, but for the most part one is being hustled about by one or another of a crowd of shadows,’ which speaks for his sense of the dead in the room.

Eliot decided that in New England ‘relatives’ was merely a synonym for other people – to the extent that you could only complain about other people’s relatives to other relatives. ‘I should not mind Emily’s relations so much, if she did not feel obliged to respect them so much,’ Eliot confides to his aunt Susan Hinkley, whom he otherwise excoriates at every turn, warning Emily against Susan and Eleanor as a mother-daughter double act, socially voracious yet self-absorbed, whose investment in each other he finds stunting and reprehensible (‘You cannot talk to two people at once’). Having got by without ‘cousins’ for so long, he can no longer remember what they’re for: anomalous, a drain on resources, a test case for obligations to others.

Hale is part of this tapestry – a relative, almost – and socially closer to the Eliots than is often apparent from the letters. Eliot’s brother remarked that she greeted the family as though she were already a member. That her deceased father had been a Unitarian minister and her guardians were pillars of the Unitarian community added considerably to Eliot’s sense in his letters of Boston as an inside with no outside. A life of duty to others – or rather getting the balance right – was warfare on earth, and he felt that Hale was especially vulnerable to false claims on her sympathy, having been raised by relatives who weren’t her parents. He referred to her uncle John Carroll Perkins in his posthumous ‘statement’ as ‘a dear old man, but woolly-minded’. He says surprisingly modern things about her aunt: ‘Mrs Perkins wants to be something to you that she cannot be … I mean, she wants to take the place of a mother, the combination of dependence on you with an unconscious desire to dominate.’ As for Hale’s real mother, who had become a permanent invalid after the death of an infant son, Eliot’s informed conviction was that ‘people who are suffering from unreal things do not suffer as much as those who see things sanely as they really are.’ Writing letters allowed him to speak of his own life by speaking of Hale’s.

Eliot and Hale scarcely met during the Norton year, but there is a sense of continuous presence, as of sharing the same tense. His field notes report back on the vivid and confused human specimens he encounters. The formalities baffle him, the more casual the invitation the grander the lunch. He is as discountenanced by his celebrity as by the light in California (‘that terrible glare on everything which seems to kill all privacy’). He has a horror of hostesses who think of him as a draw, whether the sort ‘who protects one against everybody but herself’ or the sort who disguises herself dangerously as a guest. Recounting a dinner after a poetry reading in Providence, he writes: ‘One strange woman whom I could not make out – I thought at first that she had been drinking – not sure yet – plump – said she was 45 – flirtatious – asked me to stay over till the next evening to meet Tallulah Bankhead – I dodged her as politely as I could, and whenever I looked round I saw her damp round eye goggling at me.’ There are many such set-pieces of social anxiety, full of virtuosity.

Politeness (‘the curse of American society’) is merely tolerance, a glassy unseeingness: ‘I have a rooted objection to these rich old conservatives in Boston who seem to have no understanding whatever of what is really happening in the world.’ He preferred disliking what he saw to not seeing at all, and his own noticings in the letters to Hale are registered with limpid clarity, against the current of what is occurring. On 10 February 1933 he was taken to a recital given by the great Paderewski at Wellesley College: ‘They say he is not what he was – old and tired, “out of step with the decade”, playing Bach as if it was Chopin, and plays Chopin as nobody else can; I wondered all the time what he thought of it, a tired man trying to make money’ – one of Eliot’s old men.

The Punch and Judy show of American letters, full of satirical portraiture and mimicry, is close to the jagged anti-worlds of The Hollow Men or Sweeney Agonistes. Empson described The Waste Land manuscript as ‘a growing rag-bag of character sketches’, and so are the Hale letters. All of which is continuous with Eliot’s respect for the arts of distortion and for the satirist as a figure (‘No man of genius is rarer’), and his interest in dramatic truth as something other than truth to life. ‘New England torpor’ was a condition he had long suspected himself of incubating, and animosity was a proof of animation. Towards the end of his time there he complained to Paul Elmer More of tepidity as ‘somehow more awful than their evil – not many are alive enough to be evil.’ After his return to London he told Hale that the worst of his work was interviewing young writers: ‘Like a blood transfusion, each time – the number of people who need to borrow vitality (and can’t pay it back) is immense.’

Eliot​ felt his Norton lectures were underprepared, but he was under an obligation to publish them. Four years later, in retrospect, he detected in all of his American lectures ‘a kind of intemperate feverish aggressiveness, out of relation to the subject matter, that spells an abnormal state’. The same condition perhaps produced the Page-Barbour Lectures at the University of Virginia, published as After Strange Gods, which he later disowned, remarking to Empson that he had been ‘very sick in soul’ when he wrote them. Eliot’s fever in America took different forms, and they are sweated out in the letters to Hale.

When he visited her in California in late December 1932 he arrived by train, bringing a ‘vest-pocket’ Kodak and a typewriter. ‘You cannot possibly realise how terrified I am of confronting you – but I do wish you would try.’ After leaving ten days later he clung to his horror of California: ‘No country, only scenery’, ‘insidiously corrupting’, an unnatural climate and an enervating spiritual atmosphere. So much for Hale building a life out West. Afterwards he was curious to know what happened during their time together: ‘I did not suppose that my visit had been any great help … but I did want to know whether it had done any harm.’ After California, the preoccupation with candour became a fixture: ‘What I care about in a correspondent (as if I had ever had any other!) is not so much affection even … but just Frankness.’ He concludes: ‘If I cannot be of any use to you, I had rather do without you.’ To show her what he meant, between January and June he committed his own thoughts to paper: urgent, rambling and combative. ‘I have begun, you see, putting down notes each night to include in any letter. If you object, say so.’ In February 1933 he suggested that ‘most of the time I am merely a beast raging in the jungle’ and in April pondered a trait in his nature ‘which tends to be hard and bitter and gibing and proud and fighting … puritanical, defensive. I wonder what you will make of these ravings. I sometimes feel almost wickedly defiant and hostile: eyeless, in Gaza, at the mill, with slaves.’

These letters ride to hounds over Hale’s feelings. He goads and scandalises her, in the hope that she will show another side rather than turn the other cheek:

Well. I suppose I have written enough for one letter … I had two of my ‘scraps’ to enclose; but on second thoughts I have burnt them, and included some of their content herein. They are flaming on the hearth now. I shall go on being malicious about people. It should give you a vicarious pleasure, like being malicious yourself without any of the moral responsibility: I am extremely considerate of your Conscience.

This courtship ritual continued throughout the spring of 1933, up to his parting shot, written on board ship as it was pulling out of Montreal: ‘Have I cultivated the habit of writing just what comes into my head at the moment, only to be told that I am intolerant?’

Her response was to put up with any amount of provocation and suddenly to disappear from view, which Eliot came to recognise as her way of displeasing him, rather than his way of wanting her to displease him. After which she would, it seems, send an idiosyncratically argued ultimatum when he least expected it. Even before his American sojourn he was dismantling her ordnance: ‘We shall make our plans quite irrespective of each other … And so I do not see how my coming could “force any issue” between us.’ The rhythm of their exchanges was mutually unnerving until the end. At one point, waiting for a response, he pleads: ‘The letter after an important letter is always an important letter.’ Eliot’s night thoughts during these months give off a quixotic restlessness, as if he was slowly resigning himself to something. The relationship gained in intensity in the following two years, after his formal separation from Vivien, when Emily spent more time in Europe, but he was never so desperate for her disapproval as during the last months in America. One of things he wanted to test was her religious moorings, to see how tightly they held.

During​ Eliot’s year at Harvard Emily’s uncle was the minister of King’s Chapel, Boston – the first Unitarian congregation in America. Eliot had been received into the Church of England in 1927. His rejection of Unitarianism was vigorous and straightforward, on the grounds that it was a heresy. As he said in 1931: ‘I was brought up outside the Christian Fold’ – to be a Christian you had to accept the dogmas of the Church, which included a belief in the literal divinity of Christ. Unitarianism on the other hand amounted to little more than ‘periodic assemblages of well-intentioned people of similar social background’. Eliot was outspoken about the unspoken assumption that salvation was a family affair, or the privilege of a ruling sect. ‘It was not of course overtly inculcated, but it was in the atmosphere that God took more notice of us than of ordinary people.’ The Lowells talked to the Cabots, the Cabots talked to God, and God talked to the Eliots. Even God was a relative of sorts.

While he was in America the Boston clergy had repeatedly invited Eliot to address them in King’s Chapel, in view of the pre-eminence of his family in the American Unitarian story. Reluctantly he agreed to do so, in April 1933. The audience included his brother and sisters, and presumably Hale’s aunt and uncle. Eliot’s title, ‘Two Masters’ (between whom we must choose), was from the Sermon on the Mount. He spoke up for a sense of sin and the existence of evil, before turning on his own breed and the idea that breeding shall be rewarded hereafter: ‘I can hardly think that there was ever a time when so many people felt virtuous.’ A month earlier he had told Hale that ‘people who remain through life “naturally” good are merely people well brought-up … whose lives have been so happily conducted that they have never experienced temptation – that is to say most of my relatives … The Unitarian religion is an easy one to live by for people who lead sheltered lives.’ He told the gathering in King’s Chapel that every moment is a moment of choice, between the better and the worse. His Calvinist sense of emergency was shocked that anyone should think otherwise.

The King’s Chapel address was transcribed by his outraged brother Henry. The like-minded assembly heard it as an attack on their liberal credentials. Henry would eventually confront Tom about his ‘fanatically intolerant and shocking tirade’, which dishonoured their parents as well as the clergy of Boston, ‘a city saturated with associations of your ancestors, immediate and distant’. Eliot agreed about the saturation, but stood his ground: ‘I did not want to address them at all, and I only acceded to repeated invitation. I gave them exactly what I was asked for, and I did not get fair treatment either.’ The same evening he wrote to Hale that ‘my past life in America and my past life in England have been two different lives.’ On 21 May, his last word on the subject before sailing back to England was already framed in the past tense: ‘But Unitarianism had to go sooner or later.’

The scene in Canto III of Inferno always had a special resonance for Eliot: not Hell proper, but its antechamber, Dante’s placeless realm of the ditherers: those sinners, ‘neither rebellious or faithful’, for whom everything in this life implied the possibility of something else. Eliot’s armoury included the conviction that nothing is a substitute for anything else. The King’s Chapel homily was about choosing between rather than entertaining two masters. In 1931 he had enlisted Lewis Carroll: ‘Do you remember that when she was the right size to get through the door into the garden she was too small to reach the key, and when she got the key she was too big to squeeze through the door, and could only lie flat and peep through?’ In June 1933 he wrote to Paul Elmer More: ‘My life seems like Alice and the glass table: there is something I want here (domestic affection), and something I want in England, and I can’t have both; fortunately the time of choice is long since past.’ The first case describes an impossibility, the second an impossibility which has shrunk to a difficulty.

The struggle over religion took on flesh and blood over Emily’s decision to start communing in an Episcopalian church in Boston, and in the nearby Anglican church during summers in Gloucestershire with her aunt and uncle. Eliot’s initial response, in October 1936, gave little away: ‘If, my dear, you intend to make communions there, I suggest that you should get in touch with the Vicar or Rector and ascertain his views.’ Ten years later, in October 1946, he was making the same request: ‘All I have asked you to do is this: to tell the vicar of any Episcopalian Church, before you think of going up to the altar to receive the communion there, that you are a Unitarian and have no intention of becoming anything else.’

Hale responded that she had been baptised. In which case, he asked, ‘on what grounds do you call yourself a Unitarian?’ Shifting her ground, she replied that Unitarians could be counted as believers. Believers in what? he asks. In the onward and upward progress of mankind for ever? In salvation by character alone? When all else failed, Eliot fell back on upbringing: ‘I was myself brought up as a Unitarian, as you know. I am sure that to my mother and father, the suggestion of their attending an Episcopalian place of worship for the purpose of making their communion there, would have been astonishing and abhorrent.’ For Emily to commune on the promptings of an inner voice was to receive the sacrament under false pretences.

The puzzle is why she preferred this conflict, over so long a period of time, given the collateral damage involved. She declared a close interest in what he believed. Or rather, she took an abstract interest – she needed explanations but lacked curiosity – so that her responses, which are easily gleaned from his letters, seem weightless or flippant, at least those which he returns to her on a platter: ‘You speak of your being “lost” (religiously) from my point of view. This, from my point of view, is rather a shocking assumption for you to make.’ Hale was at bottom a card-carrying Unitarian. She always doubted what she was told – or rather, she doubted what she was told by Eliot (who was, after all, a renegade). Her acts of communion were perhaps a compound gesture: the wish to be closer to him, initially, to share in his rituals without thinking too hard about the matter, and equally an act of resistance – to Eliot as having all the answers. If he was going to hold out on divorce, she was going to hold out on communing wherever she liked.

Eliot preferred her to stay outside the fold rather than enter through indecision. ‘What I desire with you is as much Conflict as Unity,’ he wrote in February 1933. ‘The fact that I am a Trinitarian, and that you are a Unitarian, matters very much to me. It means a Fight. Of course I mean to win. Very likely I shan’t.’ He didn’t. But he was not trying to change her, and he was generally sceptical of religious conversion. Besides, as he conceded in February 1933, ‘all the things which might seem to divide me more completely from Emily are really things that attach me to her more closely’ – possibly the most exposed thing he ever said to her.

What he lacked was a co-religionist, a fellow sinner and blasphemer. At one level his letters to Hale are the regular accounting of his Christian year, its daily and weekly rule – year in, year out. He would have liked her to enter into these atmospheres: the celibate bareness of his London rooms, the roominess of his church, with an outside of everyday doings and drolleries as well as an inside of ritual and sacramentalism. Much of which he shared instead (and publicly) with Mary Trevelyan, through the 1940s and beyond – churchgoing being central to their stop-start friendship, all knees and elbows, and of their extensive correspondence. Of his religious life, Eliot told Trevelyan: ‘It is the whole of me.’ To neglect which is to make no sense of the final turn of events between Eliot and Hale. There are reasons clearer than a change of heart to explain why he reneged on the promises of 16 years to marry her should the occasion arise. She suggested in November 1946 that he had changed, which he accepted but denied (‘The aspects of anybody are endless’), and the letters show remarkably little change in his devotion to her, or in the ground of his affection, over two and a half decades. It was her disbelief in the reality of an external authority in Eliot’s life that cast the longest shadow over their relations, rather than any shift in his allegiances. In the end the stand-off provoked him to his only harsh words in 25 years: ‘I have long thought I noticed an inflexible determination of will, a certain self-righteousness also, which can lead to your riding roughshod …’

At the outset​ of war in 1939 Eliot felt that there was not a great deal to be said, ‘except with people who are in the same confusion – which is everyone here, and no one outside of Europe’. He had dissuaded Hale from coming to England: ‘If you were in England you would have to eat … So to come here would be a disservice to England; and you would never get war work … it would be an incessant strain upon me, and a hampering one, worrying about you.’ He began to number his letters, and encouraged her to do the same – and to write more legibly, or type, ‘so as not to give overworked censors too much trouble’. There was a new epistolary reality, and it was unclear to him whether the war numbed his feelings or his capacity to express them. His letters from the period document a subtle and dreamlike atmospherics of the home front, as a struggle to stay awake, or ‘maintain a continuous animation of personal feelings’. In December 1939 he finds the figure he needs: ‘It is as if a dense London fog had descended, bringing that queer silence and solitude that is peculiar to such fogs.’ He thought of progress on Four Quartets as his contribution to war work. In August 1940 he mentions taking his air raid warden examination (‘a little occasional patrolling … this is a very quiet neighbourhood’), and in October he writes that ‘one became acutely aware of the sense of hearing, and quite normal sounds aroused attention. I remember on one of my first nights being bothered by a strange sound, going out to reconnoitre, and discovering after several minutes that it was merely the dead leaves being swept along the street by the breeze.’

The following summer, working on Little Gidding, he told John Hayward that Section Two ‘needs some sharpening of personal poignancy, a line or two might do it … The defect of the whole poem, I feel, is the lack of some acute personal reminiscence (never to be explicated, of course, but to give power from well below the surface) and I can perhaps supply this in Part II.’ The ‘strange sound’ is one such acuteness:

While the dead leaves still rattled on like tin
Over the asphalt where no other sound was
Between three districts whence the smoke arose
I met one walking, loitering and hurried
As if blown towards me like the metal leaves
Before the urban dawn wind unresisting.

In these months he was also drafting his introduction to A Choice of Kipling’s Verse, thinking how variously the historical imagination can communicate ‘a dizzy sense of the nearness of the past’. The example he needs comes to hand – ‘Fabrice’s sudden awareness that the little pattering noise around him is caused by bullets’ – in the thick of Stendhal’s account of the battle of Waterloo.

Part of what was incommunicable to Hale in America were feelings of patriotism, at one remove, and ‘the awareness of suffering directly from things which are not directly happening to oneself’. In July 1942, looking back: ‘I belong to England; and I should have been very sorry to have been elsewhere during 1940.’ The war gave him a home – but nothing to excess: in March 1945, at the end of his final column for the Christian News Letter, he signed off as ‘Metoikos’, Greek for ‘resident alien’, calling himself out as someone else. Charles Maurras had spoken of Jews as ‘métèques’, and Eliot insists on his own identity as a shiftless cosmopolitan – spawned in St Louis, blistered in Boston, patched and peeled in London. His living arrangements remained precarious, and by the end of the war he had been of no very fixed abode, properly speaking, for 13 years.

From September 1940 he spent two or three nights a week in London and four days in the country, in a rambling household at Shamley Green in Surrey, as the guest of Mrs Mirrlees, mother of his friend the poet Hope Mirrlees. The invitation came at a moment of deep London exhaustion and he remained lastingly grateful. Shamley – or Muddle Hall, as one of its residents complained – was a noisy matriarchy, providing Eliot with theatrical interest as well as shelter, its doings conveyed to Hale in copious detail. The household comprised Hope and her mother, Mrs M (or Mappie), aged 81: ‘grand and lovable’ and the star of the show, a Scottish Christian Scientist in an otherwise devoutly Roman household. The inmates included Cockie, an aged and irritable aunt, often away at her club in London – ‘having an orgy of bridge and Masses at the Jesuits’ – and Eliot’s fellow lodger Mrs Behrens (the ‘Field-Marshall’), another Scot whose husband was ‘of a well-known Jewish family’. The Field-Marshall looked after the hens and occasionally ran up to town to see her daughter, Madame Blumenfeld, referred to by her mother and everyone else affectionately as ‘Brutal Behrens’. Plus a housekeeper, gardener and five dogs (‘one for each lady and one for the housekeeper’), plus eventual evacuees in the form of a young mother and infant.

This menage was a bedlam of yelling and barking and interminable discussion around Mrs M’s persistent and unreasoned attempts to sell the house from under the feet of the population she had assembled. But what Eliot heard was harmony: ‘When her voice sounds, in the distance, as if she had suddenly discovered that her fortune were ruined, it may often be that the gardener has not been plucking the cauliflower young enough.’ And if Mappie’s exchanges with the housekeeper sounded ‘as if they were at each other’s throats’, they were in fact having an amicable and affectionate conversation about the requirements of the pantry.

Muddle Hall, and its news from nowhere in time of war, released in Eliot a vein of gossip and backstory – the childhood world of ‘what the servants say’ conjured in ‘Animula’. Perhaps for the first time he experienced an ‘us’ with no hint of a ‘them’. He later wrote that Shamley felt like home, ‘the nearest I have had since I was a boy’, and it was his for the duration of war. The women were grateful for an intermittent man about the place, and otherwise took him for granted, for which Eliot was additionally grateful, and he entered into the spirit – at one point in 1941 teaching fire drill to the female staff, ‘putting an imaginary bomb in one place or another and then seeing how they will cope with it’. The letters could all be headed ‘Turmoil at Shamley’ or ‘All Agog’ or ‘A Quiet Weekend’, and they show his impromptu epistolary style operating at full tilt, for Hale’s benefit, in this case as a passionate preoccupation with local affairs. The Anglo-Scottish nest of gentlefolk in semi-exile gratified his interest in expatriation and closed communities and old ladies, and his taste for walk-on idiosyncrasy. The correspondence from these years is amply stocked with minor characters, as if they were a byproduct of the English war effort.

He conveyed the goings-on as if addressing whomever happened to be in the room reading the letter, sensing a lack of direct interest. After the war he spent Christmas of 1946 with the Mirrleeses; and after Mappie’s death in May 1948 he was inconsolable, though he forgot to mention the fact: ‘She was one of the most remarkable personalities I have ever known, temperamental to a degree (when she was young her ambition had been to go on the stage) but most lovable, kind and generous, and of the finest type of Scottish patrician … I am astonished if I did not write of this.’

Eliot spent a large part of the war in the Surrey garden pondering the words ‘dramatic’ and ‘temperament’– and in negotiating the reality of other people at closer quarters than he was used to. It was where he thawed, after the blockages of life in London. He was never so close to strangers, before or again. The pressing sense of other lives fed his interest in the stage, and the permanent question – in poetry or drama – of how to do the different voices. The Family Reunion appeared in 1939. Twenty years later, in an interview for the Paris Review, Eliot ventured that ‘the one good thing the war did was to prevent me from writing another play too soon.’ But throughout the war he was conscious of voices off, and ‘the courage of innumerable ordinary people’, and felt his existence to be coterminous.

He had hoped, since the early 1930s, that poetic drama would create a bond with Hale. It isn’t clear that this happened. The problems of playwriting were not to be solved collaboratively. In June 1933 he made a passing reference to Canadian poetry as lacking ‘the first poetic quality, which is knowing what models, at a particular time, should be imitated.’ Eliot the poet had always known where to look, but for poetic drama there were no models, and nothing to be borrowed or stolen from the contemporary stage. He tells Hale that writing plays is difficult, that dialogue is difficult, that working out a verse form as a plausible medium for contemporary people is difficult. The writing of a play seemed to invite long interruptions and protracted revision. ‘I have just completed my rewriting of Act III,’ or ‘I have rewritten all the dialogue.’ There is a lot in the letters about trying to work up plots, or about theatrical arrangements (will John Gielgud come through?), but little about nuts and bolts. Eliot on theatre in these letters sounds more like a visiting dignitary. Hale seems to have kept her counsel: bemused perhaps by his ambition to learn how to write plays by having them staged commercially, trading on his established reputation. But equally she might have asked: why did he want – as badly as Henry James – not so much to write plays as to succeed in writing plays?

The fragmentary Sweeney Agonistes, ‘a play that was never written’, is a road not taken. Published by Eliot in two parts in the Criterion in 1926-27, his expressionist chamber piece – half chanted, hovering between page and stage – figures in the letters because it appeared in volume form during his time in America, and its first performance was a student production at Vassar College in May 1933. Eliot attended, having advised on the production, suggesting that it should be ‘stylised as in the Noh drama’, with the figures wearing masks. He also remarked that he had written ‘the whole play to be accompanied by light drum-taps’, and wrote enthusiastically to Hale in March 1933 about a performance of Histoire du soldat, Stravinsky’s mixed-media work, as having just the drummer he needed for his own hybrid and violent entertainment.

If, as Emily assured him, Sweeney Agonistes wasn’t suitable for the stage, he held on to his sense that its personages were ‘sketches of possibly living people’, however hesitant the draughtsmanship. His conviction is in sharp contrast to the staple uncertainties surrounding the plays proper which followed. In February 1933 he writes: ‘I have a letter from an admirer in Yorkshire who is troubled by it, as it does not seem to him to be poetry; of course it isn’t poetry, but it will be when people get used to it.’ There is nothing hesitant about the atavistic self-sufficiency of the dialogue in the Sweeney fragments. As early as Murder in the Cathedral, on the other hand, he is wrestling with an anxiety that his characters merely sit and talk, and can’t act (so to speak), whereas his poetry had always known the ways in which speech is action and gesture.

The poems are his real dramas, and the letters to Emily talk around but can’t explain why his dramatic gift went into hiding when he turned to the stage – why even his gift for names deserted him. He tells her in December 1934 that ‘my chief interest in the world is in the people who live in it, rats and pigs as they may be, and in trying to write plays about them.’ But Eliot as critic knew more about the stage than Eliot the practitioner. In 1923, he watched the music hall performer Marie Lloyd impersonate a middle-aged charwoman. Lloyd knew ‘exactly how she would go through her bag in search of something; and exactly the tone of voice in which she would enumerate the objects she found in it’. For a moment we are somewhere Beckettian, and far from the taxidermy of Eliot’s poetic drama. In the same piece on Marie Lloyd he remarks on ‘that collaboration of the audience with the artist which is necessary in all art and most obviously in dramatic art’. It conjures an image of Eliot in the stalls, joining in the chorus. But perhaps he couldn’t settle into an identity that would make him at home in any audience, and couldn’t easily reach an audience when it came to writing explicitly for the stage.

The question​ of divorce lies across the correspondence, and was itself part of the fog of war. Eliot was received into the Anglican Church in 1927, aware that divorce from Vivien was henceforward an impossibility. He makes this clear in a series of letters between August 1931 and May 1945, having stated at the outset: ‘Now, of course, I belong to a church which does not recognise divorce in any circumstances or for any reason.’ When he separated from Vivien, on his return from America in June 1933, it was with no intention of seeking a divorce, the obstacles to which included his lay prominence: ‘I can say wholly without overestimating my importance that if I had a divorce it would be the greatest misfortune to the Anglican Church since Newman went over to Rome – and Gladstone called that a “catastrophe”,’ referring to one of the great crises of Victorian England, no less. But he was trying to suggest the strength of the taboo, which for him was all-determining: divorce was part of the Church’s opposition to the World, and to pursue it would be to cut himself off, in this life and the next.

Hale suggested at various points during the 1930s that Eliot had given her false hopes in this respect, and she continued to press the case after Vivien was committed to a private asylum in August 1938. A year later Eliot wrote in a state of distress: ‘I thought I had made clear that the Church does not recognise insanity as a ground for dissolution (and I must say that my own instinct of right and wrong confirms this attitude.)’ The confusions are endless and circular. On each recurrence it seems to him as if during the interim he has been acting under false pretences, or that it seems so to her: ‘I cannot help feeling that I am talking into the dark.’

In April 1945 she wrote a letter, a copy of which she inserted into one of the envelopes containing his letters, and which is therefore on file in the Princeton archive. She suggests that it is time to ‘realign relations’ after the chances of war: that she would like to give Eliot ‘suggestions of my bewilderment’, and to make clear that she will keep herself in readiness regardless, though she would like to know whether to stop doing so. He replies that the situation is unchanged, that she must decide whether to sacrifice other opportunities for ‘the shadow which is all I am in a position to give as a substitute for substance’. It is the last time either of them will raise the matter. ‘I can see nothing that would change it,’ he had replied in May, ‘except a complete loss of Christian faith.’ As always, when the divorce issue died down the communion issue revived, and Eliot wrote on 2 November 1946: ‘Do you not see that there is a flaw in our relationship, as long as I have to reflect, that if I were ever freed, by a death and able to marry, I should have to come to you with this same request again, because I could not feel that I would wish to marry anyone who could not agree to it?’ After which he says he needs a straight answer: yes or no. Hale promises to ask permission before she communes, and they agree not to discuss religious matters any further.

There was nothing to hope for, Eliot had said in 1945, ‘except a death, the thought of which I have considered sinful and to be put away from me with constant effort’. A lot of waiting had taken place: after her committal in 1938, Vivien sat out the war years in Northumberland House, Stoke Newington. Since their separation in 1933 Eliot in London had lived in a series of expiatory cell-like rooms, and Hale had moved between four separate establishments, as if they were all living parallel lives.

Two months after his ultimatum about communion, on 22 January 1947, Eliot wrote Hale a letter beginning: ‘Vivian died this morning. This was quite unexpected. At the moment I feel quite dazed.’ He spells her name ‘Vivian’, as nowhere else. Then, automatically: ‘I shall wear half mourning for six months,’ as if driven backwards by a wind into a prior bachelordom (‘I shall wear … I shall wear’). Half mourning is an etiquette that disappeared at the end of the First World War, and it belongs with the careful anachronisms of an earlier style. Pound would have written in the margin ‘[1880]’ as he did against the line ‘And if it rains, the closed carriage at four’ in The Waste Land manuscript.

Eliot recites a mantra, as if learned by rote: ‘There was normal affection until increasing dementia caused inevitable alienation and inevitable separation when co-habitation finally made my life impossible’ – as if there were any other version of events. His shock is manifest, throughout the series of trance-like letters during the following months, in which he tries to express the cumbersome thought that he must become the person who has yet to marry Vivien: in order that ‘I meet myself face to face, as a stranger.’ Eliot wrote in similar terms to others, including his former colleague Frank Morley: ‘The shock of looking at a rather unpleasant stranger, and finding that it is oneself in a mirror.’

He sends Hale a series of bulletins of his discoveries: ‘During those bitter 17 years, when I lived a life in some respects as solitary as if I had been alone on a desert island … I was never quite a whole man. Then in the 15 years that followed I had a kind of flowering’ – which has now proved equally illusory, another arrested development. On 14 February he writes: ‘When the coffin was finally settled in the grave, and I turned away, I felt – without emotion, in the usual sense – that a great deal that was myself was dead … as if I had been preserved in a mummified youth, and at that moment I became my chronological age.’

Eliot arranged to go to America in April, with a schedule of readings and lectures, honorary degrees from Harvard and Princeton, and meetings – or rather interviews – with Hale. He had already made it clear that he had recoiled violently from the prospect of marriage, that he couldn’t begin again, that marriage was for him an image of ‘complete isolation’. If Vivien’s life made divorce impossible, so too her death. When Eliot arrived in America his brother Henry was ill, from what Eliot persisted in believing was chronic depression; he notes without comment that one of the leukaemia doctors is called Stetson. Henry died on 5 May. In June 1943 Eliot had written to Hale: ‘When I think of the beautiful boy he was, and so much was expected of him … you know I can never bear to think of Henry without an ache of the heart. He was so much more handsome than I, too, though not so well built; and he has such charm.’ When Eliot thinks about his brother (‘Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you’), as he does with such mixed emotions, it is in part because Hale reminded him of Henry, whose death spelled the end of something as surely as the death of Vivien a few months earlier.

Irrespective​ of marriage, or whether the letters would be read by others, or whether Emily would make up her religious mind – issues which span the duration of the correspondence – Eliot’s ambitions for their letters were changeless. By the following January he was asking for dates, arrangements, plans to meet (‘I hope that nothing I have said, or failed to say, lately, has offended you’) – though this time business as usual would prove too much for Hale, who introduced the regime of a monthly letter. She had looked on differences of sect as a matter of form, where he insisted that ‘there is a point beyond which difference of form means difference of belief.’ The crux of his religious life was the act of worship rather than the state of belief. Partly because belief included doubt: ‘In this life, where doubt vanishes, faith vanishes too, and we live like animals, without discipline and without freedom,’ he had written to her in May 1937, to allay her fears about her own failures. But he resisted talk of fluctuating belief (‘One can overdo individual effort’), or of an inner voice and its promptings, just as he pushed back against her habits of self-accusation – arguing that the most important things are inaccessible to the separated individual.

By which he meant the life of the Church, whose imperatives of doctrine and liturgy transformed all contingency into pattern: ‘For days or weeks or months when one seems to oneself hardly more than an automaton, some development may be going on – indeed it may – of which one may be vouchsafed one moment of surprised awareness, before plunging under the surface again.’

In a sense, faith was an art of the surface, rather as he wrote of Tennyson’s In Memoriam that ‘by looking innocently at the surface we are most likely to come to the depths.’ In the heightened language of a ‘footnote letter’ to Hale, written at night and dated 14 February 1933: ‘Gradually we learn to live on two planes at once; we are in two worlds at once. This sense of the “doubleness” of appearances is what becomes most important to me in people I meet … I go into some households and feel: it is here.’ He had written elsewhere about doubleness, in his 1924 note on Chapman, where he reached (as so often) for the limit case of Dostoevsky, in whose novels there are everywhere two planes of reality: ‘The scene before our eyes is only the screen and veil of another action which is taking place behind it.’ In the same letter he continues: ‘I want (to take a symbol) to be perpetually washing dishes with you, or drying the dishes you wash, or vice versa. But there are rare moments when something else comes of itself.’

Routine (drying dishes) is analagous to ritual. Hence the embrace of regularity – regular letters, regular observance – that occasionally reveals another scene or action. Hence also his injunctions to Hale to tell him what she is looking at – in part because the reader of a letter is blind. Eliot’s terms – think of me as a doctor – are like those with which Freud instructs a notional patient: ‘Say everything that comes into your head. Behave like a traveller, for example, sitting in the window seat of a railway carriage and describing to a companion with an inside seat the changing view he is seeing.’ As with religious observance, there is a discipline involved: it takes a certain rigour to see what is there to be seen.

Eliot holds onto a sense that their letters gave sanctuary to forms of circumstantiality that have nowhere else to go. In March 1933 he went to Charleston prison, to visit an inmate called Peter Dyer:

I got finally into a large cage with steel bars like a flying aviary … like going out of life, into another life; you feel (this is me talking) that this is the centre of life for the people in it, and nothing outside is so real as what is inside; you have to readjust yourself … There are just as many people, he said in his strange inconsequent but continuous way, walking about the streets as much in prison as I am. That is very true, I said … One grows a shell, he said. Yes, I said, but the shell is stiff and makes sores on one’s skin underneath, and he seemed to agree to that. I shall think of that prison.

Such is the seamlessness that by the end of the paragraph the prisoner seems to walk free while Eliot stays behind. The former’s ‘strange inconsequent but continuous way’ is a path that Eliot was intent on taking. Rather as he wrote of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur in 1933 (‘My favourite book’, he told L.C. Knights): ‘The inconsequence of many episodes is important, a consistent inconsequence.’

Eliot agreed with Henry James that our knowledge of others arrives largely through occult channels. His sense that Dostoevsky’s characters ‘seem always to be listening for other voices and to be conducting a conversation with spectres’ applies to the letter as medium, and as medium-like. Kafka used eerily similar terms to Milena Jesenská in March 1922: ‘Writing letters is an intercourse with ghosts and by no means just with the ghost of the recipient but also with one’s own ghost, which develops between the lines of the letter one is writing – and even more so in a correspondence where one letter corroborates another.’ Thus the seance-like aspect of letter writing, as occurring inside but also to one side of the everyday, and the Aspern-like, radioactive materiality of the letters themselves, persisting beyond the grave. When Eliot in his ‘statement’ of 1960 refers to the love of a ghost for a ghost, and to his past self as ‘an hallucinated man’, he stands accused of his own candour, but he is also describing rather than denying a reality. It is a register that pervades the correspondence – whether his nine days in Paris in 1945, when he felt like ‘a returning ghost, or that I had come to a city of ghosts’, or after Vivien’s death in January 1947, when the prospect of returning to America would be ‘as if I was meeting you, and my family, for the first time: I hope I shall not feel a ghost, a temporary visitant from another world.’

Ghosts are part of Eliot’s epistolary daytime with Hale, which is why he hungered for photographs as much as for letters: documents about absence that are themselves presences. He has nothing to say ‘about’ photography, because his interest in photographs was Victorian: as evidences both dead and alive. As the end of his time in America approached, in June 1933, his demand for images of Emily became more urgent: a photograph was a date-stamped emotion, and if the feeling was finished he would know by its goodbye look.

Eliot’s dismay over Henry’s archivism was a dry run for his dismay over Hale’s gift to Princeton. He felt that Henry preferred his reputation to what he wrote, as Hale did: ‘What she liked was my reputation rather than my work.’ In one of his last letters to her he asks: ‘But what do you mean by saying that long ago I made you feel the necessity of regarding me as a Public Figure?’ He often returns to the topic of his indefatigable bibliographer Donald Gallup, who is fused with Henry in his mind: Gallup’s labours are full of pathos – ‘a poor young man who ought not to be spending his money on first editions and letters etc’ – just as Henry’s activities are ‘absurdly poignant’. Eliot’s hostility is also a drama of sympathy, as if he too was once possessed by the daimon of the collector: Henry’s collection, which became the basis of the Houghton Library’s Eliot holdings, is variously described as ‘collecting butterflies or stamps’, or like ‘glass flowers’; and Gallup’s exemplary interest is ‘creepy’, a worship of ‘fetishes’, ‘old pipes, old shirts, odd buttons’.

At his harshest, he refers to Henry as ‘consoling himself for his disappointments in life by becoming his brother’s curator’ – an uneasy formula, of course, as who should say: ‘Am I my brother’s curator?’ A curator is a keeper who is close to being a killer, who would take another’s life. Which is how Henry Adams had described the evils of biography, telling Henry James in May 1908 that The Education of Henry Adams was ‘a mere shield of protection in the grave. I advise you to take your own life in the same way, in order to prevent biographers from taking it in theirs.’ Autobiography is a suicide intended to prevent a murder. Eliot felt that he had already taken his own life – in his poetry – and he objected to others doing so. ‘We have existed,/Which is not be found in our obituaries.’

Emily’s gift to Princeton was, however obscurely, a theft. It fed into Eliot’s vivid sense of transgression and his gothic horror at the penetrability of all privacies – which in turn was borrowed if not stolen from Henry James. The narrator of The AspernPapers, in search of material relating to a long-dead American poet, tries by subterfuge to obtain a box of letters from the poet’s aged mistress, by renting rooms under false pretences in her decayed Venetian palazzo. One night she finds him ransacking her desk, confronts him – ‘Ah, you publishing scoundrel!’ – and soon afterwards dies from the strain. Her niece burns the papers to prevent their publication. Eliot leans on James throughout the letters to Hale, always with a queer emphasis (‘queer’ being the pregnant and ushering term of insight for both writers). He asks her why she has a set of James’s works: ‘Is the reason because you like him, or any other?’ And in March 1933: ‘The Aspern Papers: that is a good story!’ It is ‘his’ story, he implies – ‘I was fascinated by it long before that’ – but he senses that it is theirs too.

In Eliot’s adaptation – ‘The Aspern Papers in reverse’, as he referred to the Hale deposit in his ‘statement’ of 1960 – he has a composite role: the dead author in the affair, but also the expatriated Misses Bordereau in Venice, who ‘used to be’ American. The ‘scoundrel’ is played by Hale (herself a composite figure, with elements of Gallup and Henry Eliot), bent on broadcasting the Eliot papers by handing them over to Princeton Library. ‘In reverse’ is unclear: in James the papers are destroyed, and in Eliot’s case they are preserved; both stories involve a marriage refused. (Had Eliot married Hale in 1947 he would have come into possession of the bulk of his letters to her, with predictable results.) In March 1933 the thought of teaching The Aspern Papers led naturally to other kinds of theft, involving the ownership of experiences. Even in retrospect Eliot had anxieties about not growing up, and failing to acquire experience: ‘I cannot conceive of anyone growing up more slowly and painfully than I,’ he tells Hale. These translated into his earlier and starker critical positions: the suggestion that experience can just as well be borrowed or stolen (‘Emotions which he has never experienced will serve his turn as well as those familiar to him’). Just as there are bad gifts (the Princeton donation), there are good thefts – he described Baudelaire approvingly as ‘borrowing generously’ from other poets. One of the remarkable things about the Hale letters is the way they show his more notorious opinions in more nuanced form, his thinking undressed.

Eliots formal critical prose states a series of already transformed positions in a language whose scruple is inseparable from its extremity. In March 1933, a few weeks after his Yale lecture, he wrote: ‘Sometimes I have thought of keeping a notebook; but I can’t come to the point of putting things down just for myself, or solemnly for posterity.’ The letters to Hale are less of a one-stop shop for a new view of Eliot than has been suggested. They contain many paradoxes but few secrets – despite the monumentality of the haul, and the extent of time it covers. In a sense, they change nothing, nor are they a key to his poetry. When Eliot adverts to the poetry it is to bring in reinforcements, or because he is not being reminded of it by anything in their epistolary life. There is no sense of collaboration, of whatever kind, and Hale seems not to have responded to a line of Eliot’s poetry, except to ask why his poems are not ‘sunnier’ (in 1941) or why they seem so expressive of ‘futility’ (in 1945). From early on he was aware of the limits to her interest, or approval, whether of his poetry, prose or drama – and he was relieved about it, if on occasion sensitive.

When, at the start of their correspondence, nearly a decade after The Waste Land, he asks her to reread the hyacinth lines, or refers to ‘your poem, Burnt Norton’, he is paying a tribute rather than identifying a source. Were she a source, the poem wouldn’t know it. He reads Hale back into much of his poetry, and could read his poetry back into his life, but the life was never ‘translatable’. (In one of his formidably strange caveats, ‘I do not say that poetry is not “autobiographical”: but this autobiography is written by a foreign man in a foreign tongue, which can never be translated.’) Again, the assumption is that letters are more revealing than other kinds of prose. But there is no graduated access to Eliot, no outer and inner circle. He writes more intimately to acquaintances than to intimates. Any page of his prose written for publication is more nakedly revealing or harrowing than the bulk of his personal correspondence, and what he wrote of Stendhal in 1919 is a self-portrait of sorts: ‘Stendhal’s scenes, some of them, and some of his phrases, read like cutting one’s own throat; they are a terrible humiliation to read, in the understanding of human feelings and human illusions of feeling that they force upon the reader.’

Insofar as they document his ordinary life, what the Hale letters confirm is the extremity of the terms on which he lived with himself. They are another stage, a detour in language. That the correspondence was confidential mattered more to Eliot than the reasons for its being so. He gave up early on trying to communicate his thoughts about work in progress, but his habits of mind are present throughout, in language as formally dressed as it needed to be for his purposes, an idiom for which he was devising the conventions as he went along. In this respect the letters are continuous with his instinct, in the prose especially, not to arrest whatever affects him powerfully, but to note its passage for next time. The letters allowed him to record the impasses of perception (‘And I waked in the middle of the night in that queer wideawakeness which is not like being awake in the daytime’) or the otherwise unusable evidences (‘that vague tension and expectation which is so characteristic of a French crowd’), as part and parcel of what he called his maunderings. For all of which Hale was the final destination as well as the address.

There can be no end of asking: what did she make of it all – though we have his painstaking and often pained attempts to parse her meanings. One of the many frames of the correspondence is his periodic summary of their story so far, itself part of the looking-glass temporality he created for them to inhabit. As early as April 1933 he was offering this retrospect: ‘Our relations have certainly been peculiar; but however they may be misunderstood by others (at least until we have both been dead for fifty years) and the Bodleian gives up its dead …’ At this stage he planned to include her letters with his Bodleian papers, as containing a truth that his letters could not tell.

Whenever he speaks for both of them, as he often does, it is with an acknowledgment that he has no right to do so: ‘The fear that I have interfered in your life far more than I was aware of or had any right to do, has always haunted me.’ He counts carefully the cost of her knowing him: her loss of the early clarities about herself, her wanderings, her servitude in her various teaching establishments, her furniture-less condition, her general impoverishment and even loss of caste. His supervision of her ruin is exact, because it is an aspect of their ruin, and of the undifferentiation of experience, in which he mysteriously believed. It is his way of saying that he is not the cause, but more importantly the witness.

In a letter of February 1949, two years after Vivien’s death, in response to what was perhaps a further and final note of inquiry, he refers to not knowing how ‘I got to be what I am,’ and adds: ‘I only know, my dear, that you mean a very great deal to me – there has been no other woman in my life at all; that I always long to be in touch with you, and that any long silence between us makes me unhappy; and that your unhappiness is mine.’ It was as good as any of his summaries, of their cold pastoral and its eternity, of a life lived through letters whose subject was an unlived life.

Quotations from T.S. Eliot’s letters by permission of the T.S. Eliot estate. The letters to Emily Hale, to be edited by John Haffenden, will be available to read in full at tseliot.com from spring 2022.

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