T.S. Eliot’s crisis year: exhaustion, hair loss and a wrecked marriage

Eliot’s extensive American tour in 1932–33 came close to being sabotaged when his wife locked up his lecture notes on the eve of his departure

12 March 2016

9:00 AM

12 March 2016

9:00 AM

The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 6, 1932–1933 T.S. Eliot, edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden

Faber, pp.896, £50, ISBN: 9780571316342

F.R. Leavis once denounced the Twickenham edition of Pope’s Dunciad for producing a meagre trickle of text through a desert of apparatus, the trickle sometimes disappearing altogether. In this volume of T. S. Eliot’s letters, from 1932–1933, the footnotes, the infantry and the grunts, are the stars — shooting stars, flares with flair, illuminating apparently unpromising basic materials.

For example, this is a letter to Auden in April 1932 in all its Spartan amplitude:

Dear Auden, The modifications of the few passages which I discussed with you the other day have been agreed upon. As for the preface I felt myself from the beginning that it was not really desirable and I find my own opinion confirmed by two other directors who feel as I do that there is no need to apologise for obscurity. I hope to send you a copy of page proof before long. Yours ever, T S Eliot.

About as enlivening as an epidural.

John Haffenden’s footnote, in summary, tells us that, in 1965, Auden remembered ‘[he] had used [in “The Orators”] the phrase “A fucked hen”. In 1932, publishers still boggled at four-letter words and a substitute had to be found.’ Eliot suggested ‘A June bride’. Auden was initially baffled that this should be thought to be equivalent. Eliot explained that in an election, the defeated candidate, asked about the voting figures, said he felt like a June bride: ‘sore but satisfied’. The victor was also asked how he felt about the voting figures: ‘Like a June bride,’ he returned, ‘I knew it would be big, but I didn’t think it would be that big.’ In 1965, this anecdote was suppressed to spare Valerie Eliot’s feelings. But Humphrey Carpenter retailed it in his 1981 biography of Auden and the robust Mrs Eliot wrote to him: ‘The anecdote about TSE and the June bride is delicious!’

This is of a piece with the limerick quoted and/or composed by Eliot in a letter
(26 December 1932) to Frank Morley, his Faber colleague: ‘There was a young lady named Ransome/ Who surrendered five times in a hansom,/ When she said to her swain / He must do it again/ He replied: “My name’s Simpson, not Samson”.’ According to Harvard students, Eliot was an aficionado of limericks, hammered out at the piano, and thought often to be his own work. On 28 January 1932, Eliot mildly complains to Leavis that his ‘use of quotation seems to clothe me in the most orthodox solemnity’. The process has continued. But here we see an Eliot capable of reporting that he was introduced at his old undergraduate Harvard club thus: ‘Tom Eliot is a member we are all proud of, but I want to say that he is really just a good old fart like the rest of us.’

At Harvard, Eliot gave the Charles Eliot Norton lectures, a performance he disparages regularly with apparent sincerity when he comes to prepare the text for publication. The lectures were part of a fearsome schedule. He also gave three Page-Barbour lectures at the University of Virginia. Not to mention the Turnbull lectures at Johns Hopkins, and lectures in Los Angeles, Chicago, St Louis, St Paul, Ann Arbor, Buffalo, Washington and Yale. He needed to be ‘mercenary’ because he was in debt to the ‘Inland Revenue Commissioners in Somerset House’. In his audiences were William Burroughs, Elizabeth Bishop and Mary McCarthy. He was under enormous strain: Richard Eberhart reported that Eliot ‘had a Renoir on his wall and a cold sore on his lip’. Eliot calculated that he had spoken in public ‘between 70 or 80 times’ in the USA. This is what Virginia Woolf stigmatised as ‘the heavy stone of his self-esteem’.

In fact, a more rounded, more human, more convincing Eliot emerges from these letters, helped by the editors’ willingness to quote freely from subsequent and earlier material. They are not slaves to chronology. We hear about Eliot’s terror of cows. We see him baking bread: he ‘insisted on a photograph of himself holding it well forward to make it appear bigger’. (Just for a second, an innuendo worthy of Joe Orton.) We observe him at the wheel of a ‘microscopic car’ and flinch away from Vivienne Eliot’s unpredictable driving. At Barnard College, he makes five records of himself reading his poems: ‘Well I never heard such a voice; if that’s my voice, well it is rich and fruity.’ He proudly sends copies to his friends. They have to be played with a wooden or thorn needle. Mary Hutchinson reports that ‘the voice gets stopped and there are continuous repetitions’. Eliot recommends the steel needle, previously forbidden. He does Sandow exercises like Leopold Bloom in Ulysses.

Then there is his hair: ‘I am going Bald (having an ancestor named Charles the Bald) but not reasonably like you [Geoffrey Faber]; in Spots – a Spot the size of a Butter Dish behind my right ear.’ His hairdresser recommends a lotion but warns that the hair may grow back white. It was still a worry when Eliot returned to Southampton: on docking, he was complaining (to Morley’s surprise, given his other marital problems) that his hair was thinning. To Ezra Pound Eliot quavers: ‘My Hair started coming off of one side just before I left for America; that’s over a year ago and I don’t know there is a good wiggmaker in Rappalo [sic].’

The hair loss — disconcertingly prolonged but temporary — was probably caused by Vivienne Eliot’s erratic behaviour and cured by Eliot’s decision to separate permanently from his wife after his long American trip. In this volume (which helpfully contains a sprinkling of Vivienne’s letters), the marital situation is ‘the weasel under the cocktail cabinet’ — Harold Pinter’s memorable epitome of his plays. Vivienne is unsparingly portrayed by every friend and acquaintance, who excel themselves in competitive vividness. Eliot is consistently and repeatedly anxious that their mutual friends should continue to see Vivienne — in lieu of his own (perfectly correct) strategy of avoiding her and her hopes of reconciliation.

In Virginia Woolf’s several accounts, Vivienne is there with her powdered spots, reeking of meths or ether, dressing in white satin in wild, wet weather, reportedly carrying a carving knife to assault Woolf and Ottoline Morrell as suspected mistresses. The latter describes Vivienne’s paranoid response to things as banal as cake. Her behaviour is profoundly unreliable: she almost sabotages Eliot’s departure for America by leaving his suitcase, with his papers and lecture notes, locked in the bathroom. A boy has to be introduced through the bathroom window to retrieve it.

Her letters are hectic, underlined, explosive with italics, desperate, querulous, imperious, as repetitive as someone triple-tying a shoelace, incoherent and pathetic. There are quadruple exclamation marks like rows of beer pumps, ‘Mr Eliot is playing the Wireless & driving me MAD.’ ‘Now I must stop [writing], or I shall be killed by the neighbours. With much love to you both.’ And here she is given the last word: ‘All I want is my own husband, & to be able to look after him and take care of him again…’ It wasn’t to be.

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