Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Letters of T S Eliot Volume 2 1923-1925 - ed by Valerie Eliot & Hugh Haughton

I’ve been waiting for the publication of Volume 2 of T S Eliot’s letters for 20 years. That’s how long ago Volume 1 was published. As this Volume only covers three years, 1923-1925, & is over 800pp long, I don’t know if I’ll be around to see the end of the project. I’d like to think I’ll see at least a couple more Volumes though. I love reading letters. It took me a few weeks to be in the right mood to pick this book up but, once I did, I couldn’t stop reading. Several times I read 100pp in a sitting. My neck & wrists would be sore & I’d think I would have to stop. Then, I’d see that the next letter was to Virginia Woolf & the next one to Ottoline Morrell & I’d read just a few more pages. I don’t want to deceive you that the book is full of the Bloomsbury Group. Eliot was only on the fringes of the group &, apart from the Woolfs & Lady Ottoline, the only other Bloomsbury correspondent is Mary Hutchinson, Clive Bell’s mistress.

Most of the letters are concerned with Eliot’s involvement with the Criterion literary quarterly. In the three years covered by this volume, Eliot was working full-time at Lloyd’s Bank & editing the Criterion in the evenings & weekends. The Criterion was bankrolled by Lady Rothermere, wife of a newspaper baron. It was a vanity project for her, really, but she didn’t interfere in the editorial decisions & Eliot shaped the quarterly to reflect his own ideas about art, literature & criticism. Unfortunately Eliot received no salary for his work so he was forced to stay at Lloyds, a decision that had a detrimental effect on his health & his own writing. He wrote virtually no poetry during this period, apart from the sequence that became The Hollow Men. He also began work on his play, Sweeney Agonistes. Apart from this, all his writing was criticism & editorials for the Criterion.

Literary connections are always uncertain. I am no longer very popular with the Nation people, because my political and social views are so reactionary and ultra-conservative. They have become gradually more so and I am losing the approval of the moderate and tepid whigs and Liberals who have most of the literary power. It is less offensive to be a Socialist nowadays than it is to be a Tory. I want to be able to say just what I think. But if I stay in the bank I shall never have time to say what I think. There is so much I want to do.  (To his Mother late February? 1924)

The hundreds of letters to the printer, publisher & contributors of the Criterion are fascinating. Eliot did all the work of chasing contributions, organising review copies, cajoling reluctant or slow writers to meet his deadlines, hurrying up the printers & making decisions about the font size of reviews as opposed to feature articles. His reach was enormous. He was soliciting articles from writers all over Europe & the US. He was always striving for that balance between serious articles & a famous name to put on the cover to attract readers. All this work was done with only occasional secretarial help in his own time.

The other major theme of the letters is his marriage & his wife, Vivien’s, ill-health. The Eliots were married in 1915 & Vivien’s health had been precarious from the start. She comes close to death several times during these three years, suffering from influenza, bronchitis, colitis, liver problems & rheumatism. The financial burden is just as great as the emotional strain as Eliot takes Vivien to see endless new doctors & tries to find a country cottage so she can live away from the fogs of London. He wrote to Virginia Woolf asking her to be on the lookout for something suitable,

I don’t know whether you are in London. I hope at Rodmell. Now what we want – again!- is a cottage, a barn, a stable, or a shed, or even a bit of land on which a sectional bungalow could be put up – it doesn’t matter what, so long as it is in the country, and is cheap. Ever since we have been without even that miserable place at Fishbourne we have pined more and more. It’s the only way to get out of London – however miserable, we want something of our own. So if you hear of anything, or can find anything...We only want to go and live in the country, and if Lady R. would only provide a possible salary – which is not to be hoped – we should go at once. (To Virginia Woolf February 4th 1925)

By mid 1925, Eliot’s own health had broken down & he was on the verge of a breakdown. He blamed himself for Vivien’s ill-health but also felt trapped by it,

In the last ten years – gradually, but deliberately – I have made myself into a machine. I have done it deliberately – in order to endure, in order not to feel – but it has killed V. In leaving the bank I hope to become less a machine – but yet I am frightened – because I don’t know what it will do to me – and to V – should I come alive again. I have deliberately killed my senses – I have deliberately died – in order to go on with the outward form of living – This I did in 1915. What will happen if I live again? ‘I am I’ but with what feelings, with what results to others – Have I the right to be I – But the dilemma – to kill another person by being dead, or to kill them by being alive? ... Does it happen that two persons’ lives are absolutely hostile? Is it true that sometimes one can only live by another’s dying? (To John Middleton Murry mid-April? 1925)

Fortunately, by the end of 1925, Eliot’s financial worries had eased. He was able to leave Lloyds when he was offered a position as editor of a new literary quarterly to be called the New Criterion. It was to be published by a new house, Faber & Gwyer (later Faber & Faber), with whom Eliot would be associated for the rest of his life. There’s a photo of Eliot in the book, taken at around this time. He’s standing outside the offices of Faber & Gwyer, still looking like a banker, in his bowler hat, leaning on his umbrella. He looks pale, thin & weary but happy. I’m looking forward to the next Volume of letters to find out what happens next. I hope I don't have to wait another twenty years!


  1. Oh dear. I am going to have to get hold of a copy of this and the previous volume. Like you, I love letters - letters and journals. Periodically I re-read Virginia Woolf's letters and journals at the same time, one month at a time to get the contrast between what she was saying to others and then the 'real' version that she put in her diary. These would fill in another side of some of her stories.

  2. Annie, as I said, there's not a lot about the Bloomsberries but the Woolfs do feature quite a bit with their publishing hats on. Virginia was prone to make some pretty acid comments about TSE in her diaries so it's good to see Tom's side.