Valerie & T.S. Eliot

An interesting character sketch and story. One that brings both people to life in a clear, crisp way.


Valerie Eliot

B. 1926  |  By SAM ANDERSON

Valerie and T. S. Eliot in 1957. (Angus McBean, from Houghton Library, Harvard University)

SURELY SOMETHING HAS GONE WRONG WITH TIME. How else to explain that T. S. Eliot’s second wife, Valerie, has just died? Eliot was born in the 1880s, rose to fame in the 1920s, stopped writing poetry (more or less) in the 1940s and died an old man in the 1960s. He and his peers — Ezra Pound, Conrad Aiken, Wallace Stevens — survive mainly in anthologies, where they patrol the borders of the vast, arid Holy Land called Modernism. So how is it possible that a person who knew Eliot intimately in his life, who sat with him through long evenings playing Scrabble and eating cheese, died in 2012?

The easiest way to explain it is with one of the culture’s oldest stories: a powerful old man married his beautiful young secretary. This is, factually, what happened. Valerie Fletcher, on their wedding day, was 30. Eliot was 68. But T. S. Eliot made a career of teaching us to look more deeply at old stories, to notice that they are stranger and more complex than we often allow ourselves to think.

Valerie Eliot was — and this is saying something — possibly her husband’s biggest fan. The turning point in her life came at age 14, when she heard an audio recording of “The Journey of the Magi,” a poem in which Eliot imagines the trip to see the baby Jesus as it might actually have been: long, hard and plagued by a gnawing sense of doubt. Valerie set off on a quest of her own to meet and work with the master. It took her eight years. She moved from Yorkshire to London, worked at a library, then as a secretary for the novelist Charles Morgan — and then, in 1950, tipped off by a family friend who knew Eliot, she managed to get hired as his secretary at Faber & Faber.

She did not, as we might expect from various TV series, immediately make a romantic move. Instead, she was an efficient secretary and a devoted archivist, but, like Eliot himself, emotionally distant. After five years, Eliot complained about his mysterious young employee to a woman who had proposed to him, unsuccessfully, twice: “I can’t get to know her at all, she shuts up like a clam.” To everyone’s surprise, they were married, secretly, two years later.

Eliot was a difficult man: withdrawn, hypochondriacal, prone to sudden rages, ascetic, shy, depressive, disdainful, fragile and evasive. By the time Valerie got to him, he was not only a hypochondriac but genuinely ill. There was a lesion in his heart, he walked with a cane and suffered from emphysema. (“By the winter of 1959/60,” the biographer Lyndall Gordon writes, “he told Pound that he had to put most of his energy into breathing.”) On their honeymoon in France, Eliot got the flu and cracked a tooth.

And yet, in this new life with Valerie, T. S. Eliot became an impossible thing: happy. He had always depended on other people to mediate between him and the outside world: mentors, patrons, roommates, friends. Valerie Eliot became the one person in which all the essential roles combined. They held hands in public. They read to each other. They danced. “This last part of my life,” Eliot wrote, “is the best, in excess of anything I could have deserved.”

Valerie Eliot was married to T. S. Eliot for less than eight years; she was a widow for nearly 50. In that time, she lived intimately with Eliot’s work, guarding it and advancing it and — controversially — licensing it to Andrew Lloyd Webber for “Cats.” (She used the profits to found a charity.) She published a facsimile of the manuscript of “The Waste Land,” to which she added a long and meticulous introduction. She vexed scholars by denying permission to quote his poems, making biography difficult. This strikes me, however, as an appropriate extension of the life and priorities of her husband. Like him, she was serious about the idea that tradition is something to be actively constructed and curated, not just passively handed down. She became a living exemplar of his belief that emotion can be expressed more powerfully through privacy and scrupulous duty than through fits of public gushing.

Even the odd time signature of Valerie Eliot’s life feels appropriate. Eliot was the poet of memory and time, which he constantly collapsed and stretched. His final great poem, “The Four Quartets,” begins: “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future,/And time future contained in time past.” Valerie Eliot spent many decades inhabiting all those different times at once.

Sam Anderson is the magazine’s critic at large.

From The New York Times Magazine:



2 Replies to “Valerie & T.S. Eliot”

  1. It’s odd thinking about how one person’s life can overlap what seems like two very different eras. That should be easy to see since parents fill that same space between grandparents and grandchildren. Somehow it seems different and more vivid here.

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