“Radiantly Happy” and Filled with “Regret”: The Letters of Valerie and T.S. Eliot

We are pleased to announce that we recently acquired the letters of T.S. Eliot and Valerie (Fletcher) Eliot to their mutual friends, Collin and Lillian Brooks. These letters have been added to the T.S. Eliot Collection and are available for research.

by Ida Kar, vintage bromide print, 1956

T.S. Eliot and his second wife, Valerie Eliot. Photo by Ida Kar, vintage bromide print, 1956

During his prime, T.S. Eliot enjoyed unmatched notoriety and influence within the Anglo-American literary community. His poems “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “The Hollow Men,” “Ash Wednesday,” The Waste Land, and Four Quartets are among the most renowned in the English language. In 1948, he was awarded the Nobel Prize “for his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry.” Through his work with publishing firm Faber and Faber, he championed the writing of many prominent English poets, including W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Ted Hughes.

Faber and Faber served as the facilitator for some of Eliot’s most important literary connections and for his remarkable relationship with Valerie Fletcher. Fletcher joined the firm as Eliot’s secretary in 1949, compelled by her adoration for his poem “The Journey of the Magi.” In a 1972 interview with The Observer, she reported, “I felt I just had to get to Tom, to work with him.” Fletcher’s adoration was returned by Eliot, who proposed marriage to her in 1956.

It was an unusual courtship in many respects. For one, Eliot was Fletcher’s senior by nearly 38 years. For another, it was preceded by his tumultuous marriage with Vivienne Haigh-Wood, much of which was spent coldly dodging her attentions (whenever Haigh-Wood called for him at Faber and Faber, his associates were instructed to communicate that he was “out,” as he made his escape through the back door). The couple struggled mutually with poor physical and psychological health, and as a result, Haigh-Wood was committed to a private mental hospital in Finsbury Park. Haigh-Wood passed away within the hospital in 1947.

After the trauma of his first marriage, it would have been understandable for the already emotionally reticent Eliot to deepen his reserve; however, his relationship with Fletcher appeared to summon a rare joy and tenderness in Eliot. His 1944-1959 letters to his friends Collin and Lillian Brooks exude uncharacteristic displays of feeling in the glow of his newfound romance–a relationship that Collin helped initiate by arranging for Eliot to sign one of Eliot’s books for Fletcher, and by telling Fletcher of the secretarial opening at Faber.

In a letter to Collin written on New Year’s Eve, 1956, Eliot mentions his relationship with Fletcher, expressing that he is “radiantly happy and at the same time overwhelmed by the thought of my new responsibility for another’s happiness.”

MSS153_Series 1_Item3_19561231

T.S. Eliot’s letter to Collin Brooks, 1956

Although it is not immediately evident in the letter, Eliot’s mention of “having to leave at such a terribly early hour” refers to his secret marriage plans with Valerie. In a January 4, 1957, letter to Collin’s wife, Lillian, Fletcher also communicates the clandestine nature of their soon-to-be marriage: “As you know, we are getting married on the 10th at–of all times–6:15 a.m.” Fearing the arousal of public attention, Eliot arranged for the wedding to take place in great secrecy, refusing to share the news with many of his closest friends and causing some confusion among scholars ever since.

MSS153_Series1_Item7_noyear0104

Valerie Fletcher’s letter to Lillian Brooks, 1957

A later letter from Fletcher to Lillian demonstrates a sly act of absentee caregiving to the ill and melancholic Eliot. Unbeknownst to her husband, she asks the two friends if they would consider inviting Tom over for a cup of tea at a time when she will be away, as “he is very fond of you and Collin and would, I know, enjoy a chat with you both.” She also elaborates, revealingly, that “left to himself he may give way to depression.”

MSS153_Series1_Item6_nodate

Another letter from Valerie Fletcher to Lillian Brooks (undated)

In a moving letter to Lillian Brooks following the death of Collin, Eliot’s raw emotions are laid bare. Eliot writes particularly of the role Collin played in facilitating their private marriage: “He is one of a very few men of whom I shall always think with regret, that I did not get to know them sooner and more intimately.”

MSS153_Series1_Item5a_19590409

First page of T.S. Eliot’s letter to Lillian Brooks, 1959

_

 

 

With the exception of the title image, all photos were taken from the MLC’s T.S. Eliot Papers.

McCrum, R. (2009, May 29). Revealed: The remarkable tale of TS Eliot’s late love affair. Retrieved May 6, 2016, from http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2009/may/24/ts-eliot-valerie-fletcher-scrapbooks

About the author

Meghan Lamb currently lives with her husband in St. Louis, where she is a fiction MFA candidate with the Washington University Writing Program and a Graduate Assistant with the Modern Literature Collection. She is the author of Silk Flowers (Birds of Lace) and Sacramento (Solar Luxuriance).