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Goodnight Mrs Tom

Ronald Schuchard

Filed under: Poetry

T.S. Eliot’s widow Valerie was a formidable keeper of the flame – but she also had a softer side, as Ronald Schuchard discovered

At the end of a day of research in Mrs Eliot’s flat in Kensington, as I prepared to return to America, I was told by her care-givers that I might not see her again. Thankfully, I was given the opportunity to sit at her bedside for a few minutes and, in paying my last respects, tell her how much her friendship and generosity had meant to me over the past 38 years.

‘I hear you would like to see me in connection with your work,’ she wrote in December 1974, after receiving a letter of introduction from Dame Helen Gardner. ‘May I suggest drinks here at 6 o’clock on Thursday?’ She opened the door in a glowing green silk dress with a smile and extended hand. In the drawing-room I felt that I had time-travelled to a literary salon earlier in the century, surrounded as we were by photographs of Eliot with Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis and Virginia Woolf, portraits by Angus McBean and Gerald Kelly, the Epstein bust and shelves of Eliot’s books. ‘I hear you’re originally from Texas,’ she began. ‘Tom and I visited the University of Texas in 1958, and he came back with a Stetson hat and a love of this Old Grand-Dad bourbon – drink up,’ she said, pouring me a glassful.

After a few sips, canapés and polite conversation, she turned up the tempo. With the facsimile edition of The Waste Land (1971) behind her and work on the letters underway, she was at the top of her scholarly game and ready to test a young would-be Eliot scholar. What ensued can only be described as a spirited doctoral viva: what libraries had I visited, and what discovered? What books had I liked and disliked, and why? What scholars did I admire or not, and why? She praised me for unearthing the syllabuses of Eliot’s Extension lectures, then scolded me for printing them without requesting her permission; she spontaneously pulled from a shelf Eliot’s copy of Sorel’s Reflections on Violence, with T. E. Hulme’s introduction, to let me see inscribed evidence for my recently published argument that Eliot knew Hulme’s work in 1916: ‘May 1916…This was my first introduction to the work of Hulme.’ The bourbon was topped up as the probing questions, corrective comments and freely expressed opinions moved toward the overwhelming question: what did I want?

I wanted her permission to read Eliot’s 1926 Clark Lectures on metaphysical poetry in the King’s College library, Cambridge. Eliot had planned to revise and publish them as The School of Donne, but later abandoned the project and refused requests to quote from them. ‘You may read them,’ she said after a long pause, ‘but you may not quote from them, and do not ask my permission to do so later. I will send a note to Tim Munby.’ Thrilled by this privilege, I dared not overstay my welcome and took my leave, but I sat on the dimly lighted steps outside the flat for an hour, writing hurriedly my memory of our talk, lest in the glow of Old Grand-Dad I forget a single moment of it next morning.

For several days I sat mesmerised in a corner of the Old Library, reading and taking treasured notes on the eight Clark Lectures, delivered weekly at Trinity College from January to March 1926, a year before his conversion. Much of Eliot’s thought on metaphysical poetry from Dante to Donne for the previous fifteen years went into them, and much of his thought in the following fifteen years came out of them. Afterwards I wrote Mrs Eliot a long letter, thanking her for allowing me to read them and giving my view of their importance and potential impact on Eliot studies. I was soon given ‘read only’ permission to see Eliot’s redaction of the Clark Lectures into the Turnbull Lectures for Johns Hopkins University in 1933. In the following years I occasionally sent photocopies of letters and other fugitive items unearthed, but we had no meetings. Then, one day in October 1987, thirteen years later, I found in my pigeonhole at Emory an astonishing airmail letter: ‘Dear Professor Schuchard, I remember that in 1975 you wrote me a thoughtful letter after reading my husband’s Clark Lectures…I am now writing to ask if you would like to edit the Clark and Turnbull Lectures…If you are willing and able to undertake this task I should like it done as soon as conveniently possible.’

From this life-changing day until the two sets of lectures were edited and published as The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry (Faber, 1993), Valerie provided every assistance by sending correspondence related to the lectures, identifying in Eliot’s library the editions used and fielding a barrage of queries that only her archives or personal knowledge could answer. Every summer we sat down to discuss our mutual vision of the edition, the annotation of its highly referential material, and the resolution of problems and obstacles. She was to me an honorary co-editor essential to seeing the edition to publication. Until we both thought it was ready, no one at Faber & Faber saw the typescript. We both knew that there was, at the time, some resistance in the firm to academic, scholarly editions, particularly of Eliot’s work, and I was thus uneasy when we went before a group of editors and directors to discuss the completed volume. As I fielded questions and complaints about the fullness of annotation, I felt that I was out on a limb, alone, until Valerie graciously but firmly intervened: ‘Gentlemen, I’m surprised at these questions. Of course, we’re going to have an annotated edition, just as it is.’ One of the interrogators came to me afterwards, saying, ‘I hope we didn’t annoy you with our queries. We had to test Mrs Eliot’s commitment to the edition. She’s the trigger, you know.’ ‘More than that,’ I replied, ‘she’s the gun.’

Obituaries have invariably described Valerie’s life mainly in terms of Eliot’s, but in the years after his death she created and led an extraordinary life of her own as an editor, as a director and sustaining supporter of the Faber firm, and as executrix of the estate, which was enriched by the worldwide success of Cats. This enabled her to become a major philanthropist for the nation, the arts, education and numerous charities. She purchased works of art and manuscripts that would have left the country without her generous intervention; she supported the construction of a new wing of the London Library, of which her husband was a president; she endowed a fellowship at Newnham College; she funded the T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize, the most generous and prestigious in England; her Old Possum’s Trust provided scholarships for young musicians and actors and for students attending the annual T.S. Eliot International Summer School. She opened numerous cultural events over the years, including the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, where she was overwhelmed by the warmth of her Irish welcome. It was rewarding to witness her benevolence and the pleasure she took in these activities, and to see several English and American universities bestow honorary degrees upon her in recognition of her broad achievements and philanthropy.

In 1994 Valerie came to Atlanta – her first trip to the South – to receive at commencement ceremonies an honorary degree from Emory, conferred in recognition of her stature as a publisher, woman of letters and steward of her husband’s papers. When she expressed interest in the late Martin Luther King to my wife, we took her to the Sunday service at Ebenezer Baptist Church to hear the fabulous choir, the King-like oratory of pastor Joseph Roberts, the call and response. As he was away that day, the sermon was delivered by a younger assistant, a woman known as a hellfire-and-brimstone speaker. In the midst of her homily, she unzipped the front of her black robe, pulled it apart, and revealed to all the congregation a white T-shirt on which were emblazoned the words, ‘God is coming and is She ever pissed!’ Valerie was flabbergasted, both by the words and the chorus of laughter, until we explained that in American slang ‘pissed’ meant angry rather than drunk. She was immensely amused. If the service was not as decorous as that of her own St Stephen’s in London, it was perhaps more physically welcoming. What most impressed her was the pause in the midst of the service to welcome her and other visitors with good words, handshakes and hugs.

In 1988 Valerie had commissioned Christopher Ricks to edit Eliot’s early poems, Inventions of the March Hare, which appeared in 1994. During the years of editing the two works, Ricks and I drew upon each other as sounding boards and often discussed the massive amount of unpublished and uncollected material of Eliot’s to be edited. We once suggested to Valerie that she choose some trusted individuals to create an editorial board, which need not include either of us, to assist her with the work. She explained that Eliot told her before his death that he did not want her to commission a biography or editions of his letters and uncollected works, and that when she asked him not to place such a burden of exclusion on her, he relented on condition that if editions were to be done then she must be take responsibility for the work herself. She further explained that she had commissioned us to edit works that she knew she could not handle herself, but that she would be responsible for the rest. We did not expect to be invited to do any further editorial work for her.

In August 2004 I had tea with Valerie in her flat, having asked in advance if she might let me see a folder on Eliot and Ted Hughes, about whom I was writing. The most striking item in the file was Hughes’s congratulatory letter to her in November 1988 on the publication of her edition of the first volume of Eliot’s letters, describing the great impact they had on him as a poet. He concluded with a request: ‘You must have considered publishing a Collected Prose – all those early essays and articles. They are all so fascinating.’ I leaned over to show her the end of the letter and asked if she remembered his expressed hope to have the uncollected prose, expecting no more answer than a polite smile. ‘Yes,’ she said sombrely. ‘It’s time to put all of Tom together, but I will need some help.’ There could not have been for her a more difficult ‘yes’, said in painful recognition that after 40 years of devoting herself to the collecting, preserving, transcribing and editing of her husband’s works for a complete edition, time and declining health were overtaking her in the task. She soon commissioned the Eliot Editorial Project to bring out editions of his complete prose, poetry, plays and letters, all of which are now underway and have begun to appear.

During those 40 years the academic world became increasingly impatient for access to Eliot’s archive and for permission to use and print unpublished material; when permissions were not freely forthcoming she became the object of criticism and was accused of hiding material that might harm Eliot’s reputation. She believed, however, that the scholarly world had patiently to await the establishment of a complete archive and that it was against her charge and vow to dole out pieces prematurely or indiscriminately for use and possible abuse. She was a true friend to those who understood her mission and difficult position. If in the vacuum harm was brought, it will not prove a lasting harm. In the long run, her course of action – which provided a necessary critical distance from Eliot’s life – was, to this observer, the right one. Thanks to her steadfast loyalty to her husband’s wishes and to her commitment to the totality of his papers, we will soon have all his work on the shelf and online for new generations of students and scholars of modern literature and culture. Vows discharged. Requiescat in pace.

From RSL Review 2013