Caught between Eliot’s public and private selves
In his 2009 novel The Lost Life, Steven Carroll offered a portrait of the love affair between TS Eliot and Emily Hale, the poet’s first love and muse. The romance was broken when Eliot moved from the US to Britain and impetuously married Vivienne Haigh-Wood. But it was secretly rekindled in England years later. Theirs was a platonic relationship, hidden to all but a few close family and friends. Nevertheless, the promise of a future together, certainly once Eliot was free of his first wife, seemed implied.
It was a promise Eliot never kept. When Haigh-Wood died in an asylum, Eliot told Hale that, despite his love for her, he did not want to marry her. They continued to write to each other until Eliot’s second impetuous marriage, this time to his young secretary, at which time he cut off all correspondence with Hale.
As the heroine of The Lost Life observes: “[Emily Hale] had become the footnote that she must always have feared she would become.”
Carroll resumes the story of Eliot and Hale in A New England Affair. Where The Lost Life offers an external perspective on the liaison (that of the young woman who cleans Hale’s cottage), A New England Affair takes us deep inside the relationship.
The novel begins with Hale, aged 74, sailing to the Dry Salvages, a rock formation off the coast of Massachusetts. She has recently learned of Eliot’s death, and she recalls his story of sailing to the rocks as a young man and almost being lost to the treacherous seas: “And as he was registering the mob of the sea … the waves rose up with faces … human faces — all female — drawn up from the depths … the faces of the Furies themselves.” As Hale sails towards the rocks, she carries with her letters from Eliot, “all of them professing love … And with passion”. She intends to fling the letters into the sea; to keep them out of the hands of those who “would cheapen everything”.
This is the third novel from Carroll touching on the life and work of Eliot, each of them taking their inspiration from one of Eliot’s Four Quartets. Here, he mines The Dry Salvages, drawing on its imagery of fate, wreckage and immanence; of a “past, present and future” whose “neat divisions … are meaningless”.
Hale’s memories of Eliot, of her days with him, their love, wash back and forth across time, the narrative shifting from the years they spent together in America, when they were still in their 20s, to the clandestine summers passed in each other’s company in England, to the storm that rises as Hale approaches the rocks.
For Hale, Eliot is always Tom, the young man with whom she enacted scenes from Jane Austen’s Emma in a New England parlour. The young Emily aspires to be an actress, but the relations with whom she lives won’t allow it. Tom, a philosophy student, has “poetic ambitions”, and Emily is privy to the transformation of Tom Eliot into TS Eliot. She envies his conviction, his freedom: “To find your something, pursue it and live it, seemed the most exquisite way to live.”
The young Emily and Tom are “destined for each other. Even created for each other”, but when the moment to reveal the full depth of their feelings presents itself, they miss it. It’s a failure Hale spends the rest of her life contemplating; an anticlimax that feeds into Eliot’s poetry. When years later she finds a pretext to