Caught be­tween Eliot’s pub­lic and pri­vate selves

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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