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Mary Trevelyan was an educator, a champion of London’s internatio­nal students, a keen diarist – and, for decades, a close confidante of TS Eliot. In researchin­g her life, Erica Wagner uncovered the story of a remarkable woman


It was a warm autumn evening in 1955; Mary Trevelyan and TS Eliot were ensconced in a fine French restaurant in London’s West End. Before dinner, they had gone for a drive, as they frequently did on their outings together, touring the old Docklands and the City, cruising by the Tower of London. Trevelyan loved to be behind the wheel; just a few months earlier, Eliot had bought her a new car, a Wolseley 4/44. Now, having dismissed the waiter who asked Eliot to sign a copy of Murder in the Cathedral, the pair were chatting happily, making plans for the arrival of his great-niece Priscilla in a few days’ time.

‘May I arrange your life for you?’ Trevelyan asked Eliot.

‘That is exactly what I want you to do,’ the poet replied. He handed her a silver cigarette-lighter: a gift. ‘He feels very superior, having given up smoking,’ Trevelyan recorded in recollecti­on of that evening. It had been nearly two decades since their first meeting in 1936, when she had invited him to read from his work to a group of students at a conference in Derbyshire.

Mary Trevelyan was one of four women who played crucial roles in the life of the 20th century’s most influentia­l poet. There was his first wife, Vivien Haigh-Wood; Emily Hale, a friend from his American youth whom he nearly married; and Valerie Fletcher, his devoted secretary, whom he did marry in 1957. Trevelyan has been, until now, perhaps the least known; but hers is a striking voice, and one worth attending to.

She left an account of their long friendship called The Pope of Russell Square, and the manuscript – part diary, part collection of letters and postcards, part scrapbook – is housed in the archives of the Bodleian Library. I’ll admit, I knew nothing of Trevelyan until I was approached by her estate and asked whether I’d be willing to turn her discursive memoir into a narrative about an unlikely, fascinatin­g alliance. But as soon as I ‘met’ her – in the form of her forthright, wry, courageous voice – I knew it would be a task to delight in. Not least because her story sheds a wholly new light on Eliot: in her telling, he is not a great poet but a friend, rolling up his shirt sleeves to cook sausages in her kitchen.

Trevelyan was born in 1897 into a distinguis­hed family accustomed to public service. She was the eldest of six; Eliot, though nine years older than her, was the youngest in his family – a dynamic that may offer some explanatio­n for the way in which she would treat him, at times, like a naughty boy. And, as I discovered, it was in her nature to take charge. As the warden of Student Movement House and later the founder of Internatio­nal Students House, she worked tirelessly for the young people who came to the capital from all over the world to study, and made epic journeys across Asia, Africa and the US to build links between pedagogica­l institutio­ns. At the end of World War II, she went to support the Allied army in the bombed-out ruins of Belgium and Germany, subsequent­ly producing a slender but vivid account of her experience, titled I’ll Walk Beside You: Letters from Belgium, September 1944–May 1945.

Those letters were addressed to Eliot, though he is not named in her book. They display the indefatiga­ble quality that make Trevelyan so inspiring. ‘At 6am on Christmas morning I was woken by two enormous bombs coming over us, very noisily, at a tremendous pace,’ she wrote from Belgium. ‘But at least they woke me in time to get to church.’

She was, and is, a model of perseveran­ce and resilience – both in her actions, and in her unrequited love for Tom Eliot. Trevelyan wished for something from Eliot that he was never able to give, yet she moved forward with her life after they parted – his need for concealmen­t, his wish to keep his private life compartmen­talised, led to the end of their friendship. Until her death in 1983, she continued to be the woman she always had been: bold, untiring, travelling the world and advocating for those less privileged than she was. Of her time in Europe during the war, she wrote: ‘I went because I know that the more one can share people’s experience­s, the more one can help them.’ It is a motto to live by. Trevelyan’s words have inspired me – I can’t wait for you to meet her.

‘Mary and Mr Eliot: A Sort of Love Story’ by Erica Wagner (£20, Faber & Faber) is published on 6 October.

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Mary Trevelyan
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