The Hyacinth Girl: T S Eliot’s Hidden Muse by Lyndall Gordon; Mary & Mr Eliot: A Sort of Love Story by Mary Trevelyan & Erica Wagner - review by Richard Davenport-Hines

Richard Davenport-Hines

Yours Chastely, Tom

The Hyacinth Girl: T S Eliot’s Hidden Muse

By

Virago 512pp £25

Mary & Mr Eliot: A Sort of Love Story

By

Faber & Faber 320pp £20
 

Men and women should beware if a poet starts sending them love letters. They can be sure that the poet is using them to hone their technique rather than valuing them as individuals. The displays of emotion in their letters will be self-regarding contrivances; most of the promises will prove false. ‘The epistolary form,’ as T S Eliot told his confidante Mary Trevelyan, ‘is … suitable for authors of an exaggeratedly egocentric type: a good way to talk about yourself, but unsuitable for the development of any serious or continuous argument.’

Eliot’s letters to Emily Hale, whom he first met in 1905, provide the rich core of Lyndall Gordon’s The Hyacinth Girl. The correspondence, which ended after he married his second wife, Valerie Fletcher, in 1957, was released to scholars as recently as 2020. The egotistical self-privileging, invasive violence and fierce self-revelation of Eliot’s letters to Hale make them, says Gordon, ‘masterpieces’ of their type. They were intended to set Hale afire. He did not offer the tempered, goodly love that steadies, supports and holds the lover. Instead he aroused factitious excitement by claiming to find ‘supernatural ecstasy’ in their relationship.

Eliot’s father saw women as contaminants and regarded fear of syphilis as God’s deterrent to young men from surrendering their virginity. He said that if an effective cure were ever found for venereal disease, he hoped his sons might be castrated to keep them chaste. Not surprisingly, young

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