T.S. Eliot might have found happiness by marrying Emily Hale.
Eliot chose instead a disastrous marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood. But Eliot deeply loved Hale, a passion mainly carried out through letters he obsessively wrote her, beginning in 1930 and ending in acrimony in 1957.
In a major event for Eliot scholars, the poet's 1,1131 letters to Hale deposited at Princeton's Firestone Library were unsealed in January 2020. Hale dismayed Eliot in 1956 when she gave the letters to the library. Under terms of the deal, they were to be sealed until 50 years after her death. She died in 1969, four years after Eliot's death.
Along with online viewing, a selection of the letters edited by John Haffenden will be published next year.
Eliot in a 1960 statement released in January along with the unsealing of the letters sought to justify his decision to marry Haigh-Wood in 1915 rather than Hale, with whom he was in love.
"To her (Haigh-Wood), the marriage brought no happiness...to me,, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land.," Eliot said. "And it saved me from marrying Emily Hale. Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me; Vivienne nearly was the death of me, but she kept the poet alive."
Paul Keegan in the Oct. 22 London Review of Books gives an exhaustive account of Eliot's relationship with Hale, which Keegan says resumed in earnest in 1930 when Hale visited London and came to tea with Eliot and his wife. Hale and Eliot began a correspondence which grew into a stream of letters from Eliot.
Eliot met with Hale several times before separating from Haigh-Wood, who died in 1947 after several years in a mental hospital. Eliot never divorced Haigh-Wood, forestalling any plans to marry Hale. Although he expressed sexual desire for Hale, their relationship apparently remained platonic.
After Haigh-Wood's death, Eliot again spurned Hale, although they continued to write each other until 1957, when Eliot married his secretary, Valerie Fletcher. Eliot later claimed that he was no longer in love with Hale. The rejection caused Hale a nervous breakdown.
Another cause of the rejection was Eliot's strict religious beliefs; he was upset at Hale participating in Episcopal Church communion although she was Unitarian, as Keegan relates.
While Eliot's detailed letters to Hale are like an autobiography, scholars don't have Hale's letters to Eliot. He destroyed them in 1960, perhaps in anger at her Princeton gift.
Or he realized that Hale's letters would give as negative a portrait of him as his letters to her. The letters reveal Eliot as manipulative, self-absorbed and cruel, according to Keegan's article.
Eliot's assertion that Hale would have killed the poet in him was unfounded. Still, had he married her, it's unlikely that he would have written "The Waste Land."
Was that masterpiece worth all of that pain? His letters to Hale detail the cost.