Monday, 22 June 2015

The Second Mrs T.S. Eliot

Sir Arthur Wing Pinero’s play, The Second Mrs Tanqueray, is about a young woman ‘with a past’ whose marriage to a much older widower has complicated and ultimately disastrous consequences. By contrast, Valerie Fletcher, who became the second Mrs T.S. Eliot, was a woman with no past at all. Her life only ever had one focus: Eliot himself. Although she was thirty-eight years younger, her marriage to him was (as far as she at least was
 concerned) blissfully uncomplicated, and its consequences for Eliot’s posthumous reputation have been the opposite of disastrous – though not everyone, I know, agrees.

A friend recently handed me a photograph (c.1943) showing a squad of lacrosse players from Queen Anne’s School, Caversham. Did I recognize the girl on the right at the end of the back row? my friend asked. The girl was Valerie Fletcher. ‘She was never much of a looker, was she?’ added my friend. Actually, some people thought she was a looker: when Groucho Marx met her, in 1961, he described her as ‘a good-looking, middle-aged blonde whose eyes seemed to light up with adoration every time she looked at her husband’.

In many ways, Valerie Fletcher’s marriage to T.S. Eliot in January 1957 was even more extraordinary than Marilyn Monroe’s to Arthur Miller the previous year. At least Monroe and Miller had met, plausibly enough, in Hollywood; by contrast, the story of the lacrosse-playing teenager and the Nobel Prizewinning poet defied all probability.

Eliot died in 1965; Valerie outlived him by forty seven years. The Guardian obituary of her maintained that as a schoolgirl she had told her headmistress her ambition was to become Eliot’s secretary; the Queen Anne’s Society News (2012-2013), took the story a step further and reported that while still at school, Valerie had confidently announced she would marry him. The most specific account, however, comes in Tarantula, John Smart’s biography of Eliot’s close friend, John Hayward. Eliot had shared a London flat with Hayward for eleven years, up until the day before he married Valerie – to the astonishment of everyone except Valerie herself:

Valerie Fletcher had been listening intently in an English lesson to a gramophone record of John Gielgud reading ‘Journey of the Magi’. She was bowled over. At the end of the lesson she went up to her teacher, Miss Bartholomew, and asked, ‘Who wrote that poem?’ Miss Bartholomew told her that it was T.S. Eliot. ‘I shall marry that man,” her pupil said immediately. After a moment’s pause, she mused, ‘But how shall I meet him?’ Without thinking anything of it, Miss Bartholomew replied, ‘You could become his secretary, I suppose.’

It would be quite unfair to conclude that Valerie was a manipulative young gold-digger setting out to entice a foolish, fond old man. Lyndall Gordon in T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life – to my mind, by far the best study of Eliot’s life and poetry – says simply that ‘Eliot came to recognize in his secretary the absolute dedication of an ideal heir’. In an interview quoted by Gordon, Valerie herself explained the life-defining impact of hearing ‘Journey of the Magi’:

It just hit me. The whole feeling of Tom in it – and the impression I formed then – was borne out right throughout marriage and everything. After that I tried to find out everything I could about him. It was something very sympathetic.

‘Throughout marriage and everything’ – for Valerie, marriage was to be eight years of devoted happiness, as it was for the poet too: Lyndall Gordon speaks of  ‘the idyllic nature of his attachment’. Afterwards, ‘everything’ included the nearly fifty years she lived on as his widow and literary executor.

The first most people knew about Valerie in this new role was her publication in 1971 of  

The Waste Land
Edited by Valerie Eliot

The ‘lost’ manuscript of this poem, as originally edited by Ezra Pound and annotated by Eliot, Pound and Eliot’s first wife, Vivien, had only resurfaced in 1968 when the New York Public Library announced it had been discovered among a collection of privately purchased papers. Valerie’s Facsimile and Transcript was itself a ground-breaking work of bibliography: the reader could see on the left-hand pages Eliot’s hand-written or typed sheets and on the right could read the same text now type-set and with all the annotations, erasures and overwritings ingeniously transcribed typographically and colour-coded. It showed that Pound had been far more influential in shaping the most famous Modernist poem of the twentieth century than many people had recently wanted to believe, and that his editorial judgment had saved the poem.  Eliot himself had acknowledged this by dedicating the poem to Il miglior fabbro’. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Valerie’s book helped rehabilitate Pound’s reputation. Put simply, it was (and is) a master class in responsible editing and exegesis: without it, I wonder whether Helen Gardner’s virtuoso work, The Composition of Four Quartets, which refined the approach Valerie had previously taken with The Waste Land, would even have been published.

No longer now the gawky, sporty schoolgirl with a crush, nor the adoring blonde on the arm of an elderly husband, Valerie Eliot had proved she should be taken seriously as a scholar and as Eliot’s literary executor. I have every admiration for what she achieved with The Waste Land and every sympathy with the way she defended Eliot’s posthumous reputation later.  Others may disagree. But her own best memorial should be her definitive edition of The Waste Land. Let Lyndall Gordon, comparing Valerie’s edition with Helen Gardner’s work on The Composition of Four Quartets, explain why:

Both are lasting works of scholarship […. ] In Mrs Eliot’s introduction and Helen Gardner’s chapters on the growth and sources of the Quartets, facts are selective and direct the reader towards the work. It is to be hoped that scholars of the twenty-first century will follow their lead in discerning the simplicity at the heart of Eliot’s apparent difficulty.

Adrian Barlow

[Illustration: ‘The Scarlet Runners’ – Queen Anne’s School, Caversham, Lacrosse players c.1943 (private collection)

[Notes: Groucho Marx’s description of Valerie is quoted by Lyndall Gordon in T.S. Eliot, an Imperfect Life (1998), p. 517. From the same source comes the extract from Valerie’s 1988 Times interview, p.497-8, as does the description of Eliot’s recognizing in Valerie ‘the absolute dedication of an ideal heir’. The quotation with which I end this post will be found on p.679.

John Smart’s account in Tarantula (p.263) of Valerie’s reaction to hearing ‘Journey of the Magi’ is based on an interview he conducted with Dorothy Bartholomew (1913-2011), the teacher who transformed Valerie’s life simply by putting a record on the gramophone.

For an additional account of Valerie’s marriage to Eliot and her subsequent life as his literary executor, I recommend the Independent obituary (14 November 2012); while for a different perspective on Valerie Eliot, see Karen Christensen, ‘Dear Mrs Eliot’, Guardian 29 January 2005.

I have written previously about Eliot, in T.S. Eliot and the Turning Year. 2015 being the 50th anniversary of his death, I hope to write about him again, more than once in the remaining six months.


  1. Adrian – This is rich stuff indeed: a very convincing account of Valerie Fletcher’s extraordinary single–mindedness. Almost, Valerie’s feelings towards Eliot could be described as preternatural. But I do not think they were. On the contrary, they seem to have been grounded in a profound understanding and appreciation of Eliot’s work. Nothing like this relationship in English literature is ever likely to happen again!

  2. You are right, Peter: Valerie’s understanding and appreciation of Eliot was as profound as it was instinctual. Never say never, but I suspect you are right: this was relationship of a kind unlikely ever to be repeated.