Widow of TS Eliot who became a sterling and inspirational guardian of his work
The passion that Valerie Eliot, who has died aged 86, had for the work of her future husband, TS Eliot, began when she was 14 and he had not long turned 50. Eliot, the foremost poet of his generation, was unaware that when the Yorkshire-born schoolgirl heard John Gielgud's recording of his Journey of the Magi early on in the second world war, her life's ambition was clear. Her family used to laugh at her obsession. "I felt I just had to get to Tom, to work with him," she once told an interviewer.
After his death on 4 January 1965, Valerie proved a sterling and inspirational guardian of Eliot's work. She inherited his shareholding in the publishers Faber and Faber and became an active member of the board. The 1974 facsimile of The Waste Land, which includes Ezra Pound's annotations and which she edited, has not been faulted.
The daughter of an insurance manager in Leeds, Esmé Valerie Fletcher was educated at Queen Anne's school, Caversham, where she was reputed to have told her headteacher that she knew precisely what she wanted to become: secretary to TS Eliot. Did her ambition extend beyond simply working for the great man? Certainly at the time she did not know that Eliot had been unhappily married to his first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, who was eventually committed to an asylum.
Valerie took a secretarial course and in 1949, two years after Vivienne died, she was interviewed by a chain-smoking Eliot, who was seeking a secretary at Faber and Faber. As a director, he ran its influential poetry list, which numbered Pound, WH Auden and Philip Larkin among its authors. She recalled that he was "obviously as nervous as I was".
Valerie, an attractive young woman, made it her business to be an extremely efficient but formal secretary. He was Mr Eliot to her, she was Miss Fletcher to him. He plucked up the courage, late in 1956, to propose. She had kept her feelings for him secret even among her secretarial colleagues at Faber. She was now 30, Eliot 68. They married in secrecy early one January morning in 1957 at St Barnabas Church, Kensington, with her parents in attendance. Valerie recalled his happiness: "There was a little boy in him that had never been released."
All evidence shows that their marriage (Eliot died days before their eighth wedding anniversary) was blissfully content. At parties they would be seen holding hands. On a visit to New York they requested a double bed. They enjoyed the theatre, but also evenings in. Sadly Eliot's health was increasingly poor. Smoking had affected his lungs and he suffered from emphysema. In winters they escaped London with holidays in the West Indies, but by 1964 his heart was failing and he was surviving on oxygen. He died the following year.
In 1988, Valerie revealed that "at the time of our marriage I was dismayed to learn that my husband had forbidden the future publication of his correspondence, because I appreciated its importance and fascination". Eliot used to read aloud to his wife – Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling – and Valerie recalled that she "took every opportunity to introduce a poet's letters, until, eventually, he burst out laughing, and said he would relent on condition that I did the selecting and editing".
In 1988 she produced the first volume of her husband's letters (1898-1922), optimistically remarking that the second volume (1923-25) would come out the following year. In the end it took two decades, appearing in 2009, co-edited by Valerie with Hugh Haughton. A biography was absolutely out of the question, however. Valerie refused even modest applications for permission to quote from Eliot's writings. Peter Ackroyd managed a life in 1984 but, as Frank Kermode wrote in his review of that book in the Guardian, Ackroyd "was 'forbidden by the Eliot estate to quote from Eliot's published work, except for fair comment in a critical context', and to quote at all from unpublished work and correspondence".
Yet Valerie was generous in other ways. Thanks to the substantial income that poured in over the years from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats, inspired by Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, she was able to give seven-figure donations for a new wing of the London Library (Eliot had been its president) and to Newnham College, Cambridge. She also donated £15,000 for the annual TS Eliot prize for poetry.
• Valerie Eliot, editor, born 17 August 1926; died 9 November 2012