TS Eliot's widow was no writer herself, but her experience and stories alone establish her literary importance
She would occasionally come by my Bloomsbury premises after a bibulous Italian lunch with friends from the British Library, full of good cheer. Once we had done a bit of business – she was an assiduous collector of TS Eliot, partly in her role as editor of the Collected Letters, but mostly because they were distributed bits of her adored late husband that she could bring home – she would settle in for a gossip and a giggle. In this context she was enchanting, a lively talker and (what is rarer) interested listener. And, what was most delightful, she had an apparently inexhaustible fund of stories about her life with Tom.
"Tom!" The late Valerie Eliot, who died a few months ago, was once of the few people who could call him that, naturally and affectionately. Even his colleagues at Faber, though they may have called him by his first name in the office, rarely referred to him like that once they were in the outside world. Mr Eliot, or TSE. But for Valerie there was Tom, and Ezra, Wystan, Joyce (never Jim), and so many others, for she arrived in Eliot's life at the end of that great period when modernist giants still roamed the earth.
She had a strikingly memorable face, a craggy amalgam of Mrs Thatcher and Ted Hughes, though without the imperiousness of either. She seemed straight out of the 1940s, with bright lipstick and pancake make-up, slightly frumpy dresses, coiffed blonde hair that never looked entirely natural. But once you were in her company all these modern stereotypes faded immediately. What first struck me was what fun she was. And secondly – it took longer to tune in to this and to give it a name – there was a quiet possession about her, the kind of glow that one encounters in people who have loved and been loved. None of the bite and restless dissatisfaction that most people, who have not been so lucky, manifest and endure. No, Valerie Eliot had been possessed by love, and it stayed in her possession, and one felt complicit in it, talking to her.
She and Tom, in a simple way that often caused amusement and more often envy in their acquaintances, adored each other, doted, smiled and giggled, whispered secrets and held hands in public. Played Scrabble of an evening and retired happily to the marital bed. No more the Eliot of the miserable marriage to Vivienne, no more the poet of The Waste Land, that great testimony to sexual misery.
It is sometimes remarked, as if to slight the late Mrs Eliot, that TSE never wrote anything of the highest quality after he met her. That is probably true, though she didn't cause it. (He was 68 when they married, 38 years older than his secretary, the former Miss Fletcher. They had almost eight years of marital happiness together, before his death in 1965.) There was very little seriously consequential work for many years before they married. Anyway, romantic poets do their best work young. (Do I feel an argument brewing?)
The late Mrs Eliot had a well-earned reputation as a zealous Tomist, and her fierce protection of his legacy and copyrights led her to refuse permission to quote from TSE's works even to such luminaries as Martin Rowson and Peter Ackroyd. Admittedly Rowson's brilliant noir version of The Waste Land was something of a piss-take, and TSE had expressed the wish that no one should write a biography (fat chance). But literary estates should facilitate the entry of an author's words into the marketplace, not impede the process. Indeed, after I met her, and was on congenial terms with Valerie, she still refused me permission to quote four lines of a poem on Radio 4, for no discernible reason. But as the (very) long project of getting Eliot's collected prose, poetry, and letters edited and into the marketplace carries on, with no discernible end in sight, it begins to appear as if Mrs Eliot had a sensible long-term view of the project, and I have little doubt that the final results will eventually justify the process. And – is it too much to hope? – at that point I presume there will be a significant relaxation of permissions to quote. I even suspect that, sometime in the not too distant future, an authorised biography might well appear.
Sometimes, after we did our bits of business, she would settle back and start to reminisce. She did so, largely, through little stories and anecdotes. Had she told me about that funny dinner with Wystan (Auden) and Chester (Kallman), in their grotty flat in Greenwich Village, with the Stravinskys?
It was a hoot. "For goodness sake," I expostulated while still laughing, "you have to write this down!"
She looked mildly shocked that I should suggest it. Though a great anecdotist, she would never have attempted a memoir. It would have seemed to her, I suspect, inappropriate. She was a very good – if slow – editor. Not a writer.
Yet people who have lived at the epicentre of literary life accumulate such stories, which entertain and instruct us about writers and their lives, and in so doing make them human, less Olympian. Such people are not so much reticent – often quite the reverse – as humble. If you have served as publisher, editor, relative or friend to a great writer you are fully aware of the gap between what you can do, and what they can.
I have urged friends like Martyn Goff, former administrator of the Man Booker Prize, and Tom Rosenthal, one of the great literary publishers of our time, to put their reminiscences down on paper. Why don't they? Both have written a lot, though never about themselves. Tom says publisher's memoirs are a bore, citing Tom Maschler's recent effort, which had dreadful reviews. Both Goff and Rosenthal have recorded their life stories and reminiscences for the British Library database of "national life stories" in the Oral History Department, though this does not make the material generally available.
And so, I suppose, it is incumbent on those of us to whom the stories are told, to pass them on.
Valerie's charming little story as I remember it, went like this.
"We were having dinner at Wystan and Chester's flat, and they were flitting about in and out of the kitchen, making a fuss, while we sat at the table and had a drink with the Stravinskys. At one point, I stretched my leg out, and my foot hit something hard. I peered under the table and – would you believe it? – there was one of those decorated Victorian chamber pots, filled to the brim with … Well, something frothy and not very nice.
"I was horrified, and thought I ought to do something. So I dropped my knife on the floor and bent down and put my scarf over the chamber pot. At this point, luckily, Wystan came in and diverted attention, and I straightened up quickly with the pot in my hands, and headed off to the bathroom. I emptied the contents into the toilet, flushed it away, washed it out and put it on top of the cabinet.
"When I got back they were still all chattering away. Dinner was served, everyone drank rather a lot, the plates were cleared. At which point Chester looked under the table, then dropped to his knees and looked again.
"'Wystan, darling,' he said, 'do you know where the zabaglione has gone?'
"They both looked anxiously under the table. It was gone, of course. And I wasn't about to say anything…. I've always wondered what they made of it when they found the empty pot in the bathroom?"