I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.


The Moment in the Rose-Garden

Magdalena Kay

The Hyacinth Girl: T.S. Eliot’s Hidden Muse, by Lyndall Gordon, Norton, 496 pp, 2023, $47, ISBN: 978-1324002802
British edition: Virago, 512 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0349012117

From its very first sentence, this book gives a jolt to Eliot studies. The poet is a master of disguise, writes Lyndall Gordon, who has proven herself more than capable of discerning his disguises in her previous biography (The Imperfect Life of T.S. Eliot). The Hyacinth Girl fills in the details of the poet’s decades-long relationship with Emily Hale in the wake of the momentous opening of the letters in January 2020. She is the titular Hyacinth Girl, yet at all times Gordon is simultaneously aware of the other women in Eliot’s life, particularly his first wife, the much-maligned Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Our common notion of a singular muse may be insufficient for stories as tangled as this one. Eliot clearly needed not one but multiple muses, each with her own distinct function to fulfil.

The first woman who comes into focus is not a romantic partner but the poet’s mother, Charlotte Champe Eliot. This figure had been fleshed out in previous biographies of Eliot, and now is again: the last page of Robert Crawford’s Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land quotes her as saying her son, by his own admission, put a great deal of himself into this putatively impersonal poem. Gordon picks up this thread. The poet’s mother is one of his confessors, but she is also a foil. Charlotte wished she could have received a university education and become a published poet herself. She was quick to note her son’s talent, and Tom comes into young adulthood closely bonded with his mother and well aware of her unfulfilled wishes. He begins his life as a poet with the sense that one woman has already placed his ambition above her own, and her (educational, professional, poetic) hopes for him have far superseded such hopes for herself.

This pattern will eventually be echoed in his relationship with Hale, but imperfectly: they meet as equals, two educated and talented young people eager to follow their ambitions. They belong to the same genteel New England Unitarian milieu and are governed by the same standard of social propriety. This propriety will conveniently buttress Eliot’s attempts to hold Hale at a distance, and after his death, Hale will write that she ‘accepted conditions as they were offered under the unnatural code which surrounded us’, adding their ‘natural reserve’ as a further factor urging them to keep romantic feelings secret. But surely even shy Unitarians fall in love and marry, and this reasoning only puts Hale’s lifelong frustration into greater relief. Her professional life could be difficult as well: pursuing a career as a drama and speech teacher, while acting in local theatrical productions, was not easy for a single woman, however secure her class status. Hale did her best to piece together teaching jobs at various schools and colleges, but these did not always continue to pay salary over the summer months, and untenured employment can be terminated abruptly. One such termination occurred in 1934 when she lost a job at Scripps College and, trying to make the best of it, took an extended holiday in England with her aunt and uncle. The gap between jobs became uncomfortably long. Meanwhile, her relationship with Eliot had become slightly more intimate in the previous two years, when the middle-aged poet had allowed himself the pleasure of kissing his beloved. It blossomed during their shared time in England. Eliot’s marriage had collapsed by this point, and the question of why the newly physical (yet sexually unconsummated) relationship did not become permanent is the overwhelming one left for readers to ponder.

Logistically, this would have been the time: Hale had to find a new job and change her residence anyway, and Eliot had separated from Vivienne, though he had not obtained an official divorce. Psychologically, Gordon makes clear that their moments together at this time brought forth a profound joy in togetherness. Eliot writes of the extraordinary power of touch as if he had just discovered this sensory delight. It would be natural to expect some continuation of intimacy, and this is the Gordian knot that may never be unravelled: why does Eliot pull back as he does? His letters, after Hale returns to the US, become boring, ‘droning’ affairs, and we may wish more than ever to know Hale’s exact responses. We do know that she gave him an ultimatum, which Gordon reproduces in full, wherein she boldly questions whether she would prefer a more ‘normal’ relationship with someone else. Perhaps she could indeed have been happier in a more conventional union. We cannot know, and Gordon is careful not to speculate beyond the boundaries of what we can legitimately surmise, but she does take on the unenviable task of trying to understand what motivates Eliot’s turn away from Emily in the late 1930s.

Thus this book serves as a psychological portrait of Eliot as seen through his relationships with women and as communicated by his creative work, rather than a straightforward biography or love story. Gordon astutely recognises the extent to which one relationship inevitably colours another, and how often decisions are actually reactions. We need context in order to understand how this works, and Gordon, who has written three other books on Eliot, knows this context inside and out. She shows us Eliot’s life, his relationships (romantic, platonic, and familial), his milieux, and his particular casts of mind. She avoids condemnation or lengthy moralising and her judgments are often passed through the sharp style of her utterance rather than through explicit statement. Given the nature of her material, she must sometimes speculate. This is one of the book’s inevitable lacunae: we do not truly know Hale’s side of the story and can only read into a handful of preserved letters, while we have 1,131 extant letters from Eliot to Hale. Gordon does an admirable job of encouraging her readers to empathise with Hale, however, and letting us sense the weight of her thoughts and feelings in the evolving narrative.

Readers may be surprised to find how important a factor religion was in Eliot’s relationships, given how persistently our culture allies romantic feeling predominantly with eros. He was drawn to the severe Calvinism practised by his seventeenth century Puritan ancestors more than the softer Unitarianism practised by his and Emily Hale’s families, and indeed, it seems that his mother shared some of this attraction. She and he both believed in election, or as Gordon describes it, ‘the single-minded trajectory of a destined life’. Eliot’s university reading in philosophy and theology buttressed this belief, which was also informed by the recognition of his own literary talent. If this psychology doesn’t seem very modern, we must accept that one of the greatest modern poets is utterly unmodern in his thinking. As we strain to understand Eliot’s often tortuous trajectories of feeling, it is helpful to consider the specific sort of belief with which he allied himself. Although conversion to Anglicanism is a major event in his life, Gordon suspects that this conversion only partly satisfied his need for a faith marked by stricture. His religious life began in negation, she perceptively notes, in ‘closing off every other alternative’. Although she does not find him a ‘natural celibate’, she allies his effort to become one with an effort to subdue the body, which may be a source of humiliation more than pleasure. Eliot knows hell in his bones. Our contemporary culture of maximalist fulfilment is at odds with this kind of thinking. Eliot, however, embraced the notion that negation strengthened faith. This must have been frustrating for Hale, who repeatedly told the poet not to ‘overrate’ or ‘idealise’ her.

There is a certain masochism at work here, but also a great deal of self-indulgence: Eliot makes it clear that he prioritises himself. Knowing that Hale would warmly welcome the prospect of marriage, he writes to her that when he realised their marriage might be possible, he ‘recoiled violently’ from the prospect. We can only imagine what it would be like to receive a letter like this. It may be a true record of his emotion, but the lack of empathy for a woman he claims to love is striking, and may be conscious. Eliot does not allow himself to welcome the prospect of marriage with Hale because it does not correspond to the way of negation that he has chosen for himself, and by writing such a cruel letter he closes off the possibility. Or does he? Gordon tries her best to understand Emily’s forbearance. We know from her surviving letters that she frequently felt hurt, yet she did not throw him over. Why not? Gordon seems as mystified as we may be. She emphasises the moments of emotional intimacy between Hale and Eliot with admirable sensitivity to each partner, letting us see how deeply felt such moments were and how precious they must have been to Hale. She allows us to imagine them cuddling, dozing in each other’s arms, and delighting in each other’s company ‑ yet somehow her prose does not come across as voyeuristic. As Hale and Eliot’s relationship reaches its peak in the mid-1930s, she presents ‘Burnt Norton’ (the first of the Four Quartets) as a testimony to their love, written at the moment that Eliot allowed some physical intimacy into the relationship. Her verbal portraits of the couple are deeply affecting, and even more so once we reach the desolating end of their love story.

Nobody will read ‘Burnt Norton’ in the same way again. The poem’s images of faded roses now appear not as highfalutin references to Catholic iconography or the Wars of the Roses but, as Gordon shows, surprisingly direct evocations of real roses, real gardens, real pools filled with sunlight, and a real second-person ‘you’. Lest anyone continue to associate Eliot with the notorious ‘impersonality principle’ articulated in his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, this evidence will conclusively prove that 1919 (when the essay was first published) is far distant from 1935 (when ‘Burnt Norton’ was completed). The poet himself says so, calling it ‘our poem’ in a letter to Hale, and anticipating how much more easily it would be understood if readers knew the story behind it. Admittedly, the poem does not readily invite autobiographical readings, and Gordon’s book may motivate a collective re-interpretation.

The Waste Land also contains a significant amount of autobiographical material, much of which Gordon helpfully elucidates. Her book is not meant to be a literary-critical study, but she mounts a convincing case for the necessity of taking biographical information under advisement as we read Eliot’s poems and plays, which are, to her, suffused with the poet’s own life-material. Hale rightly reads herself into the character of Celia in The Cocktail Party, which ends rather disturbingly with Celia’s martyrdom. Such details are crucial for understanding these plays not just as intellectual excursions of a sort, or more tough-mindedly as attempts to earn money, but as frames in which Eliot works out social and psychological situations closely related to his own life, while importantly diverging from it (Hale had no wish to become a mystic, as Celia does, or to endure martyrdom). Indeed, it is now rather hard to justify the New Critical tenet that reading biographically is a fallacy.

Eliot himself made stark pronouncements to this effect: unless the information in the letters were preserved, he writes to Hale, his life and work would be ‘misunderstood to the end of time’. This is a particularly momentous claim to make of The Waste Land, so often seen as the very prototype of an impersonal poem whose impersonality is connected to its status as preeminent Modernist poem. Gordon’s revelations of the autobiographical content of Eliot’s work have the potential to change our vision of Modernism itself. Thus the radicalism of the poem’s form, often described with such words as fragmented, abstract, or disconnected, should be carefully dissociated from any corollary assumption that the poet is disconnected from its material. Gordon generously allows that it is not necessary to know the poet’s private life in order to interpret The Waste Land, and that focusing on Vivienne Eliot and Emily Hale as primary characters in its drama is merely one approach that may be taken. Given the weight of the epistolary evidence she puts before us though, it is hard to see how future readers can disregard it. The women in Eliot’s life will compel us to recognise them within their deliberate disguises. I had personally assumed that the hyacinth girl of The Waste Land called forth a Greek mythological figure, and was stunned to realise that there was an actual girl, and actual hyacinths, in Eliot’s mind.

Readers may cynically ask whether the Eliot industry was really so invested in creating an academic Eliot that the autobiographical content of these poems was truly surprising. Of course not: for decades, careful readers have drawn out links to the real life of the real TS Eliot, and some have even cautioned against taking his early essays as representative of his thought as a whole. The Hyacinth Girl shows us the incremental and tortuous changes in Eliot’s feeling, which naturally coloured his thinking. His poetic mastery is incongruent with his lack of emotional mastery. Gordon writes with deep regard for Eliot’s literary work. She does not cast doubt on his achievement, and does not suggest we should. She does, however, understandably struggle to even-handedly chronicle Eliot’s feelings throughout his adult life without appearing to take sides when there are conflicts.

The task she has set herself is commendable: she wishes to allow her reader to empathise with every subject position, and she does a wonderful job of vivifying Eliot’s different relationships, sometimes employing an imagined dialogue in order to show us the contours of these personalities. Although Hale holds our sympathy throughout the book, we also meet several other women in its pages, and Gordon is capable of empathising with each and every one. Vivienne Haigh-Wood, Eliot’s first wife, is shown as a keen reader of her husband’s poetry and champion of his literary ambitions. Her numerous mental and physical ailments appear both organic and, possibly, caused or exacerbated by faulty medical treatments, leaving Vivienne a hapless medical mystery. The energetic Mary Trevelyan enjoyed several years of confidence with Eliot, who claimed he wouldn’t say what he says to anyone but her; we cannot blame Trevelyan for assuming such words bespeak a unique intimacy and venturing to propose to him herself. In the light of these deep relationships, it is tempting to see Valerie Eliot, the poet’s second wife, as a usurper, even though she can hardly be faulted for falling in love without knowing the extent of Eliot’s former attachments. Gordon acknowledges the possibility of her readers’ negative feelings but goes on to show how devotedly Valerie loved her aged husband, how warmly erotic the relationship was, and how commendably Valerie helped to nurse Eliot through his late-life ailments. Her eventual contact with Hale appears to have been professional and courteous; a surviving Christmas card sent by Hale to Valerie is phrased with admirable grace and decorum.

Valerie is the only woman who enjoyed a happy marriage with Eliot, leading readers to query the obvious counterfactuals: could any other woman have enjoyed her  happy fate? Gordon masterfully avoids triteness and refuses easy answers. She offers the notion of forgiveness as a deep motivation for Eliot in his sixties while making clear that his masterpieces were now behind him. The man who remarried at the age of sixty-eight is a new Eliot with different needs and desires. And even after sharing in the psychological pain inflicted on his once-beloved hyacinth girl, Gordon does not begrudge him his late-life happiness. Her book is a model of emotional generosity and capacious empathy.


Dr. Magdalena Kay is Professor of English at the University of Victoria



Dublin’s Oldest Independent BookshopBooks delivered worldwide