On February 17, 1913, young Harvard philosophy student Tom Eliot attended what was called a "stunt show" at his cousin's house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Eliot was renting a room five or 10 minutes' walk away. It was arguably the most significant walk of his life.
He was to act out scenes from Jane Austen's Emma, assuming the part of Mr Woodhouse. Also taking part in the show was a young Boston beauty, Emily Hale. She sang six songs that night, entrancing her audience, as well as playing the crass, social-climbing Mrs Elton. The house, by Boston standards, was not so large, nor the parlour where the show took place. The audience was mostly family and friends. Amateur theatre. A bit of fun.
But behind the fun and the amateur theatrics, something else happened. Tom Eliot fell in love with Emily Hale. It was one of those nights on which lives turn. Eliot was 24: highly intelligent, cultured, more of a romantic than he probably cared to admit. Hale was 21: a born actor with a beautiful singing voice, a classical New England beauty. She longed to go on stage professionally, but her guardians never allowed her to. It was beneath her. Eliot and Hale were Boston Brahmin. Made for each other. Their union would seem to have been written in the stars – but it never happened.
Why? I've just written a novel that explores that question. A New England Affair covers most of Hale's life with Eliot, from that parlour-room stunt show to their final meetings. Eliot never wanted a biography written about him and all his life sought to protect his privacy. He would have been appalled with the idea of not just one novel about him, but a cycle of novels, as I have written: two of them about his largely secret, lifetime relationship with Emily Hale.
She was never his wife, as much as she wanted to be. She became, instead, his muse. The silent figure behind some of the greatest poetry of the 20th century: Burnt Norton, Ash Wednesday, Marina, La Figlia che Piange and others.
We didn't know this until well after T.S.Eliot's death in 1965. Eliot was, after all, the "impersonal" poet; that is, the personality of the poet was not manifest in the poetry, and knowledge of the poet's life was irrelevant in understanding the poetry. Therefore, one didn't go to the personal life in order to explore the poetry. For most of the 20th century, Hale was written out of history. She didn't exist. Eliot destroyed all her letters to him before he married for the second time in 1957. His 1131 letters to her are safely tucked away at Princeton University, not to be released until January 1, 2020; this was the agreement Hale made with the library when donating them in 1956.
The first time I read about Emily Hale was in 1976, when I read T.S.Matthews' Great Tom: Notes Towards a Definition of T.S.Eliot. It was the first biography of Eliot, and the first to speculate on the personal life of the "impersonal poet". But it was literary biographer Lyndall Gordon's ground-breaking books that really delved deeply into Eliot's private life, revealing just how personal those poems were. Robert Crawford's recent biography, Young Eliot, sheds further light.
It's due to the work of these biographers that we can now piece together what may or may not have happened, and that novelists like me can take the story into those places that only the novel go: invent scenes that never took place, put words into their mouths they never spoke, and have them interact with characters that don't exist outside the novel itself. All in the hope that somehow the imagination will triumph and deliver a portrait that resonates with its own authenticity: the kind of truth that no end of research and biography can give us.
After that night of amateur theatre, Tom and Emily saw much of each other. In today's language, they dated. Eliot was in love, but what of Hale? It seems that in 1914, just before Eliot left for Oxford on a year's travelling scholarship, he went to Hale to profess his love. Just what was said at that meeting can only be speculated. But it seems that Eliot left with the distinct impression that his feelings had not been reciprocated. Even in his 70s, he recalled this meeting with pained awkwardness: the pain of that separation still fresh after a lifetime. For, although Eliot was the one who was leaving, he was the one who felt left.
This early scene in the novel took continuous rewriting, the two of them, I imagined, like characters from a Henry James novel: circling each other, circling the thing they wanted to say, but never saying it. Hale was, it seems, in love with Eliot, but never said as much that day.
It's one of those crucial moments in someone's life when history, geography, social manners and custom assert themselves, when what should have been a simple thing to say – usually said in three words – was never spoken. They were not simply like characters from a James novel, they were the living models that James would have drawn his fiction from.
What was not said at that meeting may well have been crucial in determining their fate and a key reason they never married. Whole lives can turn on conversations like these: of confused messages, intimations and silences. Being young, Hale may well have thought she had all the time in the world to set things right, but events moved very quickly once Eliot left in 1914. (In his letters, Eliot vividly records being swept up by the outbreak of war.) Eliot and Hale did not meet again for at least another 12 years. When they finally did, they were different people.
Hale was kept a secret to avoid scandal. Eliot was a psychological mess as the result of his marriage breakdown.
Had Eliot believed his feelings had been returned and that Hale was waiting for him back in Boston when he returned from his year at Oxford, he might never have taken the impulsive plunge into his first marriage.
But in April 1915, not long after arriving in England, Eliot met the vivacious Vivienne Haigh-Wood at Oxford. From the north of England, she was sharp, witty and worldly. She was 26, had just come off a longish affair, and knew what sex was. Eliot was keen to unburden himself of his virginity. He was to say long after he left her that they should simply have had a short, passionate affair, then gone their separate ways. But they didn't. They married, hastily, in a registry office, and settled in London.
It was a union made in hell. The wedding night seems to have been a disaster. Eliot became cold and withdrawn, and the more he withdrew, the more Vivienne demanded and sought attention. Often outrageously. It was a marriage so miserable it produced in 1922 Eliot's ground-breaking 434-line poem, The Waste Land.
From 1915 to 1927 there seems to have been no contact between Eliot and Hale. But in 1927, when she was teaching in Wisconsin, Hale wrote to Eliot in London. He had, by this time, entered his years of fame: the author of The Waste Land, The Hollow Men and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. She wrote asking his advice in compiling a reading list for her students. She didn't need his advice: it was an excuse. Eliot, deeply unhappy, wrote back straight away.
By this time, Eliot was burning his bridges with his American past. In 1927 he became an English citizen and a strict High Anglican, rising at six every morning to pray. He felt he'd done enormous damage to Vivienne. His guilt was intense. For the misery he'd caused to have any meaning, it had to have been for more than simply leaving one relationship and beginning another. His atonement would not be found in human love, but in faith. The love between Eliot and Hale was to be a "higher" love.
Although he welcomed Hale's letter, and welcomed her back into his life, he was still a married man. Had he not still been married, it's possible Eliot and Hale would have wed at this time, and their story would be completely different. But he was, and they didn't. Eliot had taken a vow of celibacy, and the relationship that followed was necessarily platonic. It stayed that way; they knew each other for most of their lives but their relationship was never consummated.
Eliot finally left Vivienne when he sailed to the US to give a series of lectures at Harvard, which took out the academic year of 1932-33. Hale visited him at Harvard on numerous occasions. Marriage was out of the question while Vivienne was still alive, even though Eliot's solicitors had sent Vivienne a letter declaring his wish to separate. When Eliot returned to the UK he didn't return to their home, and didn't tell Vivienne where he lived.
Every year, from the early 1930s until 1939 when war separated them, Hale and her guardians, the Reverend and Mrs John Carroll Perkins, travelled from the US to spend the summer in south-west England, in the postcard Cotswold town of Chipping Camden. And every year, Eliot rushed from London to meet her. He gave her a ring. He promised that when he was free they would marry.
Throughout this time Hale was kept a secret - to avoid scandal. Eliot was a psychological mess as the result of his marriage breakdown, so it's quite possible it was already too late for them, that marriage to Hale would have failed.
Hale's consolation was to become his muse. In September 1934, they walked from Chipping Camden, where Eliot lodged with Hale's guardians while she stayed in the cottage next door, to the deserted estate of Burnt Norton. The result was Burnt Norton, the first of Eliot's four-part poetry series, Four Quartets.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose garden. My words echo
Thus in your mind
Hale is the "your". She and Eliot are the "we". The poem is a love letter.
This is the most complex, intricate and intriguing phase of the whole relationship. She would never have called herself his muse, but, at the same time, she read aloud to her students in various colleges across the US sections of Eliot's letters to her. Made it clear that she, Miss Hale, was the "your" in Burnt Norton, the silent lady in Ash Wednesday, the young woman in La Figlia che Piange who flings flowers to ground. It was probably her way of making their secret relationship public. A kind of recognition of it. A confirmation.
If the vanity of Hale was stirred, it was because no other part of her could be. To what extent did she agree to be his muse: to enter the role willingly, in either spoken words or silent consent? Give me my art – and I will make you immortal? Was that the promise, and were they each complicit? Or was she used? And not just artistically; one biographer claims Eliot was homosexual and used her as a front, a claim dismissed by most other biographers.
In 1939, the war divided Eliot and Hale. Eliot was in England, Hale in the US. Whatever chances they may have had of a life together were effectively gone. By the time they met again, in 1946, Eliot was 58, Hale 55.
Nonetheless, when Vivienne died in 1947, having been admitted to an asylum in 1938, Hale fully expected Eliot to marry her. He was now a free man. But Eliot was devastated by Vivienne's death. His guilt intensified. For a time, Vivienne became a more pervasive and powerful figure in death than she had been in life.
Eliot and Hale had well and truly missed their moment. One of the last times they met, it seems, was in 1947, while Eliot was in the US to receive an honorary doctorate from Harvard. One morning after breakfast at his family summer house in Gloucester, New England, he announced to family members that he would visit Miss Hale and ask to be released from his promise to marry her. Too late, was his verdict on a protracted, on-again/off-again courtship that had lasted about 33 years.
They met fleetingly afterwards but contact stopped when, in 1957, Eliot married his secretary, Valerie Fletcher, who was almost 40 years younger than him. His last seven years were the happiest of his life. Soon after their marriage, Eliot wrote a moving, confessional dedication to his young wife, in which he spoke of "lovers whose bodies smell of each other".
Hale, meanwhile, was admitted to the Massachusetts General Hospital in 1957 for a breakdown. At 66 years of age, she became what the world calls a "difficult" woman. She had waited all her life for Eliot. In the end, she had to content herself with the love letter – not the lover.
Steven Carroll's novel A New England Affair (HarperCollins Australia, $30) is out now.