My article this week for Imaginative Conservative is about the women in T.S.Eliot’s life. His disastrous marriage to Vivienne Haigh Wood and his happy marriage to Valerie Fletcher are well known. What is not so well known is that he had a long term friendship with an old college flame, Emily Hale.
Between the harpy Vivienne and the hestia Valerie stood a third important woman in Eliot’s life, who remained an enigmatic Beatrice-like figure. Eliot met Emily Hale in 1913 while he was a student at Harvard. He was taking part in a home-grown evening of amateur dramatics playing (like a prescient Prufrock) Mr. Woodhouse in an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma; Emily played the pompous vicar’s wife, Mrs. Elton.
Emily Hale’s father was an Unitarian minister. She wanted to be an actress, but that profession deemed below the Boston Brahmin society, she wound up being a drama teacher. Eliot’s biographers believe that the two had a romance at that stage. Charting the biographical milestones, some believe she was the inspiration for Eliot’s early poem La Figlia Che Piange, which is a reverie for a lost love—a young woman who was rejected.
Eliot and Hale stayed in touch after he moved to England. He sent her a copy of his book of poetry. She visited London several times in the 1920s. Did they meet? It seems probable. Was she a Beatrice figure: the idealized beauty and the love that was never to find earthly fulfillment? In 1927, after thirteen years of miserable marriage to Vivienne, Eliot and Hale re-established regular contact. She visited him in England, and whenever he crossed the Atlantic, he always spent time with Miss Hale. The girls in the college where she taught would anticipate the regular visits of their drama teacher’s august friend from England and gossiped about their relationship.
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