Earlier this year, my colleague Justin de Vries blogged about the post-mortem release of dueling love letters from T.S. Eliot and his friend/inamorata Emily Hale. However, there is now a happier news story regarding the impact of Mr. Eliot from beyond the grave. The Bronte Parsonage, in England, is a museum of the family home of the Bronte sisters that usually attracts 70,000 visitors per year. Due to the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, attendance has shrivelled and the Parsonage was threatened with closure.
The Bronte Society (the charity that owns the Parsonage) launched an online funding campaign and, unexpectedly, received a £20,000 donation from T.S. Eliot’s estate. Interestingly, enough Eliot’s poem the Waste Land’s reference to “a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire” may have referred to Sir James Robert – the man who gifted the Parsonage to the Bronte Society in 1928. Eliot’s estate may have saved the Parsonage.
While the story is heart-warming, it raises a question. Eliot died in 1965. Why is an estate for a man who died over half a century ago still active? Eliot died a wealthy man, the UK’s online probate search shows that his probated estate was worth £105,272, or approximately CAD$3.5 million in today’s dollars. While this is not an insignificant amount, far larger estates are wound-up far quicker. However, one practical difference between an author’s estate and other estates is not only the continued income stream derived from the sale of an author’s works but new adaptations of these works. It is easier for those who want to option a late author’s works to have a ‘one spot shopping’ experience (i.e. an estate) rather than attempting to corral a series of heirs. Authors may also be loathe to gift the literary rights to their heirs, if they worry that the heirs may allow some unsavoury or lackadaisical adaptions of their works.
This brings us back to the gift to the Parsonage. The estate advised that the gift had been made possible due to payments made from the movie-musical Cats (based off of Eliot’s collection of poems Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and other of his cat-related oeuvre). Some might say that this critically derided movie is exactly the sort of monstrosity that authors hoped to avoid by having a long-standing estate. However, Eliot’s estate trustee, believes that he would have liked the movie, stating: “If you take all those things he loved, they’re all in the film, and I like to imagine him sitting in the cinema with a smile on his face.” She did acknowledge that it was startling to see “Judi Dench’s face covered in fur.”