“The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter, It isn’t just one of your holiday games; You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.”
T.S. Eliot died in 1965. However, the great American/English poet has been in the news of late not because of the movie Cats, which generally garnered poor reviews and some derision (the movie is based Eliot’s famous poem “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”), but because of love letters he exchanged with Emily Hale. Hale is widely regarded as one of Eliot’s muses, though Eliot later contested that description. As with his poetry, the story surrounding Eliot and Hale makes for an interesting read.
Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, to a relatively prominent family. He studied at Harvard, the Sorbonne and Oxford. At the age of 25, England became Eliot’s home where he married (twice) and worked for the rest of his life. Eliot later became a British subject, converted to Anglicanism, and renounced his American citizenship (he said he felt more comfortable in England).
Before he left for England, Eliot fell in love with Hale. They exchanged letters while Eliot studied at Oxford, but did not meet again until 1927.
In 1915, Eliot married Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a Cambridge governess. Eliot’s marriage to Vivienne was unhappy. Eliot and Vivienne eventually separated and she was ultimately committed to an asylum. While Eliot described his marriage as a “nightmare,” he allowed that it “keep the poet [in him] alive.”
From 1933 to 1946, Eliot and Hale were involved in some sort of close, emotional relationship. The exact nature of the relationship has been a matter of debate – was it platonic, sexual or something in-between? Luckily for Eliot’s fans, and commensurate with the times in which they lived, Eliot and Hale corresponded extensively.
When the relationship with Hale ended, Eliot sadly destroyed Hale’s letters to him. However, Hale donated over 1,100 of Eliot’s letters to her to Princeton University. In gifting the letters, Hale stipulated that the letters were only to be unsealed 50 years after she or Eliot had died, whichever came last (she likely wanted to protect Eliot and his second marriage to his much younger secretary).
When Eliot learned of Hale’s donation, he sent his own account of the relationship to Harvard (his alma matter) with the stipulation that his responding account not be opened until Hale’s letters were unsealed (a literary tit-for-tat).
All of which brings us to 2020 – fifty years after Hale’s death and the release of Hale’s letters and Eliot’s response. In his account, Eliot denied having “sexual relations” with Hale and wrote: “I came to see my love for Emily was the love of a ghost for a ghost, and that the letters I had been writing to her were the letters of an hallucinated man, a man vainly trying to pretend to himself that he was the same man that he had been in 1914.” Rather cruelly, he said that Hale would have killed the poet in him. However, Eliot’s letters to Hale are both passionate and revealing – Hale clearly was some sort of inspiration to Eliot.
Eliot’s “love letters” to Hale will undoubtedly add to the body of scholarly research surrounding him. But the 50 year restriction imposed by Hale on the release of the letters also raises interesting legal points. First, Hale’s gift of the letters to Princeton was made while she was alive, not in her will (the law of wills therefore does not apply). Second, while it may be tempting to describe Hale’s agreement as a “conditional gift” (i.e. the letters could only be unsealed in 50 years), that description misses the legal mark. It seems to me that both Hale’s gift and Eliot’s pointed response were really “gift agreements” with the two universities based on contract law. When Hale gave her letters to Princeton, Princeton must have agreed to accept the transfer on the condition that the letters would not be unsealed until 50 years after the last of Hale or Eliot to die. In the case of Eliot, his “gift agreement” with Harvard must have stated that his response to Hale’s 1,100 love letters was not to be released until Hale’s letters were unsealed.
What a tangled web they weaved. However, in the end, scholars will gain new insight into Eliot, his life, and his poetry.