Sunday, 6 January 2013

The Luxury of Woe (2 of 2)

Valerie Eliot died on 9th November 2012 at the age of 86, and with her passing we lost a great vidua bird - born too late for bombazine she nevertheless was and remained an exemplary widow, guarding Tom's legacy with polite ferocity and (some said) a whim of iron.

She married T. S. Eliot in 1957 (he was her boss at Faber, and 37 years her senior). They were both by all accounts blissfully happy together throughout the following eight years, Tom dying in 1965. For the next half century Valerie Eliot quietly and conscientiously managed her late husband's estate, making substantial contributions to the scholarship surrounding his work, notably the facsimile text of The Waste Land and three weighty collections of letters. She held out firmly if not always consistently against those wishing to exploit Eliot's work and reputation - researchers, academics and especially biographers regularly found their progress blocked.

She was generous and could afford to be, thanks to the enormous royalties earned by Andrew Lloyd Weber's musical version of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. Some critics sniped at her willingness to allow such a thing but the state benefited immeasurably, as did the recipients of her low-key largesse. Eliot himself loved musical theatre and would doubtless have relished the international success of his charming, inconsequential verses. No other Nobel laureate has ever won a Grammy.

Obituaries of Valerie Eliot tended to focus on her husband's disastrous first marriage, then on the contentment of the second and, almost begrudgingly, on her role as keeper of the flame. Valerie became a 50% shareholder in Faber and Faber, where Eliot had built up a distinguished poetry list (no longer what it was, alas, but then neither is poetry). She behaved discreetly and with a clear sense of purpose, remaining throughout five decades of viduity a dignified, low-key cultural figure. Compare, if you dare, the rowdy afterlife of Caitlin Thomas who, if alive today, would be gobbling slugs and snails in the jungle, possibly on television.

The Eliots did not attract much media attention, although there was recently the very odd case of a woman claiming to be not only Eliot's daughter but, more ambitiously, a pair of twin daughters. 48-year-old Alison Reynolds pretended to be both Claire and Chess Eliot, using wigs, stage make-up and costumes to present herself as at least 11 different aliases over the course of a decade, parlaying the fraudulent connection into an intermittently successful career as a theatre producer. She was sentenced to six years in 2011. Chess Eliot? 

An equally unlikely story involved a man who contacted the Faber offices some years ago claiming to be Eliot's  long-lost illegitimate son. It fell to Eliot's successor as poetry editor diplomatically to raise the matter over lunch with Valerie and gently to ask whether Tom might possibly have ever mentioned a possible heir. This she briefly and firmly denied and there the matter rested until a second letter arrived requesting a meeting at the Faber offices. There was a panicky sense of expectation on the day of his planned arrival, but the time passed and nobody turned up. This, in a sense, might be seen as a clincher - such self-denying diffidence being the likely hallmark of any Eliot offspring. Would it have been worth it after all?

Eliot's relict was the best of all literary widows in that she kept an iron grip on the legacy and discouraged shoddy exploitation. She was rather grand in an old-fashioned way, and something of her husband's power and influence as a cultural arbiter and public intellectual had rubbed off on her.  If not a national treasure she was certainly a national asset. Observers wryly noted her physical resemblance in later life to Baroness Thatcher.

There are fewer literary widowers - John Bailey comes to mind as custodian of Iris Murdoch's legacy. Ted Hughes is another, and like Valerie Eliot a discrete and careful guardian, although that doesn't impress the bug-eyed zealots who regularly deface the Heptonstall gravestone of Sylvia Plath-Hughes. The nature of viduity - and its masculine equivalent, which I suppose must be the same word - has changed. Is it partly that widows and widowers are, like orphans, reminders of a social order based on accepted inequalities, self-denial, stoicism and resilience? Valerie Eliot was unique but not alone, preceded by other feisty relicts including Natasha Spender, Sonia Orwell and Jill Balcon (widow of C. Day-Lewis, who campaigned for decades to get her late husband a spot in Poet's Corner). T. S. Eliot's widow was the last of her kind. Mourning became her.

          Press the grape, and let it pour
          Around the board its purple show’r;
          And, while the drops my goblet steep,
          I’ll think in woe the clusters weep.

          Weep on, weep on, my pouting vine!
          Heav’n grant no tears, but tears of wine.
          Weep on; and, as thy sorrows flow,
           I’ll taste the luxury of woe.

                                                        Thomas Moore  Anacreontic

See my Literary Review piece on Eliot's Letters Volume 3 here:

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