17 August 2022
This may be my I-think-I’ll-stay-home-for-awhile blog! Does that give away much of what I thought of London? (Of course, outside of London is another story!) We’ll see. . .
London was iconic: phone booths, double-decker buses, awful food (breakfast: beans on toast). . . .
In mid-July 2022 I went there for a week-long “summer school” on T.S. Eliot which is held annually, run by the International T.S. Eliot Society. I decided to reacquaint myself with scholarship. In some ways it was mistake; in others, it was rejuvenating. Let me explain.
The T.S. Eliot Summer School, offered annually at facilities of London University, is a gathering of scholars and fans interested in the work of T.S. Eliot. This was its twelfth year running, and repeat attendees are encouraged; one woman indicated that this was her seventh attendance!
There were about 75 participants this year (lower than usual, I found out, because many of the Indian and Bangladeshi who applied were unable to get visas in time; their applications had been set aside so that Great Britain could accommodate a greater number of Ukrainians fleeing the war), from all over the world.
The T.S. Eliot Society International is U.S.-based, established to encourage, create, and publish research about Eliot in particular and modernism in general. This year, the scholarship was not limited to but was overwhelmingly about biography. The reason for this was a recent event: in 2020, a trove (over 1000 pieces) of letters that Eliot wrote to a woman named Emily Hale was finally released for reading by scholars; these had been sealed at Princeton University until 50 years after her death (her stipulation). And, there’s a story behind this, too.
Eliot met Miss Hale when he was still a student at Harvard. Going to the Europe for graduate studies, he declared his love for her in a letter. She did not reciprocate, but indicated she considered him a friend. Their friendship went nowhere until 1922 when Eliot was in England and already married to an Englishwoman, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, for seven years. Emily had visited relatives and contacted Eliot. The relationship—described by scholars as “intense but chaste”—was carried on in earnest in letters starting in 1930. They met almost every summer after that, visiting various places in England, notably Burnt Norton, an estate in Gloucestershire, which inspired Eliot to write a poem with the same name.
Okay, a platonic love story, right? It gets more interesting: through most of the letters, Eliot tells Emily that if he were free, he would certainly marry her, he loves her so much. However, when his wife Vivienne was committed to a mental institution in 1938 (she had always been troubled) it gave him the opportunity to divorce her (and marry Hale). He refused to do so, claiming that the religion he had just converted to (Anglican) would frown on divorce, especially his (since he was by then a famous poet). He did, however, continue to write to Emily Hale, almost weekly, as she did to him.
There’s more! After Vivienne’s death (1947), when it seemed that Eliot was finally free to marry Emily Hale, he declared himself celibate. Alas, Emily (no feminist here!) accepted this turn of events as well, but she was in for more disappointment. In 1957, Eliot, 68, married his secretary, Valerie, at Faber & Faber publishers; she was 38 years his junior. He wrote a rather neutral letter to inform Emily Hale; she sent polite congratulatory notes to both him and his wife.
It is now speculated by some that his marriage was, in part, a reaction to the fact that Emily—who’d kept all his letters—donated her collection to Princeton in 1956 (Eliot wanted both his and her letters to be donated to Harvard and sealed until 50 years after their deaths). Clearly upset, Eliot demanded that a friend destroy all of Emily Hale’s letters to him. In a 1960 letter, which he stipulated be released when his letters to Emily were made public, he essentially trashed Emily Hale, saying that she was not a lover of poetry and that she “would have killed the poet” in him. Did he do this because he was angry with her? Because he didn’t want his wife, Valerie, to feel slighted? We will never know. He said his love for Emily was “the love of a ghost for a ghost,” meaning that they were no longer the people who had first met and fell in love.
So, back to the “summer school.” I went “whole-hog”; i.e., registered for the various sessions (Sunday through Sunday), booked a room at the London University student housing, and packed for a rainy, cool London.
My troubles started at the airport. Two hours to get out of Heathrow! Just everything so spread out, one needs wheeled transportation to get around. Then, two hours to get to the dorm (I arrived the day Boris Johnson resigned; the streets were clogged with demonstrations).
The room was true “student.” Consider this: I went to an urban college—no dorms—so I had no understanding of what a “dorm” was like. I do now: it’s spartan, not unlike photos I’ve seen of military barracks. It was livable, but not comfy.
Worse, the temps in London were hotter than normal (and I wasn’t there during the worst of their heat wave). So, the good news about the dorm room is that the previous occupant had left a table fan. I ran it 24/7. The bad news is that just about NOWHERE in London was there air conditioning. They don’t normally need it or use it. Ugh. I showered twice a day.
The summer school itself was informative if a bit numbing. Because the T.S. Eliot letters in the Hale collection were only unsealed in 2020, and then closed during the pandemic and only recently reopened, all the scholarship was focused on those letters and the new biographical information about Eliot. I’ve never been a big fan of biographical criticism, so this got tedious for me at times. The other critical approach was totally new (and suspect, in my opinion): “eco-criticism”; i.e., how the author’s work concerns itself with ecology and the environment. (Ho-hum.) I admit—and attribute it to my advanced age—having difficulty staying awake at times in a room relatively stuffy and humid during a ninety-minutes-plus lecture by a talking head who seldom moderated his/her voice beyond monotone. I don’t think I ever fell fast asleep, but I certainly nodded off a fair number of times.
The three highlights (the rest of the program was ok but very academic and a bit pedantic) were the three events that took us out of the environs of London University and Senate House (an imposing but un-air-conditioned structure). These were two day trips outside of London and one evening of celebration and poetry reading at the private London Library. (There was an optional trip to the Globe Theatre for Shakespeare’s King Lear as well as an optional walking tour of Eliot’s places in London. I opted out of both: I love Lear but was unwilling to sit in the unbearable heat for 2-1/2 hours; the heat was also my excuse for not taking the walking tour.)
We traveled by bus (yay, air-conditioned) almost 75 miles north to Little Gidding in Cambridgeshire the first Sunday. It was glorious to see the English countryside (real thatched roofs!) and meet so many folks who admired Eliot the poet so much. A special treat at Little Gidding—the site of one of Eliot’s Four Quartets—was a reading of The Waste Land by actor Simon Callow. No, not a reading—a dramatization complete with Callow doing various voices from the poem. I had never heard The Waste Land done this way and it absolutely amazed me. I had rediscovered the poem through this performance, and I loved it all over again with the same energy and enthusiasm I’d felt about it back in the mid 60s when I first read it. Callow also did a very meditative (intensely emotional) reading of the poem “Little Gidding.” I wished I’d been able to record both readings; they cannot, unfortunately, remain so vivid in my mind.
At Little Gidding, I also met someone I’d corresponded in email with: the editor of the newsletter of the T.S. Eliot Society UK, a group less academic than the international association but no less enthusiastic. This fellow, a clergyman, was as delightful as his emails! We agreed that Callow’s interpretation of The Waste Land had been nothing short of brilliant. It should be noted that this Little Gidding event, an annual gathering for the UK Society, had just been reinstated after the two-year pandemic, so it had a special significance for all: a return to a beloved event for them, a re-established connection with the world at large (largely through the summer school participants). We were treated to a wonderful lunch and then, a few hours later, English tea and cakes.
Burnt Norton, about 75 miles northwest of London, is privately-owned by Lord Harrowby in Gloucestershire; it is an extensive estate of gardens where Eliot and Emily Hale happened upon a dried pool, the inspiration for Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” one of his Four Quartets. Our visit there included a picnic lunch (brought from London), free visits to the house and gardens, and a lecture. Lord Harrowby and his wife were congenial hosts, but the highlight of the trip was, of course, a visit to the drained pool while listening to a recording of Eliot reading “Burnt Norton.” So many visitors with the same emotional response has imbued this place with a palpable mysticism.
Finally, there was a small “gala” at the London Library, which Eliot used and eventually became a director of. This was to be the finale of the summer school – we took pictures, sipped champagne, and were treated to a reading by the poet Sasha Dugdale. It was a fitting end at which we all agreed, only partially in jest, that we’d “learned enough about Emily Hale.”
The best part of the trip, for me, was meeting new people. The pandemic had made me eager to socialize. In the company of these scholars and academicians, I felt very unworthy indeed, although I came to a wonderful realization as a result of this seminar: long ago, when I first started teaching and was still working on my graduate degrees, I decided—consciously—that I preferred teaching to research, that the satisfaction of inspiring a student far outweighed the completion of an academic paper. I wanted to be a teacher, not a scholar. Understanding this so many years later, in this company of established scholars and graduate students yearning to finish doctorates and/or join the company of scholarship, I felt liberated to enjoy everything, even see some of it as slightly comical (pedantry at its most silly).
The people—presenters, organizers, participants, guests, etc.—were all uniformly great. I met folks from France, England, Ireland, Italy, the U.S., India, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Serbia (and there were more I just didn’t get to talk with). We ranged in age from the barely twenties to the late seventies. I got to drink in pubs, eat fish and chips, and eat Italian and Chinese food with others who found cheese-and-pickle sandwiches less appealing.
Finally, the first day of the conference, after the session ended, on the way back to my room (a few blocks away), I fell flat on my face (you don’t want to see the pictures). My ego was significantly more bruised than my nose and eyes (so clumsy!). The next day, some were brave enough to ask, “What happened to you?” on seeing my two black eyes and scraped nose. “I was in a pub last night and argued with someone about who was the better poet, Eliot or William Carlos Williams. You oughtta see the other guy.” That was my story and I stuck to it until I admitted my lack of poise.
I clearly have mixed feelings about London.
It really was a fun trip. Oh, yes, I bent my eyeglasses out of shape and ended up with what my family doctor described as “a nondisplaced fracture” of my nose, meaning I just have to live for the next few months with a little wheezing. C’est la vie.
Here’s a pic of all the participants, presenters, and organizers (at Burnt Norton); I’m the one in the middle front with the pinkish shirt, sunglasses, and short gray hair.