Edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden
(Faber and Faber, 2013); hdbk, £40
Reviewing Roger Scruton’s recent book Our Church, the historian Diarmaid MacCulloch found against it, and in interesting terms: ‘A similar historical farrago of half-truths and wishful thinking,’ he said, ‘helped convert TS Eliot to high church Anglicanism in the 1920s’ (Guardian, 22.06.2013). The present volume of Eliot’s letters covers precisely the moment of this conversion. But a number of notable features emerge. The conversion and its expressions were in fact deeply felt. ‘I have […] made my first confession, and feel as if I had crossed a very wide and deep river: whether I get much farther or not, I feel very certain that I shall not cross back, and that in itself gives one a very extraordinary sense of surrender and gain’, he wrote to William Force Stead. Gossip had it that Eliot had become a Catholic. Over and over, he was at pains to refute this idea. He pleaded with Mark Wardle: ‘If you should hear any more rumours of my having become a Roman Catholic I should be very much obliged if you would deny them.’ To his aunt Johanna he confided: ‘[i]t is wonderful to find a spiritual home anywhere, but one finds it, I think, more among simple people than among these complicated sects.’
MacCulloch may be right about Eliot’s romance with (to paraphrase Harold Bloom) the English Religion. But as the letters in this volume show, there can be no mistaking the seriousness of his commitment, or his perception of it as a movement towards resolving his thought and feeling ‘among simple people’. As footnoted by the editors, Virginia Woolf dismissed Eliot’s conversion after he visited her, in a letter to her sister Vanessa. The visit, she said, was ‘a most shameful and distressing interview with poor dear Tom, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward […] I was really shocked. A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is.’ If Eliot had any inkling that this was how some important friends thought of him, the knowledge was no deterrent.
The letters, as one would expect, are wide ranging in their connections and interests. Among these is Eliot’s attempt to raise sufficient finance to keep The Criterion going, monthly or quarterly, after Lady Rothermere had withdrawn her backing. Many of the letters are necessarily concerned with this effort. But it is also interesting to find Eliot telling W.H. Hindle that ‘I should like to consider the possibility of having regular, or irregular, film notices in The Criterion’, although there was currently no space for film criticism. Eliot’s theatre work meant he was acutely aware of the theatrical and scenic; and his (and others’) views on cinema would have been valuable, particularly at a time when the movies were becoming the talkies.
Of particular interest, is Eliot’s sense of himself as a poet. To Lincoln Kirstein, he admits ‘it is quite impossible for me to bring any critical judgment to bear on any criticism of my own work.’ More consequentially, he confesses to John Gould Fletcher: ‘I often have very grave doubts about my own merit as a poet, but I console myself with the reminder that […] after all it doesn’t matter and that none of us will ever know.’ This tension between poetic doubt and religious certainty is illuminating.
On a comic note: Eliot sent his mother an account of Haig’s funeral. ‘Haig was Scotch,’ he wrote; and the ‘English and Scotch […] at home […] are two different peoples.’ He added: ‘I always have to be tactful with Scotch people, because they think my name is Elliot, and they say you must be Scotch, why do you spell it Eliot. So then I apologise for not being Scotch.’