New Insight into the Friendship of Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

“THEY HAVE FINALLY recovered her body.” I found the typed words in the April 22, 1941, letter hard to read. T. S. Eliot let the typewriter ribbon get frustratingly old at times, but it wasn’t just the faint print. Seeing this starkly written in one of Eliot’s many letters to his longtime love, Emily Hale, brought back vividly the period of uncertainty Virginia Woolf’s friends and family endured for 21 days.

Woolf’s death by suicide, loading her pockets with stones and wading into the River Ouse, is perhaps the most famous in literary history. I’d heard about it countless times and tried to teach my students to avoid allowing her death to color their reading of Woolf’s lyrical and often exuberant novels (though her suicide is often all they know about Woolf’s reputation). And yet, I had forgotten that, for three weeks, her family and friends could hope against hope, even as her final note to her husband Leonard — “I owe all the happiness of my life to you. […] I cant go on spoiling your life any longer” — had been found, even as her walking stick, now visited like a relic at the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library, was discovered, discarded on the riverbank. In Eliot’s letter to Hale, we see the relief that comes with dreadful certainty: “I am glad,” Eliot continues. “She was to me like a member of my own family.”

Nearly two years ago, an archive of letters was unsealed at Princeton that radically changed the way scholars understand the life and work of T. S. Eliot. Two months later, with COVID-19 numbers soaring, this long-awaited archive slammed shut again. On Monday, October 18, 2021, I was the first external scholar finally to return to those papers. Unsurprisingly, the focus of readers so far has been on the shocking relationship memorialized in the letters between Eliot and Emily Hale, the American teacher with whom he was avowedly in love. But the Hale letters contain at least one other revelation, with profound and as yet unexplored consequences for the history of literary modernism. We now know more details about Eliot’s invitation to visit Woolf on the weekend that her death was announced in 1941. She had invited him on March 8, when she felt herself spiraling into depression again. He declined the invitation due to a cold. He wrote about the coincidence of the timing in a regretful letter to Hale.

What if? After seeing the letters, I couldn’t shake this question. What if Eliot’s illness hadn’t kept him home, what if he’d eagerly accepted the invitation and shown up at the Woolfs’ house in Sussex for the weekend, as he had several times before? Would his presence at Monk’s House — sometimes an irritant, always an interest — have mattered if Woolf’s most recent depression were as strong as during her previous suicide attempts in 1913–’15? Or what if Eliot had quit smoking, which exacerbated his bronchitis, or ignored his doctor’s advice and headed to Sussex anyway? As Woolf tended to publish four works in a decade, might we have two more Woolf novels and two more political essays — more vibrant and vitriolic than even the feminist Three Guineas (1938) — if she had lived only 10 more years? Would her diaries, lovingly edited by her husband Leonard after her death, an inspiration for so many writers, never have seen publication? In the drafting of Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Woolf considered having her heroine, Clarissa Dalloway, die and then changed her mind, so that Septimus Warren Smith, the soldier suffering from wartime trauma, jumps from the window instead, while Clarissa returns to her friends Peter Walsh and Sally Seton, and to her party, though she was “glad” he had done it, had jumped with his treasure. Would Eliot’s visit, like that of Peter to Clarissa, have somehow altered Woolf’s fate?

. . . .

When we think of Eliot as a personal poet, three major women in his life — Emily (his longtime epistolary love), Vivien (his tormented first wife), and Valerie (his second wife, nearly 40 years his junior) — take on a renewed centrality. Eliot’s private letters to Hale will forever change our ideas about his poetic sources and biography. Eliot’s decision not to marry Emily after Vivien’s death, his anger that she left his letters to Princeton during their lifetimes (though donating them to an archive had always been their plan), his decision to burn her side of the correspondence, his bitter statement released by the Houghton (perhaps dictated by Valerie), timed for the opening of the archive in 2020 — much has been said, and more needs to be said about all of this, and the repercussions for understanding Eliot’s criticism, poetry, and plays. Not yet published, these 1,131 letters will also modify our understanding of Eliot’s relationship to Virginia Woolf.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

The OP is lengthy, but PG found it fascinating (YMMV). There are also several photos of Woolf and Eliot.