The story revolves around a cache of letters from T.S. Eliot to Emily Hale that Hale bequeathed to a university library (unnamed in the novel) in 1965, with the stipulation that they not be opened until 2020. This is true; the letters are at Princeton, sealed until 2020. The archivist’s wife is a poet, and they share an interest in Eliot. After her death he takes the university position right around the time of the bequest and meets a graduate student who is interested in the letters.
Eliot’s work weaves in and out, as do issues of Jewishness, war atrocities, conversion, and identity. Eliot’s life with and abandonment of his first wife Vivienne comes into it but not so much their London milieu, with a few exceptions, including this:
Roberta (the student) to Matthias (the archivist):
I was just remembering how Virginia Woolf once said Eliot was sordid and intense. Did you know that when he was still married to Vivienne, he occasionally wore face powder when they went to dinner parties? Can you imagine? I guess he couldn’t resist the temptation to dramatize his suffering—God knows Vivienne wore hers on her sleeve.
Of course I had to see if that was accurate (Woolf’s description, not the face powder) and found it in Woolf’s Diary, Nov. 12, 1934, about a performance of Eliot’s uncompleted verse drama, “Sweeney Agonistes”: “The acting made more sense than the reading but I doubt that Tom has enough of a body & brain to bring off a whole play: certainly he conveys an emotion, an atmosphere: which is more than most: something peculiar to himself; sordid, emotional, intense—a kind of Crippen, in a mask: modernity & poetry locked together.”
Seems to me she’s talking more about the play and his approach to it than Eliot himself. While she does implicate Eliot’s character and craft with her curt observations, the quote, out of context, strikes me as a bit too convenient for Cooley, the Woolf citation too dishy to resist. Still, it was a fascinating novel.
- The Archivist (somanybooksblog.com)
- T.s. Eliot Poetry Book Sells At Auction For $7,000 (contactmusic.com)