A literary widow

Valerie Eliot, the widow of Thomas Stearns Eliot, died Friday in London, a little less than half a century after her husband. We caught a glimpse of her once in the London Library: a magnificent dowager empress of a woman. She donated a substantial part of the huge copyright earnings from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical, Cats (based on Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book) to an expansion of that most Alexandrian of all private libraries, in the north-west corner of St James’s Square. But at the time we saw her, she was there only to borrow books.

Eliot had once been president of that library, founded by Carlyle in 1841. We resented the expansion, unreasonably, because it involved the destruction of the old philosophy bunker, many floors up top of one of the newer columns of an extraordinary three-dimensional labyrinth. To find it required first locating a succession of three different staircases (two of them helical) through meanders in which one glimpsed, through iron floor grates, book stacks over stacks dropping many storeys down.

“Bunker” was the word, for that particular column of the library was built of poured concrete, & the room at top housed numerous ancient folio volumes, many of them with shrapnel still embedded from a German bomb in the last World War. One long shard had passed all the way through An Essay Concerning the Human Understanding, with supplementary treatises by John Locke, pinning it permanently shut. (Who says there is no God?) No one ever seemed to visit that room, & for several years we appropriated a little oak school desk, on runners by a south-facing window. We visited almost daily, leaving our notebooks & other low-value equipage in a bottom drawer, never to be disturbed. Our heart seizes up with nostalgia when we remember that room, & so many others in the London Library, including the rather grand, high, L-shaped formal Reading Room, where magnificent old toffs slept in wide cushioned armchairs, with the old broadsheet Times covering their faces, rising & falling with their snores.

How often, in London, we preferred the Luftwaffe’s alterations to what was rebuilt post-War, in a 1950s style one architecture critic dubbed, Late Georgian Bomb Damage. But the London Library expansions all happened the day before yesterday. Money is a terrible destroyer of character. The buildings are now climate-controlled & wheelchair accessible, if you know what we mean. When we last walked in, we hardly recognized the place, & a new generation of PR-trained, smileyfaced staff had replaced all the high-collared ghosts, who looked at one disapprovingly, & were pellucidly unhelpful. We had stepped into the future, where everything is “nice.”

Not that we blame Valerie Eliot. Instead we blame Margaret Thatcher, for making Britain prosperous in an ugly age. It was still such a beautifully decaying & dysfunctional, class-ridden ruin in the 1970s. That much we can say for socialism. By the 1990s we had people with truly vile accents, dripping with their gains from the most vulgar imaginable economic activities.

This piece in the Daily Telegraph, by an unusually well-informed hack, celebrates the passing of literary widows. Mrs Eliot, along with Sonia Orwell, Natasha Spender, Kathleen Tynan, & Mrs Cecil Day-Lewis, were among the formidable legion, all now finally dead. As Peter Stanford writes, they were mostly second wives (the first having conveniently predeceased), decades younger than the famous men they married. Each lived on, tenaciously to fight for her husband’s reputation, & to fulfil the actual requirements of his will. The idea of a devoted wife became in the meantime so alien & unbelievable, that they were made into “pantomime villains,” to whom the lowest motives were casually assigned. But in the case of Valerie Eliot especially, a formidable woman who could hold her own against the filth.

Her greatest accomplishment consisted of decades of implacable opposition to biographers intent upon invading T.S. Eliot’s private life, & thereby depriving him of his dignity. A capable scholar, she took control of the editing of the poet’s letters & manuscripts; & shrewdly managed the estate to raise the considerable sums with which to endow not only the London Library, but the English department of Newnham College at Cambridge, & many other arts & literary institutions. A figure of the Establishment she was, & as her husband once became — among the more remarkable accomplishments of a man who was essentially a chain-smoking bohemian. For he was also a Christian; one who could still conceive Christendom as an Establishment, to be inhabited & served.