On Valerie Eliot

Dr. Lockerd reflects on the life of Valerie Eliot.

By Ben Lockerd

Valerie Eliot’s life was a strange sort of Cinderella story. She became an admirer of T. S. Eliot’s poetry at a young age and eagerly applied later for the job of secretary to Mr. Eliot at Faber and Faber. Ten years after the death of Eliot’s unfortunate first wife, he surprised his friends by marrying his secretary. Those friends were perhaps even more surprised when it turned out to be a happy marriage, bringing great joy to the aging poet. Tom passed away less than a decade after their wedding, leaving Valerie to a long widowhood. Not long into it, she gave permission to Andrew Lloyd Webber to use her husband’s delightful poems for children, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, as the text for his musical Cats, royalties from which made her wealthy. Soon she owned a goodly share in the Faber firm and had her own secretary there—a deliciously happy turn of events.

Mrs. Eliot became an editor of her husband’s work, producing an excellent facsimile edition of the drafts of The Waste Land and beginning publication of his letters. She also became a rather fierce guardian of his literary legacy, frequently denying permission to quote from unpublished material, especially the letters—and often denying permission even to see those writings. She became suspicious of academic Eliot scholars—not without reason. Many of those scholars were intent on accusing her late husband of all manner of evil—particularly of anti-Semitism and misogyny. And they were typically more concerned with advancing their own careers than with elucidating Eliot’s work. A friend told me the story of a prominent scholar who was invited to work in the Eliots’ library in their Kensington flat—until Mrs. Eliot caught him trying to steal a book. No wonder she developed a prejudice against academics as a group.

The unfortunate result was that it became difficult for those who wanted to study Eliot to do so. After publication of the first volume of letters in 1988, nothing more appeared until twenty years later. No scholarly, annotated editions of Eliot’s works were allowed. Access to unpublished materials and permission to quote from them was frequently denied.

My own experience was happier, partly thanks to the intercession of Dr. and Mrs. Kirk. Still, I found it a challenging process to gain access to unpublished papers in the Houghton Library at Harvard. My letter requesting to work in the archive was answered by Mrs. Eliot after a long delay, and then she instructed me to specify the documents I wanted to see. Once I got the catalogue from the library and sent my list of requests, I had to wait a good long time again, but Mrs. Eliot did allow me to see most of what I asked for (only excepting the letters). Once I was ready to publish my findings, I had to ask permission to quote from these documents—and Mrs. Eliot graciously granted that permission. I was a little surprised to learn that she and the publishers required a fairly substantial fee from me for permission to quote from both published and unpublished works of Eliot, but I was happy for the permissions.

In 2004, I organized a conference of the Eliot Society in London, and I invited Mrs. Eliot to attend a reception at the end of the conference as our honored guest. I was happy when she did agree to join us. Members of our group were mostly critical of Mrs. Eliot’s tight control over her husband’s works, but in the event they all became fans of hers. At the reception we met an elderly but sprightly woman—slender, well-dressed, and gracious. She chatted easily and cheerfully with us, and we all liked her immediately. I recall a bit of conversation in which she spoke of her Yorkies and said with a twinkle in her eye, “Tom liked cats, but I like doggies!” We were completely charmed.

I don’t know whether this happy meeting of academics was partly responsible, but shortly after this Mrs. Eliot began to release material at last. She chose a co-editor to help her with the letters and published a second and then a third volume. She chose an editor for the complete prose works (which will run to some seven volumes) and another for the poetry and plays. Soon these scholarly editions will spark a renaissance in the study of Eliot’s writings. I thank Mrs. Eliot for setting these new editions in motion before her passing. God bless her.

Dr. Benjamin G. Lockerd is Professor of English at Grand Valley State University and Secretary of the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. He wrote the introduction to Russell Kirk’s book, Eliot and His Age, and is a past president of the T. S. Eliot Society.