Saturday History Lessons: On Emily Hale and T.S. Eliot


One February night in T.S. Eliot’s mid-twenties, he went his aunt’s house in Boston. It was 1913, and the occasion was one of those delightful-sounding “evenings of amateur theatricals” that no one bothers with anymore. (It’s a tradition that really ought to be revived, if anyone’s asking me.) Eliot performed as Mr. Woodhouse in scenes drawn from Jane Austen’s Emma. One of the actresses performing opposite him, as the imperious Mrs. Elton, was a young woman named Emily Hale.

Hale was the daughter of an architect-turned-Unitarian-minister, but she lived with her aunt and uncle because her mother was mentally ill, and thus deemed unable to care for her daughter. The aunt and uncle were Unitarians, too. That was how Hale’s circle crossed with Eliot’s, according to his biographer, Lyndall Gordon, who quotes Eliot as joking “that his family’s relation to Boston Unitarianism was like that of the Borgias to the papacy.” Unlike the heavily-educated Eliot, who was by then a graduate student studying Sanskrit, Hale never went to college. She had always wanted to be an actress, but her aunt and uncle thought it improper for her to appear on a public stage. Boston society was terribly high on propriety. So for awhile, Hale was forced to only do only the kind of semi-private performances like the one she gave that evening.

Hale and Eliot had met before , but something about that performance seems to have stuck with him. Eliot’s biographers believe that he and Hale had some kind of love affair thereafter. Then Eliot left for Oxford on a scholarship in 1914, and in a span of four months the next year, met and married his first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood. The regrets he had of that marriage, and his unfair treatment of Vivienne, are well-chronicled elsewhere. It is clear, however, that Emily Hale remained on his mind. She is thought to have inspired more than a few of his poems, and he sent her a copy of one of his books of poetry. She visited London a few times in the early 1920s, and though there is no record of their having met then, it seems possible, even likely, that they did. In his poems and plays and essays, the allusions to her are always of an idealized woman. It’s possible his “Song of Saint Sebastian” is about Hale, as it was probably drafted before he met Vivienne:

I would come in a shirt of hair
I would come with a lamp in the night
And sit at the foot of your stair;
I would flog myself until I bled,
And after hour on hour of prayer
And torture and delight
Until my blood should ring the lamp
And glisten in the light…

Whatever the case, it took until 1927 for the two to resume regular contact. Eliot was still married to Vivienne, but she was ill and the marriage went very poorly. Hale would visit him in London and he would visit her in the United States over the coming years many times. They kept their relationship secret in Boston particularly, fearing scandal. He would come out to speak at Scripps College, where Hale was later employed, at her behest, sparking rumours among the students she would not confirm. In the mid-thirties she took a leave from Scripps and hung around in Europe for a year, presumably hoping that Eliot would finally marry her. She met Virginia Woolf and Ottoline Morrell, but both disliked her. But Eliot never did propose still agonizing over the problem of Vivienne, from whom he was now formally separated but still not quite disentangled.

Hale returned home to Boston in late 1935 and promptly fell into a deep depression. Alarmed, Eliot came to the United States to visit her, but still went back to London alone. She began teaching at Smith. They continued to visit each other, and to write letters. He would always describe himself as very much in love with Hale in this period; apparently he regarded her as a lost chance for perfection in his life. But in “Burnt Norton,” the first poem in Four Quartets, about a visit to an old country manor with Hale, notes of doubt seem to creep in:

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

When Vivienne finally died in a mental hospital, in 1947, she was still married to Eliot. He never divorced her, though famously in the nearly ten years Vivienne spent in the hospital he didn’t visit her once. Hale thought that now Eliot could finally marry her. But it wasn’t to be. Hale wrote to a friend about it:

We met privately two or three times to try to sift the situation as thoroughly as possible — he loves me — I believe that wholly –but apparently not in the way usual to men less gifted i.e. with complete love thro’ a married relationship. I have not completely yet given up hope that he may yet recover from this — to me — abnormal reaction, but on the other hand I cannot allow myself to hold on to anything so delicately uncertain.

When Eliot finally did remarry, to his secretary Valerie Fletcher, in 1957, Hale had a breakdown so severe she had to be hospitalized.

Eliot eventually destroyed her letters to him, but Hale bequeathed her collection of over a thousand of his letters to her to Princeton, under the restriction that they not be opened to the public until January 1, 2020. No one but Hale, and maybe the processing archivist, has ever read them.

I think about Emily Hale a lot. A lot of people write on Vivienne, and of course they should. But the Emily Hales of the world are the greater mystery, to my mind. No one wants to pry, exactly. But it’s hard not to be curious about all the nights she spent alone, waiting. As Louis Menand has pointed out, some biographers — particularly Vivienne’s — think it’s possible that Eliot was simply closeted all his life, and used Hale as a beard. Perhaps that’s true, but look at that passage from her letter again: it seems that Hale herself did not know this. I guess we will find out in 2020, though it’s unclear. A thing you learn, if you start going through archives, reading letters, is that no one tells the whole truth in letters. Frequently they don’t tell half of it. And what you’ll say to someone in a letter to them might be entirely different than the way you’d calibrate those words to someone else.

After all, though it was pretty clear from their letters that Morrell and Woolf thought Hale a prim bore, Gordon reports that when people visited Hale at Scripps, she received guests in a dressing-gown of silk brocade, black with gold dragons. Her living room, her contemporaries told him, was a “mass of color.”




Michelle Dean has written for a variety of places, including The Awl, ELLE and Bitch. More from this author →