It was the question of accent that took up most of the conversation at my first meeting in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with the editor of the Harvard Review, Christina Thompson—also a former editor of Meanjin.
Did the St Louis–born Eliot come to Harvard in 1908 with a Missouri accent and did he leave it here or lose it here, by accident or design? It was a question that I also put to the poetry curator of the Lamont Library. And the consensus was that nobody really knows and nobody ever will, since, among other things, there are no recordings of Eliot in his youth. It was generally agreed that the Missouri accent is pretty neutral anyway and it wouldn’t be all that difficult to lose. All we can say with any certainty is that, at some point, Eliot acquired that voice, the voice that became synonymous with T.S. Eliot. And he never lost it.
But why care? Who would care? A novelist might. I’ve written two Eliot novels: The Lost Life and A World of Other People. The first revolves around ‘Burnt Norton’, the second around ‘Little Gidding’. And I’m researching the third in what will be a quartet of novels, each revolving round one of the Four Quartets. And that’s what’s brought me to Cambridge. Harvard is where Eliot studied—at first indifferently, then very seriously indeed. This is where he wrote ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, ‘Portrait of a Lady’, ‘Preludes’, ‘La Figlia Che Piange’ and many more poems that formed the basis for his first collection of poetry, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917).
It is generally agreed among writers and critics that this is the collection that gave birth to modernist poetry and as much as readers might imagine that these poems are set in either London or Paris, they’re set in Cambridge. Or back in St Louis, where Eliot grew up. And, as much as readers might imagine that Eliot was quintessentially English, he was American. He left Boston in 1914, never to live permanently in America again, and became an English citizen in 1928. But, as many contemporaries observed, as much as he tried to be English he never got his Englishness right and remained, essentially, an American: a Massachusetts Yankee in Sloane Square. He always maintained that in its wellsprings his poetry was American. And it’s this Eliot, the American Eliot, that I’ve come to research. Hence the question of his accent upon arriving at Harvard. The novel I’ve got in mind will not be set in Eliot’s youth, but it will hark back to it. For it’s in Cambridge that Eliot first fell in love (and, arguably, never fell out of love) and here, to a large extent, that Tom Eliot became T.S. Eliot.
As incidental as it may seem, the nature of Eliot’s accent, the accent of Tom Eliot, is one of those details that can help define a character—like someone from a working-class background learning to talk in a cultured voice. It’s something that was touched upon in A World of Other People—when one of the characters listens to Eliot read his poetry, but soon becomes so absorbed by the question ‘How does anyone acquire a voice like that?’ that he ceases to hear the words and is conscious only of the voice.
Eliot, keenly aware of his Americanness, was, nonetheless, always gravitating towards Europe, especially France and England. His destination, geographically and artistically, was always Europe. And if the Harvard undergraduate gradually left his Missouri accent somewhere in Harvard Yard or out there in the streets of Cambridge (which he often walked alone at night in search of poetic images), it might be interesting for those around him to observe Eliot slipping in and out of the two, all part of the process that eventually produced Mr Eliot. It’s a detail that may or may not come into the novel, depending on how it pans out.
Above all, though, for these books to work there has to be a story. In The Lost Life the story was a speculative account of Eliot’s relationship with Emily Hale—the young woman Eliot fell in love with in Boston before leaving for Oxford in 1914, and whom he left behind, convinced that his feelings had not been reciprocated. He was, it seems, quite wrong—she was just reserved, like him. They met again in 1934 in Chipping Camden, the Cotswolds, and one day in September visited an old estate called Burnt Norton just outside the town. The book imagines a sacred act between the two that takes place in the rose garden of the estate; a sacred act that is profaned by the impulsive act of a young man, who, with his girlfriend, is secretly observing Eliot and Miss Hale from nearby bushes. They are the hidden ‘children’ the poem refers to, but their laughter (which Eliot hears) is not innocent; rather, it is the jeering laughter of experience.
A World of Other People tells the story of an Australian bomber pilot in the Second World War (‘Little Gidding’ was completed in 1942). The pilot is the only survivor of a crashlanding the year before—a key aspect of which he has repressed, a common condition at the time known as amnesic syndrome in time of war. He is a deeply damaged man and it is while he is listening to Eliot read his poem—conscious more of the voice of the poet—that the poem suddenly, and with devastating effect, unlocks the repressed. In this sense the book is about the effect of art on someone. And not necessarily uplifting, for, in this case, the poem contains a terrible secret. In both cases the novels came directly from lines in the poems. And they each had a book in the background: with The Lost Life it was two books, Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale and L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between; with A World of Other People it was Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. In both cases it took a long time, at least a year, to come up with the stories. And neither book was begun until I had the story. Some books are like that.
The story in the background for this third novel is Henry James’ ‘The Aspern Papers’. The novel will be largely set in 1964 and will pick up the story of Eliot, in his last year of life, and Emily Hale, living in Concord just outside Boston. She is known to possess certain letters written by Eliot at a crucial time in their relationship and they become objects of intense interest, to both Eliot (who wants them destroyed) and a young scholar. It’s not so much a story yet as a fragment of one, and if these notes have a fragmentary feel it’s because they are a kind of thinking out loud.
Standing in the rose garden of Burnt Norton (when researching The Lost Life) was, initially, a disappointment—the garden was so small and unprepossessing. Then, on reflection, it seemed appropriate. Likewise No 1, Berkeley Place, Cambridge. This is where Eliot’s cousin Eleanor Hinkley lived and where Eliot met Emily Hale for the first time, at a literary party in 1913 in which Eliot played Mr Woodhouse and Hale played Mrs Elton. Eliot fell in love and Emily Hale became his most consistent muse for early poems such as ‘La Figlia Che Piange’ and, most famously, ‘Burnt Norton’. And it’s fitting that the house in which they met was not large, even ordinary. It accentuates the emotional intensity that Eliot invested the event and the place with. At the time, Eliot was living a short stroll from the house, in Ash Street. And this is one of the lingering impressions of this group of family and friends—that they moved in a small circle. For the part of Cambridge they moved in is compact. And it’s not difficult to imagine the young, ambitious Eliot colliding with first love in an intimate lounge room—and, at the same time, being impatient to assume the world and break free of a predictably comfortable, confining world.
These novels have never presumed to go inside the head of Eliot, for a number of reasons. Most of all, when dealing with a major historical figure (from the not-so-distant past), I’ve always thought it more effective to keep that figure as a presence, even an incidental one. One that can be observed by other characters in the book that, over time, provide the reader with a composite picture that incorporates all the conflicting views, the contradictions and paradoxes of all living, breathing people. To go inside the head of Eliot would be to provide something of a definitive portrait: tantamount to saying this is what I think he was and this is what made him tick. This is what a biographer does. A novelist ranges more freely and plays, if you like, a dodgier game. In The Lost Life and A World of Other People Eliot is many things to the characters whose lives he touches either in fact or in verse. Too hard and fast a definition of a character can deaden that character.
In this next novel Eliot will remain, I expect, a presence. Even a background figure. All of which involves questions of point of view and structure—through whose eyes do we see him, how can we best move over the years, over events and key incidents and keep things tight? For these are, in many ways, epigrammatic novels. And this one is still at that amorphous stage where many things are possible and nothing has really been decided upon. Not even the plot. That can change. A single image can suddenly take over and shift everything.
A day trip to Rockport and a good walk out to Eastern Point to catch my first glimpse of the Dry Salvages suggests other possibilities, more dramatic and less well trodden than the plot prompted by ‘The Aspern Papers’. For Eliot sailed these waters alone and with friends during his youth, and the rocks (hidden at high tide) have wrecked many a ship. This, roughly, is where Kipling set his novel Captains Courageous and Eliot was well aware of the seafaring tales that have grown up around this part of Gloucester. And he did go missing for a day or two during one of his sailing ventures. Perhaps that’s where my story lies—in these New England harbours and in the Atlantic that Eliot sailed.
As much as I might think I’ve got the basis for a story, I mightn’t have anything at all. With both previous Eliot novels I had the stories worked out before I started, but it took a long time to arrive at that point. So, after a week of walking around Cambridge, I’m beginning to return to the key images that interested me when I started thinking of the book: the twenty-year-old Eliot walking into the library of the Student Union and discovering, through Arthur Symons’ The Symbolist Movement in Literature, Jules Laforgue, the poet who gave Eliot his poetic voice and poems the likes of ‘Prufrock’ and ‘Portrait of a Lady’: a 76-year-old Eliot standing in his office at Faber & Faber watching a surging crowd in Russell Square there to greet the Beatles, and Eliot, for all his high-art assumptions, perfectly aware that he is watching a cultural phenomenon, one that almost leaves him feeling obsolete, yesterday’s man. For there are two Eliots in this novel: one the young, ambitious artist intent on shaking things up, and the older Eliot, in his last year, his works done, obsessed with posterity. Perhaps this is where the letters he sent to Emily Hale all those years ago when he was young and, by Eliot’s standards, reckless, come into play. For the Eliot watching that anarchic, surging crowd is intent on controlling everything about his life and legacy, so that the portrait that survives him will be a carefully orchestrated one. But the letters that convey a different Eliot, a reckless, even cruel one, can’t be controlled because they are in somebody else’s hands: Emily Hale’s.
Concord (pronounced to rhyme with ‘conquered’) is a sedate, postcard town that also happens to be the place where the fighting in the American revolution began. Emerson’s shot that was heard around the world was fired here. It is also where Emily Hale came to live in retirement after Eliot (in a secret, surprise wedding that mirrored his first marriage) married his thirty-year-old secretary, Valerie Fletcher, thereby consigning Hale to a life of rejection and spinsterhood—for that is how she would have seen it. Convinced that when Eliot’s first wife, Vivien Haigh-Wood, died, Eliot would marry her, she apparently went a little mad in Concord.
It took a while but not too long (thanks to Christina Thompson and the local library) to track down the house Emily Hale lived in—and we eventually found it, or, at least, two possibilities (the street numbers were changed in 1969 when she died). And it’s easy to imagine her living her last years in quiet despair in one of those timber cottages opposite her church. And it’s also quite possible to imagine her as desperate enough to use those letters, her last card, as a way of resuming her contact with, and remaining in contact with, her special friend. To present Eliot with these letters—via the go-between of the young academic who has interests all his own, may well be to remind ‘her’ Tom of what was once there, the youthful passion. In this way, they may resume writing to each other. And writing to each other again may result in meeting each other again—and she will ‘have’ him once again. Her Tom, her special friend. The three main figures in the novel—Eliot, the young scholar and Emily Hale—each play their own parts in a drama without having a complete picture of the play itself. Perhaps only the reader gets the full picture through the novel.
Research can be problematic. You can do too much of it and it can deaden a story. For, above all, a novel is a work of the imagination and should not lean on the crutch of research. It’s also unpredictable. What seems important at the time turns out to be of no use later when it comes to writing the book—and details that seemed merely incidental can suddenly assume great importance. A sifting process, both conscious and unconscious, sets in and you never really know what the significant aspects of research are until sometime later. The time spent in the Houghton library, going through Eliot’s letters to friends and family and their letters to him, the wax seal on Eliot’s letters with the imprint of an elephant (he was known as both ‘possum’ and ‘elephant’—for his memory), the envelope from 1914, hastily ripped open, containing a letter informing him about the status of a travelling scholarship to Oxford, the small, intricate Christmas cards he sent to his family, may come to nothing at all in informing the book, or may suddenly announce themselves as crucial.
Or it may simply be lingering, general impressions of places such as Cambridge, and that eerie sense of things not really having changed all that much since Eliot’s time. For it’s not difficult to see the poems in those streets, especially on winter nights, the snow piled up on the sides of roads, and the yellow glow of street lights in the damp night. The streets, the quiet Cambridge houses, seen through the poetry, provide an intimation of the young Eliot who walked these streets. Just as that sense of the world opening out, becoming wide, along the Gloucester coast, provides an intimation of Eliot at home on the sea in his boat, Elsa: both the young Eliot, the explorer circling the Dry Salvages, and the mature Eliot, the old man, who ought still to be an explorer.
I don’t imagine starting the book for some time yet, possibly a year or more. Thoughts, impressions, observations all need to settle. In many ways the best thing that can happen to most research is that it gradually becomes forgotten. What is left is the stuff that is of genuine significance. The stuff that has resonated enough to survive. The stuff that won’t go away, that nudges and nags you, and says this is where your book is. In the abstract. For the only way you’ll ever know if it was all worthwhile or just a waste of time—the only way you’ll ever know if there’s a book there at all or if the book is going to work—is by writing it. To an extent it’s a leap of faith, to an extent it’s a calculated gamble: that a story will emerge, and that all those aspects of the research that lingered on and resonated most will simply assume their places in the story, as if nothing was ever in doubt and writing a novel was the easiest thing in the world. Which it isn’t.