‘I’m sometimes asked,’ she said, picking up the biscuit, ‘what it was like marrying an older man. What was it like, they would ask.’ she said with a smile as good as a wink. ‘Well, I always say, he might have been half his age. Here she popped the biscuit into her mouth.’ ‘A New England Affair’, Steven Carroll. Valerie Eliot on meeting Emily Hale.
We snuggled in, this third time. I’d been nervous on the first occasion, but now that I had a hope it could be ongoing, dared to think it could be more, well, I was less so. I reached for her breast. She placed her hand over mine to hold it there. She told me she didn’t need paying. Not this time. I asked with renewed trepidation if this was the last time she would come. She reached down and ever so lightly squeezed. ‘Depends on you.’
In 1914 a young TS Eliot met Vivienne Haig-Wood at Oxford. She was a ‘river-girl’ – young ladies sent to the university city by their parents to disport themselves afore likely candidates for marriage amongst eligible (and gullible?) students. The American poet was smitten by her beauty and her worldliness. After a whirlwind romance they married. The haste, some reckon, is that Tom Eliot wants to dispose of his lingering virginity. The knowing Viv was the quickest way. He being a devout Christian, this required doing so in wedlock. Evidently the wedding night was a disaster, as remained the marriage for the rest of their time together. TS continued to be largely celibate, she quickly commenced a three year affair with noted predator Bertrand Russell. Husband and wife were miserable in each other’s company, but Eliot’s beliefs made him a slave to marriage if not his spouse. They finally parted ways in 1933. He was fed up with her increasing vulgarity, especially in front of his friends, her growing flirtation with British fascism and her diminishing mental state. In 1938 Tom and her own brother had her committed to a mental asylum where she died, aged 58, in 1947. Her husband never visited her there, but now he was a free man.
It was part of our bargain, if you like, that I would not enter her. To her that would indicate she was having an affair, committing adultery. I wondered if what we were doing didn’t amount to that in any case, but I didn’t have any qualms about it. I was more than happy to agree. She was, after all, a married woman so I acquiesced. Anything, I thought, to have the joy of human tender-touch again. And besides, she kept reminding me, she was now a grandmother. She had to be responsible. She freely admitted the money would help. Hubby was not in work and her employment was not stable. But, she added, there also had to be more to life than preparing meals for a dispirited man and measuring up kitchens. Thus she was providing me with what I had yearned for.
The movie ‘Tom and Viv’, with Willem Dafoe and Miranda Richardson in the leads, playing the staid American Britisher and his flighty, boisterous wife, charts the story of Tom’s first marriage. Until much, much later in life, perhaps the greatest verse composer of the century experienced little, if any, personal happiness or sexual activity. That didn’t mean there were no women in his orb. There were. Two examples were Mary Trevelyan and Emily Hale. On Vivienne’s death the former offered to wed him at least three times, but the thought of a marriage so soon seemed toxic to to the recipient of her proposals. And without marriage, of course their dalliances couldn’t proceed very far. Besides, he was perhaps truly in love with another party.
‘What do you mean it depends on me?’ My hand had been moved to between her legs and I caressed. Hers was still gently pummelling. No erection, but it felt good. Probably better that way.
‘Well,’ she replied. ‘Can it go one like this? This is fine for me, but will you be satisfied? He’s a good man, is John. He can’t help it that life with him is as boring as bat shit now there’s only the two of us. And running a tape measure around cruddy kitchens. That’s got whiskers on it. I need something else Thomas. This gives me more. Something to look forward to even. But don’t you get all sentimental and lovey-dovey on me, or want to go all the way. If you do, well, that’s it. I’ll find another outlet for my frustration.’ She stopped talking then. Her mind was now on something else. But I got the gist.
Emily Hale figures, for Tom, pre- and post- Vivienne. They met before his move to Britain. They both figured they were in love with the other, but they were repressed, reticent souls. Communicating feelings was not in their make-up, despite both being Americans. It was another era. He made a final visit to her before his departure. If she showed her true colours, he would defer. He knew it was impossible for him to make the first move – and she didn’t, so off he went to the UK and his miserable future in his personal life. But, also, there was fame and relative fortune awaiting. Off and on, though, they kept in touch.
I know the feeling about wanting more from life. Cancer saw my Louise go in ‘08. She was my rock, my everything. If there was a perfect marriage, ours was it. I never strayed – never had any need to. Mercifully her demise was quick. I was bereft, though. We were looking forward to retiring together. I took it soon after. All of a sudden I couldn’t cope in the classroom any more. My time was done. Bald, overweight, unfit – what else could life hold for me without her? I tried to escape my fug with a cruise – all those reported single women on the prowl might be the go. I know Louise would not have wanted me to sit at home and stew in my own juices. Once on board I just couldn’t bring myself to make the required and expected approaches – and in any case, they all seemed to be on the lookout for something I was not. To me they just seemed to have the cougar mentality. Perhaps I didn’t give myself a chance. Then, recalling an Asian wife had bought a friend great happiness in his later years, I thought about going down that track. I figured though I’d just look an old fool who was being used as a ticket to a life in an affluent country, so I dismissed it. Too timid. I wished I could have been braver. I needed to be brave. I sold up and moved to Hobart.
Steven Carroll has thrown light on the relationship between Hale and Eliot in his two novels, ‘The Lost Life’ and ‘A New England Affair’. He also features the poet in ‘A World of Other People’. Along with his ‘Glenroy’ series, set over time in suburban Melbourne, they are terrific reads produced by a consummate wordsmith – one of our country’s best. ‘A New England Affair’ takes us, in part, to the thirties when Eliot reconnects with his American muse to continue their friendship, perhaps hoping for a little more. But again, his faith, guilt over Vivienne and distance prove unassailable, but they do make promises that could only reach fruition on the death of his spouse. When it comes, Emily thinks, Tom is finally hers. His view now became that it was all too late. His take prevails. She is shattered. Her life’s been for nothing. She retreats.
It was no great shakes the house I purchased in one of Hobart’s northern suburbs in 2012. Doing it up would be a distraction, I hoped. It was. My funds were not substantial to do it in one hit, but I would take it steady over time. I enjoyed dealing with tradespeople in trying to get the house shipshape enough for my satisfaction and to increase its resale value. I wanted something to pass on now the Burnie residence was gone. I became involved with University of the Third Age, teaching to my own age group. I started to meet people, had a few friends to invite around for a meal and dine out with. With the State Cinema a regular, as well as the art galleries and book shops, life was looking up.
And in ‘A New England Affair’ the reader and Emily briefly encounter Valerie. As a school child the woman who became the poet’s second wife knew what she wanted to be – TS Eliot’s secretary. Her headmaster recalled her telling him this – and that’s exactly what happened. Born in 1926, she was therefore almost forty years the great one’s junior, but she was besotted with his poetry as a schoolgirl. Later she became besotted with the man.
The kitchen was my last challenge; the stove on its last legs, the bench tops and cupboards faded and scratched to buggery. By this stage I knew how to go about stuff of this ilk. Inquiries had informed me prefabricated was the way to go; that Kaboodle was as good as any and Bunnings would help me out. When I called them they let me know that they could send someone around and measure up to prepare a quote. Good-oh, I reckoned. I tidied-it up, waiting for the appointment booked for a few days later. I was expecting a typical tradie. What I got was Lou.
Apart from capturing Eliot’s heart, Valerie’s other great claim to fame was that she gifted the world ‘Cats’. After her husband’s death she became the keeper of the flame, his literary executor. That decision, of course, would prove most lucrative for the estate, allowing Andrew Lloyd Webber to turn the author’s ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’ into a world wide mega-phenomenon. But why on earth would a vibrant, yet to turn thirty year old, take on someone who was 68? It all started with Sir John Gielgud.
I was taken aback when she came to the door, expecting a male in bib‘n’brace overalls, tape measure in hand. Instead I had Lou, a tall slim brunette dressed in skirt and jacket carrying a briefcase. Initially I took her to be in her late twenties, but decided, after she left, that she was more like well into her thirties, given the mature, confident manner and the laugh lines around her eyes. She introduced herself and I remarked on the coincidence that she carried the same name as my late spouse. She chuckled and said that wasn’t the case. She’d been named Lou-belle and loathed it. ‘What were my parents thinking,’ I recall her saying. She’d been known as Lou ever since she was a kid.
The Yorkshire born Valerie first came across TS Eliot when she was fourteen, hearing a recording of his work, ‘Journey of the Magi’, read by one of the nation’s foremost thesps, the great Gielgud. She was entranced, her life’s mission now clear. After her graduation she took a secretarial course and landed a job with another literary figure, novelist Charles Morgan. Knowing her ambition, Morgan helped her apply for a position at Faber and Faber where Eliot was head of poetry. It was the great man himself who conducted her interview.
She inspected my kitchen, took some measurements and then, with a laugh, demanded caffeine. We talked possibilities, reached a conclusion and then put away the brochures. It was her, ‘Tell me something about yourself.’ I guess, that had us started on a certain path. ‘Tell me something about the man who is soon to be cooking up a storm in his brand new revamped kitchen.’
I joked back, ‘Well, you never know. One day I may cook up a storm just for you.’ She seemed a bit taken aback at that, but soon hit back, ‘Well, if you accept this quote I’ll go away and prepare for you, I might just take you up on that.’
On parting she told me she’d ring when said quote was available and I could call into Bunnings and collect it – or she could deliver it here. Was she flirting with me? She at least knew how to get a sale, I thought. Of course I chose the latter alternative.
At the interview Valerie was nervous, but what caught her attention was how edgy her interviewer also seemed. Could he sense something between them even then? But if there was, nothing came of it in the seven years that she was Miss Fletcher to his Mr Eliot, although her fascination with him never diminished. He obviously, in his own buttoned up way, harboured feelings for her too, but the age difference and his lack of bottle precluded any informality. We’ll never know exactly how the man gathered up the courage to propose to her in 1956, but he did. She accepted readily.
Lou was in no hurry that second visit. The first time, in response to her teasing question, I told her a bit of how I came to be in West Moonah, perhaps letting out more information than I should have. It’d been a long time since I had had a sympathetic ear. Although I said life had blossomed somewhat since the move to the south and my dark thoughts after Louise’s death had largely been banished, I had confessed to her I was still achingly lonely. Keeping myself busy helped. I recall, at that point, she reached out and patted me on the arm, then kept it there as I told of what I spent my time doing. ‘Good on you,’ she said after that. I told her quietly how I missed company on a daily basis, but more I missed skin on skin, someone to hold close and love. At that she withdrew her arm, leant over and kissed me on the cheek and prepared to depart. As she did so, she threw at me ‘Be careful what you wish for. You just never know in this world.’
I remembered that.
Valerie set about being the woman the poet had never had in his lifetime up till that point. Obviously she didn’t give one hoot about the gap in their ages.
I was gobsmacked when she told me, during that second most enjoyable and revealing appointment, that she was a grandmother. And as she rose from my bed this third time and dressed, she smirked, ‘I may be a granny these days, but I can still rise to the occasion. God that was good. I haven’t had that in such a long while. That’ll keep me interested till next time. There will be a next time, wont there?’
I assured her I was more than happy with the arrangement.
With marriage to Valerie, TS Eliot was a changed man – calmer, looser. It was noted he held hands with his wife in public, asked for a double bed when booking accommodation and in her later interviews, Valerie hinted at a satisfactory sex life. Till that point sexual activity for the exulted poet had been, please excuse the pun here, a barren wasteland. But in his last years there was bliss.
At the second appointment, after I accepted the quote, Lou was comfortable in opening up to me as well. She explained how she came to be such a young grandmother, saying she was just fifteen when she had her daughter by John. He was 17, but did the right thing and stood by her – and he was and is a great father, she hastened to add. There was to be only one child and after her birth they lived with his parents for a while, with both sets being supportive, before renting, trying to save for their own place. Finally they ended up buying in Claremont. John had an accident a few years back and was now on a disability pension, so financially things were tight – thus my later offer to help out. In these last few years he had become morose, uninterested in sex and uninterested in her. But, since Clare had given them a granddaughter, he had livened up a bit and she was hopeful he had turned the corner. But life at the moment seemed a bit of a never-ending struggle. She tried to be positive, but basically she’d had enough of the grind of her day to day existence. She wanted an outlet. She needed a bit of a spark. I then used the same words back to her – you know, the ‘careful what you wish for’ ones. Little did I know then.
The poet of the century passed away in 1965, just shortly before the couple’s eighth wedding anniversary. He’d been ill for some time. Smoking did its usual foul play on him and at the end he was suffering badly from emphysema. In those last years they escaped the British winter for the West Indies and that helped, but his disease progressed till he needed constant oxygen and then came the inevitable.
I didn’t see Lou for a few weeks after she left that day. The tradesmen, in the meantime, gutted my kitchen to her plan, replacing it with a kit one with a new stove. Then I received a call from her asking if I was satisfied with the job. And that’s when it happened. That’s when I was brave. ‘Why don’t you come around and see for yourself?’
Her reply, ‘I was hoping you’d say that. And I may hold you to that other tempting offer as well.’
Valerie died in 2012. In accordance to her husband’s wishes she was very frugal in allowing others to impinge on his personal history, although she assisted in the editing of several volumes of his letters. Over the last couple of decades of her life, of course, she did have a lucrative income flow to manage for the estate from the revenue provided by ‘Cats’. The stage musical’s popularity remains today. With its proceeds she funded additions to landmark buildings close to Eliot’s heart and set up a poetry award in his name.
She was impressed by the kitchen as I still am, finding it functional and pleasing to the eye. Once she had surveyed the scene she called for coffee to be produced and when we sat down on the sofa to drink it, there came the watershed moment.
‘Now, Thomas of Burnie, is there any other service I can provide for you? Perhaps there is one of a more personal nature. You’re lonely. You tell me that. You’re still tense and frustrated. I can see that. I’m bored shitless. I’ve told you that. We both need something extra in our lives. Perhaps we can come to some arrangement of mutual benefit. You tell me what you would like. I’ll tell you my terms. How about that? Interested?’ I was. She then brushed aside my reservations about age. ‘Phooey to that,’ I seemed to remember was her reaction. ‘I enjoy your company. I love a chat with you so why not something a little more?’
So there it was – how our bargain came to be.
At first money wasn’t part of the equation, just the boundaries she was prepared to allow me to go. I didn’t have a problem with those. In fact, I couldn’t believe my luck. Still can’t. I insisted on paying her and she, in the end, had no issue with that either. It was a service, after all. We arranged a weekly meeting, the first being rather tentative, just some kissing and fully clothed fondling. Come the second we were both less nervous and she suggested we dispensed with our garments. ‘How about some of that skin on skin you mentioned. You’ve still got some life in you, I bet,’ she said with a twinkle in her eye. Seeing her fully exposed – my, that was a moment. I doubt if I had the same effect but she was too polite to comment on my total lack of tone. As for the third time, well, you have already been privy to that. She’s informed me the next time she’ll bring along some massage oil. Wow!
Lou has been the missing bit to my life and I don’t mind the ‘not going all the way’ part of our bargain one little bit. In fact it’s probably far less stressful for me this way and keeps her happy. How long will it last, our arrangement? I have no way of knowing – but I’m yet to cook her a meal from my new kitchen. We still have that to factor in at least.
I purchased ‘A New England Affair’ on a visit to Fullers. It was the ‘affair’ part of the title that attracted my attention, but that aspect was so sad – so sad for both TS Eliot and Emily Hale. But what intrigued me was Valerie and Tom. Forty years, almost, age difference. With Lou and I, although both grandparents – can’t get over that – the age gap isn’t quite that substantial – but still wide enough. It was no negative for them and touch wood, so far, not for us. And if I get as much time with her as old Tom did with his younger woman, in totally different circumstances I know, that will be a bonus. Perhaps, sometimes, you don’t really have to be too careful what you wish for after all.