Valerie Eliot, the wife of the English poet and playwright T.S. Eliot, has died at the age of 86. Even though she carried the surname of one of the most famous poets of the 20th century, Valerie made a name for herself in the literary world following the death of her husband. She has been described by the Guardian as “one of the most generous patrons of poetry of recent time,” and a person whose “directness, intelligence and poise charmed those of us who were lucky to know her.”
Esme Valerie Fletcher was born in Leeds, England on August 17, 1926. Having read Eliot’s Journey of the Magi at the age of 14, Valerie announced to family and friends that she would not rest until she became T.S. Eliot’s secretary. She was determined, as she said, “to get to Tom.” In August 1950 she succeeded in this aim by becoming his secretary at Faber & Faber.
Eliot himself, who by 1950 was already 62, had previously endured a tumultuous marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, whom he’d met at Oxford. Their fracturing relationship and Eliot’s increasing disgust at his first wife inspired some of his darkest poetry. Haigh-Wood became increasingly neurotic and was sent to an insane asylum five years after they separated in 1933. But the young Valerie reawakened Eliot’s passions. After he married her in 1957 he wrote a dedication to his wife: “To whom I owe the leaping delight/ That quickens my senses in our waking time / And the rhythm that governs the repose of our sleeping time, / The breathing in unison/ Of lovers whose bodies smell of each other/ Who think the same thoughts without need of speech/ And babble the same speech without need of meaning.”
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Despite the desire apparent in his verses, Eliot showed little indication of his feelings towards his secretary before actually proposing to her. The Telegraph writes that the author was so afraid of women that “he would duck into the lavatory rather than risk having to leave the building with a secretary.” Yet, his interest in Valerie, who was 38 years his junior, eventually led to a clandestine proposal and courtship which the author kept hidden even from his closest friends. Their marriage brought some happiness into the life of a man whose professional output for decades had been marked by tales of darkness and depression. Years later Valerie recalled that she discovered on the day of their wedding “There was a little boy in him that had never been released,” notes the Guardian.
Unfortunately their union was short-lived. T.S. Eliot died in 1965, only a few days before the couple’s eighth wedding anniversary. But his death was only the beginning for Valerie of a lifetime dedicated to the man she loved.
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Following her husband’s death she inherited his shares in the publisher Faber and Faber and became a member of the board. Then, in 1971, she published a seminal version of one of Eliot’s most influential poems, The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound. Even though she revealed in 1988 that her husband had forbidden the future publication of his correspondence, Valerie published the first volume of her husband’s letters (1898-1922) that same year. The second volume (1923-25) finally appeared two decades later in 2009.
In addition to her role in maintaining her husband’s legacy — and helped in no small part by the success of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats, which was inspired by the T.S. Eliot work Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats — Valerie became a very generous patron of the arts. She donated a large amount of this money to the T.S. Eliot prize for poetry, and toward the construction of the new wing of the London library.
She died in London on Nov. 9, 2012.