Post from the Past
Amy Butterworth, Online Lifestyle Editor, shares the implications of T.S. Eliot’s secret love letters
Scholars have had little to no qualms about using writer’s diaries and letters to strengthen their theses. But deconstructing this, there is something deeply intrusive about rifling through the the intimate workings of their brains. Justified for its scholarly intent, should the public really have access to anyone’s intricate, deepest, most cavernous contemplations?
The question of ethics looms when reading someone’s letters
Recently, Princeton University released T.S. Eliot’s secret letters with his lover and muse, Emily Hale. Highly intimate and deeply revealing, the 1131 letters, spanning from 1932-1947 prove his contested love for Hale, his battle with his unrequited love and eventual falling out of love. It confirms suspicions of certain poem’s origins, such as the opening of ‘Burnt Norton’: “footfalls echo in the memory / Down the passage which we did not take / Toward the door we never opened”, and contextualises his unhappy marriage with Valerie after Hale and Eliot’s breakup.
Eliot anticipated a “making public” of his letters, requesting that they be preserved “until fifty years after my death” (found in a statement on the opening of the Emily Hale letters). Surely this counts as permission, for us as readers, to divulge in his most private thoughts? After all, he asserts further on in the statement his incapability of “writing my autobiography” in which “it seems to me that those who can do so are those who have led purely public and exterior lives”. Thus, his letters act as the autobiographical insight that Eliot intended for the world to read – as an academic himself, he saw the scholarly value of using writer’s letters to deepen a reading of their texts.
In an article exploring the ethics of scholarly use of diaries, Rachel Landford and Russell West* find that the diary, easily replaced with the letter, acts as an “uncertain genre uneasily balanced between literary and historical writing, spontaneity of reportage and reflectiveness of the crafted text, between selfhood and events, between subjectivity and objectivity, between the private and the public…”.
As voyeuristic readers we can’t help but gain satisfaction from knowing his life and using it for our own scholarship
Comparable to the intrinsic liminality of letter-correspondence is the question of ethics involved in reading someone’s letters. Some writers would not have given their blessing for the publication of their intimate scribblings; Virginia Woolf’s diaries have been justified by the phrase “by way of advising other Virginias…”, implying a posthumous advisory readership but not outright giving permission. But regardless of authorial consent, the act of combing through author’s letters and diaries merely to strengthen your English assignment (I am obviously implicated in this) leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It feels tabloid-y, an insincere reading of writer’s innermost thoughts. The releasing of Eliot’s letters could easily garner a celebrity magazine-esque headline: “saucy letters from T.S Eliot expose his scandalous relationship with Emily Hale”, and as voyeuristic readers we can’t help but gain satisfaction from knowing his life and using it for our own scholarship.
In the opening statement to his letters, Eliot states that “Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me”. I wonder to what extent our quasi-scoptophilic desire to know the nitty-gritty parts of a writer’s life has “killed the scholar in us”.
header image credit: Photo by Lucrezia Carnelos on Unsplash
* “Marginal Voices, Marginal Forms: Diaries in European Literature and History“