Valerie Eliot, who has died aged 86, married the poet TS Eliot in 1957, when he was 68, and by sheer uncomplicated adoration achieved the miraculous feat of making him happy.
Eliot himself was subject to anger. “I have noticed of late his [Eliot’s] immense indignation with anyone who disagrees with him,” Mary Trevelyan wrote to Hayward in 1955. “It is indeed a terrible strain on any human being to feel he is a Classic in his lifetime.” The Classic remained impenetrable, alike as the formally dressed public figure, and as the lodger who disappeared behind the door of his room in Hayward’s flat. In the mid-1950s, moreover, his health declined — he suffered from emphysema — and he became increasingly preoccupied by death.
It seemed hardly possible that this remote, fastidious and tortured intellectual might be returned to humanity. In fact, Eliot’s saviour had already appeared in the shape of a Yorkshire girl. And if her qualities, in line with her handsome looks, were essentially practical and down-to-earth, there was something almost mystical in the call that she heard, and in the unswerving faith with which she followed.
Esmé Valerie Fletcher was born on August 17 1926, the daughter of James Fletcher of Headingley, Leeds, a manager of the State Assurance Company. (The future playwright Alan Bennett, son of the local butcher, used to make deliveries to the Fletcher house.) Beyond insurance, James Fletcher was interested in porcelain, and concerned with both the Leeds Art Collection Fund and Leeds Library.
Valerie was sent to school at Queen Anne’s, Caversham, near Reading, where the ethos was sporting rather than intellectual. At the age of 14, however, she was visited by a sudden illumination when she heard a recording of John Gielgud reading Eliot’s Journey of the Magi. Thereafter her obsession with the poet became a family joke.
The headmistress of Queen Anne’s may also have smiled wryly when Valerie Fletcher told her, on leaving, that she was determined to become TS Eliot’s secretary. For six months she worked at the Brotherton Library of the University of Leeds, and then as private secretary to the novelist Charles Morgan. But her aim, as she artlessly phrased it, was always “to get to Tom”; and in August 1950 she duly succeeded in becoming his secretary at Faber & Faber.
The essential prerequisite of Valerie Eliot’s final triumph was that she knew better than to alarm her formidable employer with uncontrolled and gushing admiration. Mary Trevelyan called Eliot “the Pope of Russell Square” on account of the fawning respect with which he was treated at Faber & Faber; such was his fear of women, however, that he would duck into the lavatory rather than risk having to leave the building with a secretary. For years, therefore, Valerie Fletcher’s office hours were consecrated simply to earning a formidable reputation for efficiency.
“I can’t get to know her at all,” Eliot complained to Mary Trevelyan as late as 1955, “she shuts up like a clam.” After their marriage he would acknowledge that for a long time he was not even sure that she liked him. He had no notion that, outside the office, the discreet secretary was building up a collection of his works that rivalled his own. In whatever way the breakthrough was made, once Eliot had discerned Valerie Fletcher’s unconditional love he did not hesitate.
It is said that he proposed by slipping a note into a batch of letters which he gave her for typing. Only after Valerie had accepted did he wryly demand: “Do you know my Christian name?” Still, though, Eliot maintained absolute secrecy, while Valerie Fletcher wore a finger stall to disguise her engagement ring. The sharp-eyed John Haywood, who never cared for her, had his suspicions, but still fell short in his speculations. “There’s something more to that flower of the Yorkshire marshes than meets the eye,” he remarked in May 1956. “The perfect secretary has begun to see herself as the lady with the lamp.”
“I don’t give Miss Fletcher anything,” Eliot rather naughtily informed Mary Trevelyan in December 1956. “I don’t think it is suitable to give one’s secretary presents.” The two old friends continued to meet regularly until, on January 9 1957, Mary Trevelyan received Eliot’s note telling her that he was going to marry Miss Fletcher the next day. Her understandably stunned letters of congratulation prompted an angry reply from the poet, who accused her of “gross impertinence”. They never met again.
TS Eliot duly married Valerie Fletcher at 6.15am on January 10 1957 in St Barnabas, Addison Road. Apart from Valerie’s parents, and one of her friends, no one was present. St Barnabas had been chosen in preference to St Stephen’s, Gloucester Road, his habitual place of worship. Eliot was intrigued to learn that the French poet Jules Laforgue, whose work had been an important early influence on his own, had also been married there.
When the new-marrieds returned from their honeymoon in Menton, the change in Eliot was startling. “You look as if, like Dante, you’d passed into Paradise,” someone told him. “Exactly,” he replied. “I’m the luckiest man in the world,” he would say, “I do not deserve such happiness.” If Valerie had to endure the disdain of some of Eliot’s circle, she rejoiced that through unstinting devotion all her intuitions were justified.
“He obviously needed to have a happy marriage,” she observed after her husband’s death in 1965. “There was a little boy in him that had never been released.” At parties the Eliots would hold hands and gaze at each other like lovesick teenagers, in defiance of the 38 years that lay between them. Such public felicity was rather more than some could stomach. “Tom Eliot is now curiously dull,” remarked Aldous Huxley.
Certainly, after the first performance of his play The Elder Statesman in 1958, Eliot wrote no more poetry. The dedication to Valerie would be his last verse, unremarkable as art, startlingly frank from such an ancient fossil. The sentiment could not be further removed from the aura of Grishkin in her drawing-room: “To whom I owe the leaping delight / That quickens my senses in our wakingtime / And the rhythm that governs the repose of our sleepingtime, / 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.”
Eliot said he felt younger at 70 than he had at 60. There was a rekindled spark in his eye, and a new openness of manner. “I’m thinking of taking dancing lessons again,” he told reporters. “He felt he had paid too much to be a poet, that he had suffered too much,” Valerie later explained.
Notwithstanding the new radiance in Eliot, his health remained delicate, necessitating winter trips to the Caribbean — generally tied in with visits to New York. Eliot relished far more, however, their annual visits to Valerie’s mother in Leeds. He got on well with Mrs Fletcher, who noted his “virginal” quality.
The centre of the Eliots’ content, though, was their ground-floor flat in Kensington Court Gardens. Occasionally, there would be notable visitors, such as Igor Stravinsky or (more surprisingly) Groucho Marx; generally, they passed the evenings alone together, listening to the gramophone or reading to each other. In the afternoons they would walk in Kensington Gardens, Valerie gently chivvying her husband along.
At all times she remained his guardian and protector. In the bitter cold of January 1963, when Eliot was forced to spend five weeks on oxygen in the Brompton Hospital, she was constantly with him. “Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah,” he cried out as he was wheeled back into the flat, where Valerie’s “coddling” (as he called it) won him nearly two more years.
Eliot died on January 4 1965. His widow lived on with her memories of him in the Kensington flat, never slackening in either her devotion or her custodial mission. Scholars would invariably be fobbed off with polite, formal and uninformative replies; and even as respectable a biographer as Peter Ackroyd was given only minimal permission to quote from Eliot’s work.
Occasionally she would be stirred to rebut a calumny. Thus she produced a letter to show that it was Vivienne Eliot’s brother, Maurice Haigh-Wood, and not Eliot, who had signed the papers by which Vivienne was committed to mental hospital. She also dismissed the notion that there was some homosexual explanation for the failure of Eliot’s first marriage: “There was nothing wrong with Tom, if that’s your implication... ” she told a journalist.
On the whole, though, Valerie Eliot preferred silence. “That dreadful play” was all she would venture on Michael Hastings’s Tom and Viv (1984). She became as elusive as Eliot himself had once been. A neighbour who laid claim to her acquaintance on the ground that his three-year-old son could recite one of the Sweeney poems by heart was swiftly disappointed. “Who would teach a child to read Sweeney?” she sensibly demanded.
In 1971 Valerie Eliot published The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound. This was an admirably thorough work of scholarship, with an introduction which reflected the depth and accuracy of her knowledge of Eliot’s youth.
She edited a volume of Eliot’s letters covering the years 1898-1922, and co-edited three more — covering 1923-25, 1926-27 and, finally, 1928-29, which comes out in 2013. She was a 50 per cent shareholder in Faber & Faber and served as a non-executive director.
After 1981 the success of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, from Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, brought Valerie Eliot great riches, enabling her to create Old Possum’s Practical Trust, a charitable body which has supported charities and institutions including Newnham College, Cambridge, and the London Library. From 1993 she donated the prize money (now £15,000) for the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry awarded by the Poetry Book Society. Every year she would present the prizes, looking, some thought, more and more like Lady Thatcher.
Valerie Eliot, born August 17 1926, died November 9 2012