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The book reads rather like a mystery-thriller
on 15 December 2016
Gordon, Lyndall. The Imperfect Life of TS Eliot
The revised edition of Lyndall Gordon’s biography (2012) is a comprehensive account of Eliot’s life, dealing mainly with his life in England, and including five appendices plus a profusion of Notes. It is however a fascinating insight into the mind and art of Eliot, his many masks and his difficulties with women, especially those whom he served badly. The book reads rather like a mystery-thriller, the ‘real’ Eliot being kept under wraps until the end. The ‘Imperfect’ of the title reflects on Eliot’s conception of himself and the world he lived in, especially his ‘Waste Land’ experience of London as a young man.
Eliot preserved for the outside world a smooth and cultured exterior, behind which, however, raged a tormented soul, steeped in New England Puritanism. Gordon relates his early life in Boston and Havard to his adoption of England as the only civilised place to live. Early on she introduces us to Emily Hale, a major player in Eliot’s life until suddenly, after years of close friendship in England and the States she becomes for Eliot a non-person. Eliot, who fell in love with Emily as a fellow student and continued covertly to visit her in Chipping Campden, then dropped her completely. She had served her purpose as a loving companion, but closer ontact was damnation for Eliot, whose exacting moral code embraced chastity, austerity, humility and sanctity. Something similar happened to his decade of friendship with Mary Trevelyan, an independent English woman who became his confidante in his frantic marriage with Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Eliot was afraid of women, Gordon asserts, and only at the very end of his life did he find happiness - with his former secretary, Valerie.
For those interested in Eliot’s crises of conscience and for addicts of English writers, such as Auden, Spender, and the Woolfs, not to mention Americans like Lowell, Hawthorne, Emerson and Ezra Pound this book is a gold-mine. Hence one who despised biography (and forbade any during his life) has, thanks to this informed and lively tome, posthumously provided material for an insightful book you’ll not easily put down.