Friday, November 23, 2012

The Secret Lives of Wives and Widows

So T.S. Eliot's wife has died.  Wait, what? How is that possible?

Of course you can probably guess: "Mrs. Eliot, who was almost 38 years younger than her husband, had been his secretary for several years at the publishing house Faber & Faber when they married in 1957." 

The Times obituary itself is a kind of accidental masterpiece, a perfectly calibrated mini-biography, evoking the strangeness of the lost worlds that passed away with her:

Esmé Valerie Fletcher was born in Leeds, England, on Aug. 17, 1926. Her father, who was in the insurance business, was a bookish sort who passed on to his daughter his love of poetry. She said she fell in love with Eliot — or at least his work — when, at 14, she heard John Gielgud’s recording of “Journey of the Magi.”
After her schooling, she worked at a library at the University of Leeds and then as a secretary to the novelist Charles Morgan. When a family friend who knew Eliot mentioned that he was looking for a secretary, she applied.
I love those dashes. Because how is a 14 year old to know the difference between a man and a voice on a phonograph, one that doesn't even belong to that same man? 

 In my benevolent literary dictatorship when novels about professors who sleep with their students have been banned, I may make an exception for stories about those students, or other younger women who  marry much older men years down the road: what happens later when the men are not older but old or sick or dying? I know this sounds nasty or vengeful like, ha, they still grew old and died but I don't mean it like that. A while back I read the excerpt from Francisco Goldman's memoir/novel Say Her Name in the New Yorker. He says that when they got together, they would joke about how the future would play out, and he'd promise that if he was still alive at a certain point he would go off and leave her while she was still young enough to meet someone else, but as it turned out he was the one who lost her.

But of course more often the odds are not defied.  Valerie was 86 when she died. The marriage that put her obituary in the papers  lasted seven years. Her widowhood lasted forty-seven. 

My own grandmother was a widow for twenty-seven years, despite having married a man one year her junior. Only shortly before her death did I come to understand that so much of her personality and interests, so much of her way of being in the world - or what I had understood it to be - had been forged out of this widowhood, and that my mother and aunt and her husband and four sisters and known and loved a very different woman.  

For Valerie, of course, the widowhood that lasted more than half of her life was also her career. She managed his estate,  edited an edition of The Waste Land, edited his letters, got rich by authorizing Cats, started a foundation with that money, and defended his reputation. 

There are a lot of very obvious feminist points about this, about the trajectories of bookish girls born in 1926.  For a while I got kind of obsessed with the throw away descriptions of wives in profiles of artists and such and started collecting them. Things like this: 

During their thiry-five years of marriage, Natalia Dmitriyevna served as her husband’s first reader, editor, assistant, cook, driver, researcher, and (because Solzhenitsyn was a kind of literary monk) conduit to the earthly realm of agent, publishers, journalists, lawyers, and politicians. She also raised three sons because, she said jokingly, “the way Alekasandr Isayevich saw it, they would just grow up on their own.”

“The Widow’s Peak,” David Remnick, The New Yorker June 18 2012
 Or this: 

“It’s curious, and perhaps no more than curious, that the two most productive periods of Bowie’s career coincide with his two marriages.”

Thomas Jones, “So Ordinary, So Glamorous,” Thomas Jones, LRB, 5 April 2012 
"Perhaps no more than curious." Because of course one mustn't make too much of such things.
I always thought "And they were mostly, men" could be the great title for something: how that phrase, nine times out of ten consigned to a parenthesis, is called on to do so much by way of explanation and apology.

And yet. Were one to make the obvious feminist points, to reach for our Virginia Woolf and go to that passage I just taught my students, the one about how we're on "the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet," when we read of "a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother" - we might be led off the track.

For one thing, there is this: apparently Valerie hated talking to the press but made an exception when the movie Tom and Viv came out, defending her husband against the charge, among others, that Eliot's first wife, Vivienne, had written parts of The Waste Land and been denied credit. "The exemplary literary widow" delicately describes her understanding of Vivienne's illness, expresses sympathy for Ted Hughes, and asserts that the first Mrs. Eliot's role in creating The Waste Land was the traditional one: causing the misery that helped to inspire it.  Valerie comes across in The Independent as the reluctant truth-teller, making a more modest but more accurate claim for her role in the great man's work.

No doubt for some people this is a cautionary tale about the perils of looking too hard for the evidence of lost female genius. I remember one time in graduate school a certain professor saying that for the material we were looking at, 19th century French poetry, there were no women. "And not because they've been suppressed," he said with something like a sneer. But Woolf's point was not just about the things that don't get read, or the things that were written as "anon", or the ways women's intellectual capacities were channelled into work produced by men, but the things that never get written at all.

But in a way this all misses the point. In some ways,  literary history remains a stubbornly conservative field no matter how many of us pinkos teach it. The whole mythology of genius teaches us to spend our time thinking about creation as a process that is ultimately distant from the rest of human experience, done by a select few. We can expand the pantheon, and we can talk about "context," we can look at literary movements that tried to be collective, we can study popular culture, but it's very hard to ever have the cultural equivalent of social history or history from below, or to really study anything but a few works at a time, be they representative or exemplary, no matter what the "digital humanities" people say.

Looking again at the lives of those who live in proximity to the big names can of course be a part of this in the worst way, like those awful panels run by author societies where everyone talks about what so and so wrote to so and so and talks like they knew them, like when the nice Jewish lawyer in Quiz Show comes back from hanging out with Van Dorens talking about Bunny Wilson. That's what they call him, he tells his wife. Well, you don't have to, she says.

But when you look at these in another way, they can be something else entirely. My favorite part of the obituary is this:
He was made for marriage, he was a natural for it, a loving creature, and great fun, too,” Mrs. Eliot said in a 1994 interview. “We used to stay at home and drink Drambuie and eat cheese and play Scrabble. He loved to win at cards, and I always made a point of losing by the time we went to bed.”
If they'd made Tom and Valerie, no one would fall in love with Bertrand Russell and no one would go to the looney bin and I don't know how you dramatize thirty years spend editing his letters, but I would watch any movie that showed a moment like this. Genius is all well and good (actually it's not but that's another story), but she also serves who knows when to lose at cards.