LONG-LOST LETTERS OF A GREAT POET; Only Now, Nearly 45 Years after His Death, Is the True Breadth and Scale of T.S. Eliot's Literary Legacy Becoming Apparent to a Larger Readership -- Thanks to a New Initiative from His Publisher; BOOK OF THE WEEK

Article excerpt

Byline: David Sexton

THE LETTERS OF T.S. ELIOT: VOLUME 1: 1898-1922 Revised Edition edited by Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton (Faber, [pounds sterling]35) THE LETTERS OF T.S. ELIOT: VOLUME 2: 1923-1925 Edited by Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton (Faber, [pounds sterling]35) T.S. ELIOT died on 4 January 1965, aged 76. For the last eight years of his life he had been married to Valerie Fletcher who made him happier than he had ever been before, happier than he believed he ever deserved to be.

Valerie had, in her own words, been determined "to get to Tom" since hearing John Gielgud's recording of Journey of the Magi when she was a 14-year-old schoolgirl. In 1949, when she was 22, she succeeded in becoming his secretary at Faber. In 1957, they suddenly married, to the surprise of many, Eliot being then 68 and his wife 30.

So Valerie Eliot was still just 38 when her husband died. Over the past 44 years, she has continued to dedicate herself to him, still living in the same flat in Kensington, surrounded by his books, managing his literary estate.

To Valerie Eliot, her marriage never ended. At a supper party, I once heard her praise the food not by saying she had enjoyed it but rather that "Tom would have liked this pudding" and realised that for her he was actually there still. They are not to be separated. It is immensely touching to witness.

There have been some unfortunate consequences of her great loyalty, though. Over the past 45 years, T.S. Eliot's work has not had the presence in our culture it should have had, simply because so much of his writing has not been made available. Valerie Eliot has been determined to edit as much of it as possible herself and it is a task beyond any one human being.

Some good things have appeared, including Donald Gallup's essential bibliography (1969), Valerie Eliot's own facsimile edition of the drafts of The Waste Land (1971), Helen Gardner's The Composition of Four Quartets (1978), and, more recently, a couple of scholarly editions, some previously unpublished lectures under the title The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry (1992), edited by Ronald Schuchard, and some early notebook poems as Inventions of the March Hare (1996), edited by Christopher Ricks.

But much of Eliot's best work has remained effectively out of circulation for all this time. Nor is it only the unpublished writings that have been so long unseen, or texts that might be suppressed in deference to Eliot's wish that there be no biography authorised.

A good deal of Eliot's finest critical prose was published in little and not so little magazines but never reprinted. That means anyone with access to a copyright library can see most of it (and fiddlesomely get it photocopied, as I once spent a fortnight doing). So there's no issue of infringement there. But all of this treasure has remained buried in the archives, without the influence on literary culture it could have wielded, for all this time, when at least a functional, interim, reader's edition could have been prepared by any competent editor in a few months.

And then there's the Letters ... Valerie Eliot has been gathering together and transcribing the whole span of T.S. Eliot's correspondence for at least three decades and actively acquiring more of his letters for her own collection whenever they come up for sale. But, frustratingly to Eliot readers, only one volume has ever appeared in print until today -- her edition of his letters covering the years 1898-1922, published back in 1988.

Five volumes were mooted and sometimes announced. A few years back, one of Valerie Eliot's editorial assistants, Karen Christensen, said that much more could have gone to press a long time ago and cautiously suggested that, despite the scrupulousness of her editing, Valerie Eliot's "reluctance to publish the next volume of letters cannot simply be a matter of scholarship".

At last, with Valerie Eliot now herself 82, the situation is improving. …