What If?: New Insight into the Friendship of Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot

By Megan QuigleyDecember 27, 2021

What If?: New Insight into the Friendship of Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot
“THEY HAVE FINALLY recovered her body.” I found the typed words in the April 22, 1941, letter hard to read. T. S. Eliot let the typewriter ribbon get frustratingly old at times, but it wasn’t just the faint print. Seeing this starkly written in one of Eliot’s many letters to his longtime love, Emily Hale, brought back vividly the period of uncertainty Virginia Woolf’s friends and family endured for 21 days.

Woolf’s death by suicide, loading her pockets with stones and wading into the River Ouse, is perhaps the most famous in literary history. I’d heard about it countless times and tried to teach my students to avoid allowing her death to color their reading of Woolf’s lyrical and often exuberant novels (though her suicide is often all they know about Woolf’s reputation). And yet, I had forgotten that, for three weeks, her family and friends could hope against hope, even as her final note to her husband Leonard — “I owe all the happiness of my life to you. […] I cant go on spoiling your life any longer” — had been found, even as her walking stick, now visited like a relic at the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library, was discovered, discarded on the riverbank. In Eliot’s letter to Hale, we see the relief that comes with dreadful certainty: “I am glad,” Eliot continues. “She was to me like a member of my own family.” [1]

T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, 1924. By permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London.


Nearly two years ago, an archive of letters was unsealed at Princeton that radically changed the way scholars understand the life and work of T. S. Eliot. Two months later, with COVID-19 numbers soaring, this long-awaited archive slammed shut again. On Monday, October 18, 2021, I was the first external scholar finally to return to those papers. Unsurprisingly, the focus of readers so far has been on the shocking relationship memorialized in the letters between Eliot and Emily Hale, the American teacher with whom he was avowedly in love. But the Hale letters contain at least one other revelation, with profound and as yet unexplored consequences for the history of literary modernism. We now know more details about Eliot’s invitation to visit Woolf on the weekend that her death was announced in 1941. She had invited him on March 8, when she felt herself spiraling into depression again. He declined the invitation due to a cold. He wrote about the coincidence of the timing in a regretful letter to Hale.

What if? After seeing the letters, I couldn’t shake this question. What if Eliot’s illness hadn’t kept him home, what if he’d eagerly accepted the invitation and shown up at the Woolfs’ house in Sussex for the weekend, as he had several times before? Would his presence at Monk’s House — sometimes an irritant, always an interest — have mattered if Woolf’s most recent depression were as strong as during her previous suicide attempts in 1913–’15? Or what if Eliot had quit smoking, which exacerbated his bronchitis, or ignored his doctor’s advice and headed to Sussex anyway? As Woolf tended to publish four works in a decade, might we have two more Woolf novels and two more political essays — more vibrant and vitriolic than even the feminist Three Guineas (1938) — if she had lived only 10 more years? Would her diaries, lovingly edited by her husband Leonard after her death, an inspiration for so many writers, never have seen publication? In the drafting of Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Woolf considered having her heroine, Clarissa Dalloway, die and then changed her mind, so that Septimus Warren Smith, the soldier suffering from wartime trauma, jumps from the window instead, while Clarissa returns to her friends Peter Walsh and Sally Seton, and to her party, though she was “glad” he had done it, had jumped with his treasure. Would Eliot’s visit, like that of Peter to Clarissa, have somehow altered Woolf’s fate?

A literary archive always encourages speculation (why save these bundled papers? why mix this draft with that receipt? who tied this red ribbon here?), but this archive nearly compels it because Eliot had Hale’s side of the correspondence burned. We need to fill in the gaps that constitute her replies, guess what she said to make him angry, wonder why he chose specific words to quote back to her and what private jokes we might be missing. Eliot is the famous poet of modernist impersonality, the father of the New Critical maxim that we don’t need to know about a poet’s life to appreciate his poetry. And yet Eliot himself becomes immensely personal as we read these letters — as he explains sources, struggles with drafts, and longs for Hale’s understanding.

When we think of Eliot as a personal poet, three major women in his life — Emily (his longtime epistolary love), Vivien (his tormented first wife), and Valerie (his second wife, nearly 40 years his junior) — take on a renewed centrality. Eliot’s private letters to Hale will forever change our ideas about his poetic sources and biography. Eliot’s decision not to marry Emily after Vivien’s death, his anger that she left his letters to Princeton during their lifetimes (though donating them to an archive had always been their plan), his decision to burn her side of the correspondence, his bitter statement released by the Houghton (perhaps dictated by Valerie), timed for the opening of the archive in 2020 — much has been said, and more needs to be said about all of this, and the repercussions for understanding Eliot’s criticism, poetry, and plays. Not yet published, these 1,131 letters will also modify our understanding of Eliot’s relationship to Virginia Woolf.

T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and Vivienne Eliot, 1932. By permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard.


A Weekend with the Eliots: September 2, 1932
“The bag of ferrets may have scratched for a good reason.”

On September 2, 1932, Eliot and his first wife Vivien (sometimes spelled Vivienne) surprised Leonard and Virginia at Monk’s house, leading to a fairly awkward visit. It also produced these two photographs, which are both in the Monk’s House albums at Harvard, and this energetic caricature in Woolf’s diary:

There’s a tap — behold Tom & Vivienne: we cant buy our fish for dinner. But it was a friendly thought, — she wild as Ophelia — alas no Hamlet would have her, with her powdered spots — in white satin, L. said; Tom, poor man, all battened down as usual, prim, grey, making his kind jokes with her. […] [she] trailing about the garden — never settling — seizing the wheel of their car — suddenly telling Tom to drive — all of which he bears with great patience: feeling perhaps his 7 months of freedom draw near.

Vivien as the mad Ophelia seems a fair description of the first image above, where she nearly floats in her small white shoes and white garments. Hiding behind her hat, she may as well be in a different photograph from Eliot and Woolf, who, together, seem confident, professional, conspiratorial, perhaps even smug.

Reading the Hale papers sheds a strange new light on the weekend captured in these pictures. Scholars tend to revere Woolf as a source of knowledge, even when tempered by our sense of her biases or prejudices; we admire her witty observations and keen photographic eye, and through our books we perpetuate and circulate her assessments and insights. I have seen this image of Vivien Eliot — strangely tiny, virginal, and remote — more than any other image of Eliot’s first wife, and Woolf’s words echo in my mind. Vivien died in a sanatorium 15 years after this photograph was taken, never accepting Eliot’s decision to separate from her, confined against her will. Films like Tom & Viv (1994) have sensationally dramatized their antagonism, depicting a brutally cold Eliot and Woolf’s desperately “mad” Vivien. “To her the marriage brought no happiness,” Eliot famously recalled. “To me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land.” Ann Pasternak Slater’s recent biography of Vivien, The Fall of a Sparrow: Vivien Eliot’s Life and Writings (2020), reprints Woolf’s second photograph and reiterates Woolf’s description about the visit and her vivid portrait of Vivien’s character. Pasternak Slater’s biography, despite fascinating archival finds such as Vivien’s own efforts at fiction, does not take the Hale letters into account (it was written before they were opened).

Hermione Lee, the author of the magisterial 1996 biography of Woolf, explains that Woolf’s portrayal of the Eliot marriage has “powerfully affected all the versions of the Eliot story.” Eliot’s letters to Hale, however, show the personal details he didn’t seem to have shared with his friends. The two photographs placed together undermine the mild Ophelia image, giving Vivien her own point of view and pride of place. Also, why has Woolf been replaced by a small (female) dog? Are Tom and Vivien acting in the pointing photograph? Or is she truly pointing right at him and is her anger evidence of Vivien’s unreasonable character? Or does Vivien feel freer to express her anger now that Woolf is (quite literally) out of the picture?

Maybe. And yet, just as Woolf may well be holding the camera in the second photograph, she figuratively continues to guide our vision of Vivien through her portraits, even though (and this is what visiting the Hale papers showed me) she seems not to have understood Vivien’s plight. Woolf knew that Tom intended soon to move to America for the academic year, to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard (“his 7 months of freedom draw near”). She even knew Eliot might hope his stay in America would allow for a formal separation from Vivien. As Woolf wrote in a letter to Ottoline Morrell four days later, “I hope the separation is complete and final, as it promised to be,” although she feared that “V should put on her crazy old hat and follow after.” What Woolf didn’t seem to know (and which could impact her portrayal of Vivien) is that Tom was, in part, moving there to be with or near Emily Hale. Vivien herself wrote in her diary, “Tom also seemed very strange” — as well he might when he was leaving his wife to start a new life (and he confessed this anxiety in a letter to Hale). Ten years later, Vivien still hoped Woolf could promote her case; she wrote asking for help to reconcile with Tom, believing, as Woolf recalls, “with some dignity poor woman […] that I respect marriage.” Would Woolf’s judgment of Vivien’s “wild” character on that day have been so severe had she known that Tom was planning to leave Vivien while in love with another woman?

Woolf’s most frequently quoted description of Vivien must be this line from the third volume of her diary:

Poor Tom is all suspicion, hesitation & reserve. […] But oh — Vivienne! Was there ever such a torture since life began! — to bear her on ones shoulders, biting, wriggling, raving, scratching, unwholesome, powdered, insane, yet sane to the point of insanity. […] This bag of ferrets is what Tom wears round his neck. (November 1930)

Woolf wrote this — forever caricaturing Vivien as a scratching “bag of ferrets” — on November 8, having seen the Eliots two nights before. We now know, from the Hale correspondence, that Eliot had just realized he was still in love with Emily Hale. In a letter on November 3, he first proclaimed the “supernatural ecstasy” that seeing her had given him, explaining that he had never loved Vivien, and confessing that all his poetry was written for Hale: “I want to convince you that my love for you has been the one great thing all through my life.”

Vivien was far from an easy spouse: she notoriously had an affair with Bertrand Russell, she suffered from many physical and mental illnesses, drug abuse, and overmedication, and she seemed to exhaust her husband from the beginning of their marriage. Nonetheless, new facts place Woolf’s caricatures and our own biases in a new light. This doesn’t mean that I think we need to wag fingers at what earlier scholarship missed; it does mean we need to bring the new facts into play, to avoid, as Pardis Dabashi beautifully put it, “ossifying hunches into convictions” or Woolf’s caricatures into fact. Looking at these pictures again now, I can’t help but see Vivien — and Woolf’s chummy relationship to Eliot — differently.

Little Gidding Church, Cambridgeshire. Photograph by the author.


Eliot is Ill: April 7, 1941
“One visit will never take place”

On April 7, 1941, Eliot wrote a letter to Emily Hale lamenting that “one visit will never take place.” Virginia Woolf had died, it was believed, drowning herself on March 28. Eliot writes, “I had been invited to Rodmell the very weekend that Virginia’s death was announced.” But he admits, “I had had to refuse.” He seems to be wondering, Could his presence have changed the outcome of that weekend? [2] He fought illness that whole season but writes to Hale that he had asked Woolf to repeat her invitation for later. Worrying first about Leonard and then about the newspapers pestering him to write some sort of literary response to Woolf’s death, Eliot adds, “But it is extremely difficult. […] I knew her rather as a friend to whom I was devoted, than as a famous writer.”

Two weeks later, Eliot again writes to Hale. He admits that “I have been finishing my note on Virginia: very short but difficult to write, for Horizon.” In the letter to which Eliot is replying, Hale has apparently asked whether Eliot’s current poem — his fourth quartet, “Little Gidding” — might perhaps conclude a bit less pessimistically than the previous three had — “cheerfully” seems to be the word she used. It is 1941, already several years into a second war, people are struggling, Eliot could perhaps buoy spirits up, yes? Eliot replies with characteristic uncertainty. While he hopes “there will be a little more warmth as well as light in Little Gidding,” yet it will “bear some traces of the experiences of the last eight months.” And then he concludes with the letter with which I began:

I admit that at this moment I am not in high animal spirits, at all events: probably debility from the winter, and also Virginia’s death more than I was aware of at first. You may have seen that they have finally recovered her body, of which I am glad. She was to me like a member of my own family somehow, and also, her going seems to mark the end of an age.

While the recovery of Woolf’s body put an end to Leonard’s tormented uncertainty, it also confirmed her death, cementing Eliot’s loss.

I have always found Eliot’s obituary for Woolf in Horizon a terribly odd and cold document. In what is clearly an effort to eulogize Woolf, it nonetheless takes 10 sentences to introduce its subject, seeming loath to even name her, finally doing so midsentence, mid-paragraph two, and then oddly focuses on failures: her failure with her Roger Fry biography, her unfair “accidental advantages” of birth and personal charm; Eliot’s own failure to yet understand what her legacy may be. While this published obituary emphasizes her importance as a literary figure — “With the death of Virginia Woolf, a whole pattern of culture is broken” — it also falls short of acknowledging the depth of their personal connection. In contrast, in the private letters to Emily Hale, to whom he is confessing his emotions, Eliot shows he feels too close to Woolf to yet commemorate her death properly. (To Leonard Woolf, he wrote, “For myself and others it is the end of a world.”)

I cannot help but take Eliot’s lead in hearing some traces (that was Eliot’s word, “traces”) of his mourning for Woolf in “Little Gidding.” Here is the beginning of that quartet:

Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown, 
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic. 
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire, 
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches, 
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat, 
Reflecting in a watery mirror.

Eliot sets this poem of loss, memory, finitude (“What we call the beginning is often the end”), and a search for literary meaning (where “[e]very phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning / Every poem is an epitaph”) in a watery English countryside, frozen in perpetual early springtime. The loss of literary forebears is a key image, extending out to a loss of all those one has loved. “See, now they vanish,” Eliot writes, “The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them, / To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.” “With the death of Virginia Woolf, a whole pattern of culture is broken,” Eliot wrote in his obituary, yet “Little Gidding” aims to find a new pattern, a renewed self through the recognition of love and loss, including love of suddenly vanished friends.

Eliot was writing his obituary for Woolf while also drafting “Little Gidding.” Both the poem and the obituary caused him great difficulty. Placing the two together, with Eliot’s Hale letters on hand, allows us to see the regret for a lost friend in the poem, where the obituary fails. In an early draft, Eliot had written “obituaries” in place of “epitaph” in section V. “Little Gidding,” a poem often read as the culmination of Eliot’s wartime quartets, where the nation’s poet intones for a people seeking solace, may also be, on a more personal scale, about Eliot’s sorrow for a lost friend.


Megan Quigley is the author Modernist Fiction and Vagueness: Philosophy, Form, and Language(Cambridge University Press, 2015), as well as articles on Henry James, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and #MeToo and Modernism. She is co-editing the forthcoming volume Eliot Now (Bloomsbury, 2022) in time for the centenary of The Waste Land. She is an associate professor of English at Villanova University.


[1] Eliot’s letters to Emily Hale are in the Manuscripts Division at Princeton University. Selections of these letters appear in John Haffenden’s recently published ninth volume of Eliot’s letters, and his complete edition of the Hale letters will appear this coming spring.

[2] Frances Dickey asks in a recent article published in the journal Twentieth-Century Literature, “One wonders how history might have played out differently if he had come through.”

LARB Contributor

Megan Quigley is the author Modernist Fiction and Vagueness: Philosophy, Form, and Language (Cambridge University Press, 2015), as well as articles on Henry James, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and #MeToo and Modernism. She is co-editing the forthcoming volume Eliot Now (Bloomsbury, 2022) in time for the centenary of The Waste Land. She is an associate professor of English at Villanova University.


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