Virginia Woolf was the foremost of the four English women who welcomed Thomas Stearns Eliot. Her main impetus to meet Eliot, assisted by her husband Leonard Woolf, was the result of the Egoist edition of his first book of poetry. Prufrock and other observations. Mary’s lover, Clive Bell, took a dozen copies to Garsington, and there Katherine Mansfield read “Prufrock” aloud to enthusiastic applause. Mansfield, an expatriate himself, understood better than most how insecure Eliot felt with his sideways glances and painfully slow speech.
When “Prufrock” came to Leonard Woolf’s way, the poem seemed to say something to him that no one had said before, and it was a rarity, as not a single line fell under “the heights”.
Leonard and Virginia Woolf had just bought a small hand press and were planning to print books as a hobby. The machine was desk-top and could only print one page at a time, and the Hogarth Press’ first publication was the couple’s own Two stories in 1917. They followed this up with Katherine Mansfield prelude, a beautifully moving frieze of family scenes from her native New Zealand seen through the emotional intelligence of a child. In September and October 1918, the Woolfs approached “Mary’s friend” Eliot about publishing one of his poems.
He was invited to dinner at her home, Hogarth House in Richmond, on November 15, and there he read three or four of his caricatures of humanity: possibly Sweeney Among the Nightingales, The Hippopotamus, and Mr. Eliot’s Sunday morning service.” The Woolfs accepted these and some other poems for a small collection, the third publication of the Hogarth Press (along with Virginia Woolf’s new story, Kew Gardens).
The Woolfs would do the printing themselves, covering the book with one of Roger Fry’s marbled papers. Being adopted by Virginia Woolf was a triumph for Eliot, who informed his family of her status as her father’s daughter. Sir Leslie Stephen was a leading Victorian man of letters and former President of the London Library. It meant acceptance by London’s literary elite.
To be taken on by Virginia Woolf was a triumph for Eliot… It meant being accepted by London’s literary elite.
At first, Virginia Woolf was as disturbed by Eliot’s speech as Lady Ottoline: slowly, each word being given a special ending. She couldn’t understand exactly what he was saying. The problem might have been his effort to strip every word of its American intonation, but he came across as meticulous – what his prospective publisher called “intellectual” (no compliment). Woolf discovered intolerance “below the surface”. She was also annoyed at his allegiance to Wyndham Lewis, Joyce and Pound, whose brand of unconventionality was too intrusive for Bloomsbury, who cultivated nuance and a light, comic touch. Why is Mr. Eliot “stuck in this mud,” Virginia Woolf wondered, formally addressing him as “Mr. Eliot,” called him “Eliot” to her friends, not yet “Tom.” Meanwhile, she joked about Eliot’s exaggerated English.
Despite acceptance by the Hogarth Press, by the end of 1918 Eliot was weak and depressed after a bout of flu, but again unconvinced that he could fulfill his gift. His most recent poems, tight quatrains, were composed under the watchful eye of Pound, who urged sharp-edged logicality that bordered on the insult. Vivienne also encouraged this cutting vein. It’s not that Eliot couldn’t hit his targets with deadly words, it’s that he wrote something against the grain. He was a discoverer, not an explainer. He was reluctant by nature, and his greatest works make a virtue of it.
Eliot’s Anglicization seemed to cover his features like an irremovable mask. “I have become accustomed to a society so diverse that it is difficult to find common terms to define difference,” he told Professor Woods at Harvard. Conrad Aiken noticed the change in him when he came to England after the war, an impression of his detachment. Because Eliot wanted to belong entirely to his English milieu. Though politeness compelled him to see this old friend now and then, he privately dismissed Aiken as “stupid.”
The publication of Eliot’s poems didn’t go smoothly. The Woolfs finished printing in March 1919 and Eliot provided them with a requested list of contacts who could obtain copies. At that moment he carelessly agreed with Mary Hutchinson’s jealous criticism of Virginia Woolf, since he no longer knew the gossip that was circulating in Bloomsbury. Clive Bell immediately passed this nasty bite on to Woolf herself, who picked it up just as she was typing Eliot’s book. A long silence followed, and Eliot was unnerved to find that none of his contacts had received copies.
At this point, Vivienne encouraged paranoia. She suggested to her husband that the Woolfs took revenge by throwing his book away.
The truth finally came out: whatever they thought of his slight, the Woolfs had only lost Eliot’s list. He delivered another and worked hard to placate Virginia Woolf. Both were treated to a weekend in Garsington where guests watched. Eliot went out of his way to praise Virginia Woolf in front of all her friends and refused a nudge from Jack Hutchinson to slander her. Virginia then invited the Eliots to lunch (along with Bloomsbury insiders Marjorie Strachey, Lytton’s feisty sister, and Walter Lamb) and smugly noted in her journal that she now sees Eliot as “a stick since he doesn’t like me anymore.” . His wife nailed her like a washed-up little woman. Vivienne, cowed, would never shine in Virginia Woolf’s company as she did with Mary and Lady Ottoline.
Naturally [Eliot] hesitated, and his greatest works make a virtue of it.
poems released on May 12th. There was a negative review in the TLSduring Virginia Woolfs Kew Gardenspublished the same day, was an unexpected success, with orders pouring in, necessitating a second printing of a thousand copies.
There could have been more here. The Woolfs, who were interested in Prufrock, weren’t quite as excited about meeting Eliot in person. This fact is beyond question. But what if Leonard Woolf (whose story “Three Jews” shows how sensitive he was to Judaism) was less than pleased with Eliot’s portrayal of Rachel, née, and the most serious thing he’d ever done? When asked late in life, Leonard Woolf calmly replied that Eliot did not consider himself particularly anti-Semitic.
But his 1919 letters to the poet are scarce. Cold. There was a tacit change of plan: the Hogarth Press had originally planned for a print run of four hundred. Leonard Woolf, who did the editing, printed only one hundred and ninety copies. In time they were all sold and, after deducting production costs, Eliot ended up getting £3 and a few pence.
As time passed, Virginia Woolf’s appreciation for Eliot grew. When he came to dinner a year later, she highlighted “the driving force” in him: “My word, what concentration of the eye when he argues!” She found herself similar to Eliot in her reserves and subterfuges. She too was an explorer of the inner life defined by “moments of being” as culminating as Eliot’s “unattended moments”. As experimental modernists, both have sworn off the 19th-century narrative of going from tea to dinner. And both are moving towards the unspoken. Still, they didn’t talk about the work, not about how Virginia Woolf would view “our precious art” with Katherine Mansfield.
[Woolf] found herself similar to Eliot in her reserves and subterfuges.
Where Virginia Woolf was generous—she set typefaces for Eliot’s publications, invited him to tea and on weekends—Eliot tended to faintly praise her writing. He acknowledged that their language has “amazing beauty” that is carefully employed through “relentless toil of arrangement.” Hardship is a routine misogynist deprecation: women work in opposition to the spontaneity of true genius.
Once, to her satisfaction, he admired an early tale, String Quartet; but on another occasion, in September 1920, when Eliot was spending a weekend with the Woolfs at Monk’s House in Sussex and she confronted him about not reading her, his reply was evasive: as he hardly read fiction, apart from detective fiction, he claimed : he had read more than she thought.
She noticed that his young hazel eyes seemed to flee his heavily sculpted face, pale with no upper lip.
Although Woolf prided himself on not being “in hiding,” the water rose once or twice when Eliot “completely neglected my pretensions of being a writer,” she said. She thought, “Had I been gentle, I probably would have perished.” The aftermath was that she was stopped from writing her novel Jacob’s room. His visit “cast a shadow” and made her “listless”.
Secretly, Eliot remarked to Pound that “there are no women worth printing”. He meant primarily Katherine Mansfield, a rival abroad and before him at the Hogarth Press, but he also despised Virginia Woolf. This is evident in a letter to Emily Hale, which she read carefully: “I don’t admire her work as much as I’m sure she likes being admired (of course).”
The friendship and Eliot’s willingness to accept their hospitality gratified Woolf, who over the years took little notice of his selfishness – a “scimitar acuity” centered on himself – and disregarded her work. Only once, in her journal, when she was imagining Vivienne after her and Ottoline with a knife, and imagining they were Eliot’s mistress, Virginia Woolf pretended to be upset: “Since I never got a favor from that man.” had it hard to give my life to the sidewalk.”
She did not allow her anger to overcome her admiration for Eliot’s poetry. The more he published, the clearer his distinction became: “In him was spring water, cold & pure,” she notes in her diary. He noted how warm she was to discover his family connection to Charles Eliot Norton, her father’s New England friend. Leslie Stephen had enjoyed his connections with New England literary figures and when Virginia was born he had asked James Russell Lowell to be her godfather.
In time, Eliot told Emily Hale that he was “happiest with the Woolfs” and years later, while spending his birthday weekend with the Woolfs in Sussex, Virginia notes in her journal: “Tom in a way – with his sensitive, shrinking, shy but headstrong nature – very much like me”
excerpt from The Hyacinth Girl: TS Eliot’s Hidden Muse by Lyndall Gordon. Copyright © 2022. Available from WW Norton & Company.