The widow of TS Eliot died last week at the age of 86, and her story reveals a singular arc of dedication, begun in early adolescence.
Valerie was sent to school at Queen Anne’s, Caversham, near Reading, where the ethos was sporting rather than intellectual. At the age of 14, however, she was visited by a sudden illumination when she heard a recording of John Gielgud reading Eliot’s Journey of the Magi. Thereafter her obsession with the poet became a family joke.
The headmistress of Queen Anne’s may also have smiled wryly when Valerie Fletcher told her, on leaving, that she was determined to become TS Eliot’s secretary. For six months she worked at the Brotherton Library of the University of Leeds, and then as private secretary to the novelist Charles Morgan. But her aim, as she artlessly phrased it, was always “to get to Tom”; and in August 1950 she duly succeeded in becoming his secretary at Faber & Faber.
Not only did she doggedly become a fine secretary and guardian of his life's work, but she managed to hide her tremendous affection for him, so that when he finally hovered near an engagement, he had to ask if she even liked him.
Her life's goal wasn't some dark machination to coopt the poet, but a gift borne of devotion to him as a person. I admit I've never heard of such a tale, but then there are few men of the calibre of Eliot who pass our way. There was nothing in it for her other than the great satisfaction of serving a man she adored, easing his later years, and offering him joy.
When the new-marrieds returned from their honeymoon in Menton , the change in Eliot was startling. “You look as if, like Dante, you’d passed into Paradise,” someone told him. “Exactly,” he replied. “I’m the luckiest man in the world,” he would say, “I do not deserve such happiness.” If Valerie had to endure the disdain of some of Eliot’s circle, she rejoiced that through unstinting devotion all her intuitions were justified.
“He obviously needed to have a happy marriage,” she observed after her husband’s death in 1965. “There was a little boy in him that had never been released.” At parties the Eliots would hold hands and gaze at each other like lovesick teenagers, in defiance of the 38 years that lay between them.
The wounds in Eliot ran deep, stemming from a short and stormy earlier marriage to a woman who later had to be committed to a mental hospital. It's not clear how much Valerie knew of those details, other than that his first wife had died in 1947. For years he had been wracked with guilt, and '[h]is conversion to a gloomy Anglicanism in 1927 had only reinforced the mould."
But with Valerie came a wholesome affection and selfless love. It was in giving that she received a great deal, and they both benefited by the trajectory of her life. There is no indication of what sort of faith life she had, but may God smile favourably on her fidelity and oblation. RIP, dear sister.
[BTW, it would appear that she worked closely with this lovely woman.]