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Valerie Eliot, R.I.P.

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T.S. Eliot's widow Valerie has died at age 86.

Enter Valerie Fletcher. Throughout her time working as Eliot’s secretary, she kept her intense admiration of the man to herself and quietly built up, according to the Telegraph, “a collection of his (Eliot’s) works that rivaled his own.” It is not known how the subject of their mutual affection — despite an age difference of 37 years — was broached, but it is rumored that Eliot proposed to Fletcher one day by slipping a note in with some letters he needed typing up. The two were married on Jan. 10, 1957.


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 Times

She spent most of her life after his death in 1965 editing and cataloguing the poet’s letters, but little has made its way into the public domain. She died last week at 86 and there are hopes that the remaining, vast collection of writings by the author of The Waste Land might now, at last, become available.

It'll be interesting to see who takes over the estate and what happens from here.

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She was a tenacious guardian of Eliot's papers and copyright. I had forgotten how long Eliot lived after his best work was completed.

Seemingly all of a sudden, Eliot became a happy man [i.e. after his late marriage to Valerie] . He wrote no more poetry after “The Elder Statesman” came out in 1958 ...

I suspect that the estate's most valuable property, in terms of pounds and dollars, is Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. (Thank you, Andrew Lloyd Webber.) I acquired a copy recently, one with Edward Gorey illustrations, to celebrate the arrival in our house of a new cat. I hate the musical show and never warmed up to the book, but I now find that it is actually quite a lot of fun if you read it aloud to a cat. Anya, however, was unimpressed and quickly allowed herself to descend gently into an elegant motionless doze.

I wonder whether Mrs. Eliot's death will revive a general interest in reading her husband's work. The first Eliot I read was ages ago in high school with Prufrock and I said farewell, effectively, with Four Quartets. After that, I somehow just stopped reading him. On YouTube, there's a recording of Eliot himself reading from Burnt Norton. The voice is more than a little snooty, dusty, dry, which might tend to confirm the popular conception of his poetry.

A real stunner for me, and something that rekindles a long-lost sense that Eliot was a great and even an exciting poet, is this recording of an unidentified actor reading from Little Gidding. He speaks slowly, with clarity and a rare combination of restraint and intensity.. The printed text accompanies the spoken word.

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