cover image The Hyacinth Girl: T.S. Eliot’s Hidden Muse

The Hyacinth Girl: T.S. Eliot’s Hidden Muse

Lyndall Gordon. Norton, $35 (384p) ISBN 978-1-324-00280-2

T.S. Eliot’s oft-forgotten relationship with an American woman takes center stage in this illuminating account from Gordon (T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life). Using Eliot’s letters to Emily Hale that were unsealed in the Princeton University archive in January 2020, Gordon traces their relationship and her Hale’s as his muse, inspiring the hyacinth girl in The Wasteland and the Four Quartets. Eliot turned to her as his first marriage collapsed, and hoped their letters would serve as a sort of autobiography (though he ended up destroying much of Hale’s correspondence to him). While a visit from Hale crossed into physical intimacy—she sat on his lap, he kissed her feet—Eliot ultimately recoiled against marriage and companionship, and later, having used Hale in a long “dance of possession and withdrawal,” he married another woman. If this fine and entertaining account leaves readers shocked by instances of Eliot’s theatrical and self-serving misogyny (he “​​felt burdened by women”), it also treats the women in his life with dignity and goes a long way in reversing the erasure he attempted. “Eliot’s letter to posterity left no opening for debate: the future must forget Emily Hale,” Gordon writes. Literature lovers, take note. (Nov.)