The Hyacinth Girl: T.S. Eliot's Hidden Muse (Paperback)
Longlisted for the 2023 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography
"The most brilliant and incisive new book on Eliot." —Colm Tóibín, Irish Times
Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, T.S. Eliot was considered the greatest English-language poet of his generation. His poems The Waste Land and Four Quartets are classics of the modernist canon, while his essays influenced a school of literary criticism. Raised in St. Louis, shaped by his youth in Boston, he reinvented himself as an Englishman after converting to the Anglican Church. Like the authoritative yet restrained voice in his prose, he was the epitome of reserve. But there was another side to Eliot, as acclaimed biographer Lyndall Gordon reveals in her new biography, The Hyacinth Girl. While married twice, Eliot had an almost lifelong love for Emily Hale, an American drama teacher to whom he wrote extensive, illuminating, deeply personal letters. She was the source of “memory and desire” in The Waste Land. She was his hidden muse.
That correspondence—some 1,131 letters—released by Princeton University’s Firestone Library only in 2020—shows us in exquisite detail the hidden Eliot. Gordon plumbs the archive to recast Hale’s role as the first and foremost woman of the poet’s life, tracing the ways in which their ardor and his idealization of her figured in his art. For Eliot’s relationships, as Gordon explains, were inextricable from his poetry, and Emily Hale was not the sole woman who entered his work. Gordon sheds new light on Eliot’s first marriage to the flamboyant Vivienne; re-creates his relationship with Mary Trevelyan, a wartime woman of action; and finally, explores his marriage to the young Valerie Fletcher, whose devotion to Eliot and whose physical ease transformed him into a man “made for love.”
This stunning portrait of Eliot will compel not only a reassessment of the man—judgmental, duplicitous, intensely conflicted, and indubitably brilliant—but of the role of the choice women in his life and his writings. And at the center was Emily Hale in a love drama that Eliot conceived and the inspiration for the poetry he wrote that would last beyond their time. She was his “Hyacinth Girl."
About the Author
Lyndall Gordon is the author of eight acclaimed biographies, including T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life. She lives in Oxford. England.
Vibrant.…There is a human richness to Eliot’s cerebral poetry that we can appreciate more in the context of his knotted emotional life, and Gordon’s art is in drawing this out.
— Katie Roiphe - New York Times Book Review
There is no finer guide into the mind of T. S. Eliot than Lyndall Gordon.…Emily Hale, too, finally gets her due in this brilliant and revelatory work from one of our greatest biographers.
— Heather Clark, author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath
Like an unopened Egyptian tomb, a trove of T. S. Eliot’s letters has lurked for decades in a Princeton library. Lyndall Gordon has now cracked it open, and in The Hyacinth Girl reveals a treasure of new insights into this most emblematic modern poet. If you thought you knew Eliot, think again.
— Benjamin Moser, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Sontag: Her Life and Work
Lyndall Gordon is the first biographer to uncover the life of T. S. Eliot’s hidden muse, the inspiration for one of his greatest works of poetry. Gordon’s fairminded and declarative approach works perfectly for a story that gives the reader a shocked understanding of the way that a literary genius was ready to banish the women he loved when they no longer served his purpose. This is a work that will change the way that Eliot is seen.
— Miranda Seymour, author of I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys
In an engrossing study of art refracting life, Lyndall Gordon explores the conflicted emotions that Eliot translated into his ostensibly impersonal art. Making superb use of his letters to the hitherto shadowy Emily Hale that were released after a sixty-year embargo, Gordon tells the story of a lifelong love, sustained but resisted, that lay hidden beneath his marriages with the troubled Vivienne and the adoring Valerie.
— Leo Damrosch, author of Adventurer: The Life and Times of Giacomo Casanova
The Hyacinth Girl is an elegant meditation on the women whose lives were fundamental to the life of T. S. Eliot. Lyndall Gordon has given us the fullest account yet of Eliot’s strained and distant relationship with his onetime sweetheart Emily Hale, kept dangling for decades as he grew more eminent and more remote, and one of the most detailed, vivid pictures of his nightmare marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, who was ultimately committed to a sanatorium against her will. Together with her account of Eliot’s subsequent marriage to Valerie Fletcher, who had been his secretary, these give a painfully intimate look at the poet, one that also results in significant reassessments of his most imposing poems.
— Michael North, Professor of English, University of California, Los Angeles, and editor of the Norton Critical Edition of The Waste Land and Other Poems
In this splendid biography, Lyndall Gordon offers a comprehensive, balanced account of T. S. Eliot’s hidden love for Emily Hale set in relation to his poetry, spiritual journey, and three other important women in his life—Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot, Mary Trevelyan, and Valerie Fletcher Eliot. Drawing on an immense archive of previously embargoed Eliot-Hale correspondence, Gordon shows how each of these women played a uniquely transformative role in the maturation of Eliot’s poetry and faith. An indispensable study that will inspire new perspectives on Eliot’s life and work for generations to come.
— Anita Patterson, professor of English, Boston University
Drawing on fresh revelations, Lyndall Gordon’s superb book brims with insight into T. S. Eliot’s complex love of women and its impact on his poetry. Beautifully written, fiercely honest, The Hyacinth Girl permanently dissolves the myth of impersonality, fathoming the vexed, tormented emotional life behind Eliot’s work.
— Jahan Ramazani, author of Poetry in a Global Age
The true nature of T. S. Eliot’s love for his American muse, Emily Hale, has been nearly wholly hidden until now. In The Hyacinth Girl, Lyndall Gordon paints an astute portrait of Eliot as a man trapped between desire and propriety, between a past history of emotional damage and a seemingly impossible future of romantic contentment. Gordon illuminates Eliot’s writing through the prism of his correspondence with Hale, demonstrating how central she is to a real understanding of the man and his work. A revelatory book.
— Erica Wagner, author of Ariel’s Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the story of Birthday Letters
Gordon’s account of the fate of these two caches is as exciting as a detective story. She catches the drama of the sealed boxes brilliantly. But it is the story behind—or rather within—the boxes that makes these revelations so important.
— Margaret Drabble - New Statesman
Exquisitely nuanced.... Careful not to judge either Eliot or his women. While the reader longs to scream at Hale and Trevelyan to just walk away, you are also left with the sneaking suspicion that being present at the making of work that shook the 20th century was probably—just—worth the humiliation and heartache.
— Kathryn Hughes - Sunday Times (UK)
Unrelenting focus on the women in the story…These books don’t undermine Eliot’s life or his achievement. Instead, they set him in a wider context, connecting him to the women who contributed so much to his success and paid a high price for doing so.
— Tom Williams - Spectator (UK)
Illuminating.... 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.... Literature lovers, take note.
— Publishers Weekly, starred review
[Gordon finds] new coherence in Eliot’s otherwise apparently fragmented interior life. Equally praiseworthy are Gordon’s sensitive assessments of the other women who shaped Eliot’s life.
— Booklist, starred review