Vivienne Eliot: Her health was a constant preoccupation
The long-delayed publication of the second volume of T. S. Eliot's collected letters is at once a major event and a rather small one. Eliot was a central figure in the literary life of his time. The letters in the new volume, which covers the years from 1923 to 1925, were written when he was at the height of his powers (The Waste Land had been published in 1922), and they are interesting — how could they not be? — on many counts. But no one could say that they are a contribution to literature in their own right. They almost never stir one's spirits or excite one's imagination. Even as gossip their entertainment value is strictly limited.
Money worries and health problems (both his wife's and Eliot's own) are constant themes in the book. There is prolonged agonising about whether he should give up his job at the head office of Lloyds Bank, and an abundance of detail about the terms of his move to the newly established publishing house of Faber and Gwyer, soon to be Faber and Faber. But in terms of space it is his editorship of the quarterly review, the Criterion, which looms largest.
He had to find time for his labours for the Criterion after he had returned home from the bank. He wasn't paid for them (though the journal itself received a subsidy from Lady Rothermere), and he was sorely overworked. But for all his groans he plainly felt the job was worthwhile. It enhanced his intellectual authority, and he tackled it with unremitting dedication.
The correspondence provides a close-up of his editorial principles and practices. We can watch him pursuing favourite themes, wooing eminent potential contributors (often unsuccessfully), disengaging himself from undesirable ones, practising an editor's necessary insincerities.
There are unexpected twists and turns. He wrote to D. H. Lawrence, for example, saying how pleased he was to hear that Lawrence liked the Criterion, only to receive a poke in the eye by way of reply. No, it had bored the novelist "to turn the very pages" of the current issue; the whole thing was "too literary", "old barn-hen stuff". It is plain from comments they made on other occasions that he and Eliot were instinctively hostile. But that did not stop them valuing one another as editor and contributor respectively: the Criterion published no fewer than five of Lawrence's stories.