The BBC is reporting that Valerie Eliot, widow of T. S. Eliot, has died at the age of 86. When she married the poet in 1957 she was 31 years old; he was 69 and a widower whose first marriage had been famously miserable, and had long believed himself to have missed the opportunity for personal happiness. But by all accounts this second marriage was successful indeed, and Eliot’s last years (he died in 1965) were the happiest of his life. (Some years ago Blake Morrison wrote a fine account of “The Two Mrs Eliots”; it’s very much worth reading.)
Upon the poet’s death, his literary estate fell under his widow’s control, and from a scholar’s point of view this was unfortunate. The significant decline in Eliot’s literary reputation over the past thirty years would probably have happened anyway — though I believe him to have produced a few truly great poems and a massively brilliant and influential body of criticism, he had been over-valued and over-celebrated for some decades — but her hyper-protective policies no doubt contributed significantly to the decline.
I have written before about the difficult task of the literary executor, and it is difficult, but Valerie Eliot’s mania for control and distrust of people who wanted only to celebrate her husband’s work marked, I think, a failure of her responsibility to her husband’s career. Karen Christensen, who worked for Mrs. Eliot, shared similar concerns a few years ago. Scholarly lovers of Eliot’s poetry are probably wondering right now whether the future might be brighter — for them as scholars and for TSE as poet. In any case, may she rest in peace.