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Investigations Into the Life of the Spirit

Light comedy in The Confidential Clerk (1953) is provided mostly by a character, Lady Elizabeth Mulhammer. She is presented to Colby by Eggerson as whimsical, absent-minded, and often needing rescue:

It’s been a very unusual privilege
To see as much of Europe as I have,
Getting Lady Elizabeth out of her difficulties.

But more importantly, “she has a good heart”. Her inner restlessness finds an outlet in alternative medicine: she has undergone treatment in Zürich or Lausanne (where Eliot himself recovered from stress and chronic fatigue in the early 1920s). An earl’s daughter, she is socially superior to her husband, and snobbishly looks down on Sir Claude’s illegitimate daughter and her fiance, the “rather vulgar” Lucasta and Kaghan.

Yet, Lady Elizabeth was an alienated child in an aristocratic family, to the point of believing herself a “changeling”. Her estrangement resulted in extravagance and esotericism: she approves of Colby’s aura; she believes in reincarnation, the “art of health,” “the importance of colour for our spiritual life,” and “the Wisdom of the East”; she stresses the benefits of “health cures,” of a “quiet hour” for meditation, and teaches “recollection” to the maid; she is interested in “modern art,” “dervish dancing” and “herbal restaurants”.

In conversation with Colby, Sir Claude makes a crucial statement:

my wife’s investigations
into what she calls the life of the spirit
are a kind of substitute for religion.

Lady Elizabeth’s investigations recall the “usual pastimes and drugs” to which Eliot referred in section V of “The Dry Salvages”: ufology, spiritualism, astrology, chiromancy, or the interpretation of dreams. These are all rife “when there is distress of nations,” and opposed to “the intersection of the timeless with time,” which “is an occupation for the saint”. Lady Elizabeth’s mock religion contrasts with Colby’s music, which will lead him to a saintly life as the organist of a parish church.

Early in the play, Eggerson refers to Lady Elizabeth’s confidence in her intuition or “guidance,” and Sir Claude jokingly suggests that this takes the place of “judgement”. But Eliot chooses Lady Elizabeth to voice key verse lines at the end of the play, expressing a central theme:

Between not knowing what other people want of one,
And not knowing what one should ask of other people,
One does make mistakes!


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