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Not a Very Jolly Corner

Etching by Peter Milton for Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner”

In a review (unsigned) of the first production of The Family Reunion (1939), published in Listener, the anonymous reviewer argues that it “compares with the most sensitive of the short novels by Henry James” [*]. Eliot wrote this play at a time of crisis provoked by ambivalent feelings for his family, for his wife Vivienne, and for his intimate friend Emily Hale. The letters addressed to Hale, often compared to Aspern’s papers in James’s novella of that name, confirm that The Family Reunion is Eliot’s most autobiographical play.

In the play’s scene of his reunion with Mary, she represents romantic renewal for the widowed Harry. However, this promise is not fulfilled, and although Mary helps Harry to find his way, her guiding role is less decisive than that of Aunt Agatha’s. The similarity between Mary and Hale is evident, but we may also establish connections with two characters created by James: May Bartram in “The Beast in the Jungle,” and Alice Staverton in “The Jolly Corner”.

In “The Beast in the Jungle,” James’s protagonist, John Marcher, is reunited with May Bartram at an English country house, Weatherend. Bartram is presented as a dependent relative, very much like Mary at Wishwood. Even her great-aunt, the lady of Weatherend, is reminiscent of Amy, Harry’s mother in The Family Reunion. Bartram supports Marcher through the existential crisis expressed as the metaphor after which the story is titled. Marcher refers to Bartram as “a sybil” whose innate wisdom is a “mystical, irresistible light” [**] – in this aspect, she is both Mary and Agatha.

Like Harry, Spencer Brydon returns home in “The Jolly Corner”. After many years in Europe, he goes back to New York, his family home (now empty), and Alice Staverton. If Harry and Mary reminisce on their free and happy childhood, Spencer recalls how he and Alice became friends in an idealised pre-modern New York. In an empty house, the “jolly corner” where he grew up, Spencer will confront his ghostly double, the man that he might have been. Similarly, Agatha explains that her nephew “will find another Harry” at Wishwood; on any given spot of the manor, “he will have to face him – / And it will not be a very jolly corner”.

Through sleepless nights at the “jolly corner,” Spencer is alert to every sound and shadow. At Wishwood, “the noxious smell untraceable in the drains” and “the unspoken voice of sorrow in the ancient bedroom” disturb Harry’s sleep. The distinctive word embrasure occurs in James’s story, and then in Eliot’s play: this is where Spencer hides as he waits for his double to appear, and where the Furies make themselves visible to a horrified Harry.

The Furies reappear in their benevolent aspect as Eumenides, showing Harry the way of purgation as The Family Reunion resolves. At the end of James’s story, Spencer experiences a symbolic rebirth, following an agon with his other self. He passes out, is rescued by Alice (a female intercessor, like May, Mary and Agatha), to be born again: “I can only have died. You brought me literally to life” (p. 366).

[*] Listener, 06-04-1939 (unsigned), T. S. Eliot. The Contemporary Reviews, edited by Jewel Spears Brooker, Cambridge UP, 2004, p. 384.
[**] Henry James, Tales, eds. Christof Wegelin and Henry B. Wonham, Norton, 2003 (1984), pp. 330, 321. (Page number given for subsequent quotes from this source.)

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If He Becomes a Famous Man

In 1952, John Peter published “A New Interpretation of The Waste Land,” reading the poem as a homoerotic elegy for “a young man” loved by the main speaker. As explained in a postcript from 1969, the essay was withdrawn at Eliot’s displeased request and effectually censored for seventeen years. Interestingly, Peter claimed that the disturbance caused by his interpretation informed The Elder Statesman, and even saw himself as the inspiration for one of its characters, Federico Gomez.

In The Elder Statesman, Lord Claverton (generally considered a trasnposition of Eliot himself) is unexpectedly reunited, after many years, with Federico Gomez and Mrs. Carghill. Both confront the ageing protagonist with past guilt, prompting something of a life review. Gomez, an old Oxford friend, reminds Lord Claverton that, after a night out on the town, he ran down a man and failed to provide assistance. On the other hand, Mrs. Carghill, whom Lord Claverton met as a chorus girl, has not forgotten his breach of promise, despite her subsequent successful and respectful marriage(s).

Lord Claverton wrote “very loving” letters to Mrs. Carghill, Maisie, and they “would have figured at the trial . . . If there had been a trial”. These letters, about which Lord Claverton is still uneasy, are in her “lawyer’s safe”. It was Maisie’s friend Effie who made her realise how valuable they could be: “They’ll be worth a fortune to you, Maisie”; “If he becomes a famous man / And you should be in want, you could have these letters auctioned.”

The Elder Statesman was first performed in 1958. In 1957, Eliot had married Valerie Fletcher, to whom the play is dedicated and who has been compared to Monica – Lord Claverton’s loving daughter. In 1956, Emily Hale, the actress and drama teacher who lived a frustrated and painful love story with Eliot and was his correspondent for three decades, donated his letters to Princeton Library, on condition that they be made public only in 2020. Even this caveat did not prevent Eliot – the man who banned a personal reading of his best known poem – from disapproving of Hale’s decision.

Peter’s identifying himself with Federico Gomez may seem self-conscious. The connection between Mrs. Carghill and Hale, however, seems more convincing. Not only are there potentially compromising letters, but also the music number said to have made Maisie famous – “It’s Not Too Late for You to Love Me”. While Lord Claverton feels guilt for the pain he caused Maisie, this song title might be interpreted as an unsympathetic allusion by Eliot to Hale’s sentimental dependence upon him.

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Eliot’s Drama at the 41st ITSES Conference

Last weekend (October 2-3) I attended the 41st T. S. Eliot International Society Conference. Around the date of Eliot’s birth in late September, scholars meet in his home town (St Louis), or at some other location associated with the author’s life and work. This year’s reunion would have been celebrated at Harvard – Eliot’s alma mater – had it not be for the pandemic. Instead we met on line.

A number of participants presented on Eliot’s drama, or provided insights relevant to it:

  • In assessing Eliot’s critcism of the poems of Alan Seeger (his contemporary at Harvard), Kevin Rulo observed the former’s emphasis on the notion of theatricality in Seeger’s poetic representation of Paris.
  • In one of the round tables on Eliot’s recently revealed correspondence with Emily Hale, John Whittier-Ferguson emphasised the strikingly direct parallels between some of these letters and The Family Reunion. The awkwardness and tormented frustration into which Eliot’s relationship with Hale developed cast a shadow over the play, in contrast to their transmutation into poetry in “Burnt Norton.”
  • Sara Fitzgerald, the author of The Poet’s Girl (a biofiction on the Hale-Eliot relationship), touched on Hale’s involvement with amateur theatre, her role as teacher of speech and drama in several colleges, and as advisor to Eliot on aspects of performance.
  • The T. S. Eliot Memorial Lecture was delivered by Robert von Hallberg, who scrutinised the more discursive and prosaic passages of “East Coker,” especially those in which the poet reflects on the difficulties of poetic expression. I could not help connecting those lines with Eliot’s continued struggle to find the right language for his verse dramas.
  • In exploring the influence of detective fiction on Eliot, Deborah Leiter alluded to Sherlock Holmes’s “Musgrave Ritual” as echoed by one of the knights in Murder in the Cathedral; Alex Davis examined the factual origins of the crime mentioned in Sweeney Agonistes, where the protagonist’s friend kills a woman an keeps her body in a “lysol bath.”
  • Sørina Higgins discussed liturgical elements of Murder in the Cathedral, and their authenticity within the framework of a play that dramatises religious ceremony.
  • Parker T. Gordon focused on The Rock as a text for the stage and on the production details of its first performance, directing special attention to the choral sections and drawing on rarely seen archival material (photographs, costume designs and musical scores).

Eliot’s drama, approached from multiple perspectives (criticism, biography, intertextual links with poetry, elements of popular culture, performance), is possessed of great versatility as an object of research in itself, and as a conduit to researching other facets of Eliot’s oeuvre.

I will be looking forward to future conferences – and the reopening of theatres – in better times.