Long-time Falls Church resident and civic activist Sara Fitzgerald, a former Washington Post editor and among the staunchest of League of Women Voter promoters, reveals a rich literary side with a novel about a long and painful love story rooted in the true lives of poet T.S. Eliot and his first love, a woman who supported and sustained him mostly from a distance with correspondences over more than two dozen years as he went through two wives and insisted he never really loved her. Fitzgerald’s novel published this January, “The Poet’s Girl: A Novel of Emily Hale and T.S. Eliot,” is the fact-based story of Eliot and Emily Hale, his first love in college.
The occasion of Fitzgerald’s work was a somewhat famous event on Jan. 2, 2020, when 1,131 letters that Eliot wrote to Hale between 1930 and 1957 were unsealed after being famously sealed at Princeton University for 50 years after the death of Hale in 1969. Fitzgerald was there with a handful of Eliot scholars for that Jan. 2 unsealing and much more about Eliot began being known.
As for the many letters from Hale to Eliot, those were destroyed by Eliot in 1960. However, a statement from Eliot was included in the cache of his letters unsealed in January stating that his relationship with Hale was not a love affair. That may have been for complex reasons, scholars think, given it was written just prior to the onset of Eliot’s second marriage to a woman 30 years younger.
While Eliot and Hale spent their summers together from 1935 and 1939 in England, interrupted by World War II, Hale’s expectation that they would marry following the death of Eliot’s divorced first wife in 1947 was dashed when Eliot informed her it couldn’t happen. The two seldom met after that, even though they continued to correspond until shortly before Eliot’s second marriage.
Eliot and Hale met in 1912, when Eliot was a graduate student at Harvard, and later wrote he’d fallen in love with her. By 1914, Eliot moved to London and never returned to the U.S., and married in 1915, While prior to his marriage, he and Hale had begun a steady correspondence. It ceased during the first decade of what became Eliot’s increasingly unhappy marriage. In 1930, it resumed through Eliot’s divorce a few years later. Between 1930 and 1957, Eliot wrote her more than 1,000 letters.
Fitzgerald’s challenge in her novel was to bring this complex, lifelong relationship to life, from the time of their first meeting at a stunt show charity event. The sharing the two engaged in during their many correspondences was undoubtedly a powerful source of strength for them both, but made bittersweet at best by Eliot’s ultimate unwillingness to marry.
Hale’s emotional investment into the life and fame of Eliot took its toll once the chances for an ultimate marriage became evident to Hale. Elliot’s last letter to Hale was in 1957, and Hale spent the last 12 years of her life engaged with local community groups. Eliot died in 1965 and Hale died in 1969.