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Joint Property, Divided Correspondents: The T. S. Eliot-Emily Hale Letters

Almost as soon as they began corresponding in 1930, T. S. Eliot told Emily Hale that he treasured her letters—not just the words, but the paper itself: “I cannot bear to be separated from your letters at present, not so much for need to refer to the contents, some of which I repeat to myself often during the day and night, but for the touch of the paper and sight of the writing.”[1] Throughout their long-distance romance, Eliot cherished Hale’s material traces—her photos, gifts, flowers she picked for him, her scent in his rooms after she had departed—especially her letters, which he lovingly collected in a tin box at his office at Faber & Faber. They supplied the best and perhaps only evidence of the true meaning of his poetry and life, he told her, as he sought her permission to entrust them to Oxford’s Bodleian Library, to be opened sixty years after his death (February 19, 1932; March 15, 1932). He made frequent reference to the tin box and to his plan for archiving them (for example, on January 16, 1936, following an intensification of their relationship, he tells her that he has laid a piece of brown paper over her old letters and started a new collection in the box). The remains of their correspondence—his letters, not hers—would ultimately come to rest at Princeton’s Firestone Library, not the Bodleian, but the distinction between the letters’ contents and their material medium remained salient and has only increased in significance since their deaths. For, as Hale’s friend Willard Thorp wrote in 1963, when she was trying (unsuccessfully) to retrieve her own letters from Eliot so that both sides of the correspondence could be preserved together: “As you know, under the law, [your] letters belong to him and he can dispose of them as he wishes. But the right to quote from them or to publish any or all of them belongs to you and your legal heirs—forever, so far as we know” (November 26, 1963). In a long-held legal distinction originating with a suit brought by Alexander Pope, the words of a letter belong to the writer, but the paper is owned by the recipient, who has the power to sell or destroy it, but not to publish the contents.

Our post explores the ways that the special significance of paper inflected the Eliot-Hale correspondence from the beginning and continues to shape its reception in fundamental, strange, and curiously fitting ways. Starting on January 2 of this year, visitors to Princeton Library’s Special Collections could choose from three different media as they read Eliot’s letters: the originals, typed on Criterion stationery and carefully preserved by Hale with enclosures and envelopes; paper copies of all the same materials, printed from digital high-resolution scans; or the same scans made available on secure desktop computers, which both of us preferred because (with our ageing eyes and backs) they were easier to read for many hours on end. While the originals were more thrilling to hold, we were both struck by their interchangeability with the virtual copies when it came to their contents. And, of course, the digital copies could be shared with the world, and may be one day, by the stroke of a key. The existence of digital reproduction makes legal debates about the ownership of paper and words seem out-of-date, yet the distinction shaped the denouement of Eliot and Hale’s correspondence and still has real consequences for scholars.

In the precedent-setting legal case, Alexander Pope v. Edmund Curl[l] (1741), Pope filed a suit to prevent the publisher and bookseller Curll from bringing out a collection of letters written and received by Pope.[2] Copyright had first been legislated three decades earlier, in the Statute of Anne (1710), but that statute had paid little attention to rights over unpublished materials, an oversight that was addressed but not wholly resolved by the Pope-Curll dispute. The judge in the case, Lord Chancellor Philip Yorke, 1st Earl of Hardwicke, approved half of Pope’s argument, allowing that “possibly the property of the paper may belong to [the recipient of Pope’s letters]; but this does not give a license to any person whatsoever to publish them to the world, for at most the receiver has only a joint property with the writer” (emphasis added). The paper on which the letters had been written was no longer Pope’s property, but his words remained his own and he retained substantial rights over the uses of those words. Pope could not prevent Curll from publishing letters that he (Pope) had received from others, however, since Pope held only one physical instantiation of another’s expressive, hitherto unpublished act, but had no claims on that expression itself. Pope may hold the paper, and the words may be for him, but they’re others’ words.[3]

Letters are by their nature difficult to pin down or legislate about. They are writing pitched between two camps and only partly loyal to each—the physical property of the recipient, but the intangible expression of their author, susceptible to various uses by their addressee although that person does not own their expressive content. We’re free to destroy, sell, give, or loan out letters written to us, but we are not free to publish them; their author retains rights over the words but not over the medium making those words legible to the world. We are in the realm of divided property—vexed domain which turns out to be precisely where love letters belong. This is writing that aspires to the most exalted state of language—the words incandescent, transubstantiated, sublime—and equally writing whose embodiment becomes beloved too. Remembered, memorized, but also treated by the recipient as protected tokens—safely kept, carefully transported—precious in expressive power and also as tangible evidence of embodied affection. When letters come from someone famous, they are even more complexly situated, since not only are they valuable as property, they can be said to have cultural significance, which ensures that their disposition will be of interest to a much wider community of scholars and lawyers and the curious public than is the case for the rest of us. Eliot’s letters to Hale, however intimate, were in important legal and social senses never wholly private. Eliot’s fame preceded their correspondence and insured that even his most heartfelt expressions, his nicknames for her, his recollections of their time together, his protestations and avowals, his promises and equivocations, his explanations of his poetry and of his behavior would be, unless she exercised her destructive rights over these devotions in her care, part of a public record held in an increasingly awkward embrace between the two of them. During her life Hale became a custodian of the thousands of pages on which Eliot had typed words (hers but not fully or only hers) that had done so much to shape and misshape her life.

While Eliot’s love for Hale made her letters precious to him as physical evidence of her person, his letters gained objective value as collectors’ items over time. His decision not to make carbon copies (announced to her in his second letter, November 3, 1930) meant that she gradually accumulated a unique and irreplaceable collection of his most personal writing, which—he assured her on July 6, 1932 and other occasions—belonged to her alone: “As for my letters, they are your property, and their fate must be decided by you. I confess to a feeling of regret (not rising from vanity) if these poor testimonies of the most important matter in my life should perish altogether, though they obviously should be withheld from the public for a good many years.” The archival plan he announced to her in December 1930 depended on her reciprocal care for his letters, and more importantly, on their continued mutual trust and loyalty. Each time he wrote to her, he entrusted her with a piece of property—the physical paper, which now belonged to her, and the literary work, which still belonged to him, consigned to her safe keeping for the duration of their lives. Eliot seems to have believed that the significance of his poetry and drama rested on (and would be revealed by) his secret, unconsummated romance with Hale. That she preserved his increasingly valuable letters was tangible proof of the reciprocal nature of their relationship. His statement, “they are your property, and their fate must be decided by you,” magnanimously restates the legal status of the letters as her property while also reminding her of the solemn duty to return his trust by preserving them, for as the rest of the passage suggests, he has very clear ideas of what his letters’ fate should be.

Eliot’s handwritten envelope addressed to Emily Hale
Fig. 1. Eliot’s handwritten envelope addressed to Emily Hale. Emily Hale Letters from T. S. Eliot. Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library. 

As time passed, both Eliot and Hale must have become more conscious of the value of his letters. Writing to her on May 12, 1938, Eliot enclosed a newspaper clipping that recommends, “if you have any scrap of his written MS treasure it. When T. S. Eliot dies it will be at a premium. He types most of his letters, all his MS.” Surely he sent this with humorous intent, but both correspondents must have been aware that every time Eliot picked up his pen or put a sheet in the typewriter to write to Hale, he was creating an artifact that (if preserved) would one day be a collector’s item.[4] While Hale could not have sold any of his letters without losing the trust that sustained their correspondence, the knowledge of their potential market value might have mitigated Eliot’s sense of indebtedness to Hale, a constant concern. And Hale was poor. As an itinerant drama and speech instructor without a college degree, she received a salary that hardly allowed her to cover her own expenses, including the care of her institutionalized mother. Eliot expresses concern about whether she is getting enough to eat and whether she will be able to find suitable employment. She can’t have missed the ironic contrast between her threadbare existence and the growing pile of literary gold that she had to pack for each of her frequent moves when she changed lodgings or jobs. Perhaps the inconvenience of transporting his letters or anxiety about theft or damage finally moved her to begin talking with Eliot and her friends Willard and Margaret Thorp about giving the entire collection to Princeton, where Willard was a professor in the English Department. The only financial benefit she might have received from her gift was a tax deduction (if she made enough income to be taxed), but at least she did not have to bear the trouble and expense of storing them in her old age.

Hale and Eliot’s relationship to each other, and thus to their accumulated correspondence, changed in January 1947, when Eliot’s first wife Vivien unexpectedly died. Just a few months before, after being reunited with Hale for the first time since 1939, Eliot expressed fresh devotion and longing. Yet when faced with the freedom to marry her, he found he could not. Though they continued to correspond, and Hale patiently accepted his decision, it transformed her from the distant object of his affections to a woman he had wronged. It also transformed the letters in her possession from the record of a tragically thwarted love that would explain the personal allusions and anguish of his poetry to a time bomb of petty grievances, embarrassing self-disclosures, and empty promises set to go off sixty years after his death. As he and Hale discussed the disposition of his letters in fall 1956, Eliot began to worry that the process of cataloging would lead to leaks. He became suspicious of the librarian, William Dix. Writing to the Thorps on December 23, Hale described Eliot’s anger: “His attitude over the whole matter has been ‘formidable’ as the French say, and I have had to steer carefully, but confidentially, with Mr. Dix, in the direction I am told to go . . . for the library world’s sake—but oh boy, what a reaction!” For his part, Eliot later wrote (in the statement written in 1960 and released by Houghton Library, per his instructions, on the same day as his letters were unsealed at Princeton), “it seemed to me that her disposing of the letters in that way at that time threw some light upon the kind of interest which she took, or had come to take, in these letters. The Aspern Papers in reverse.”[5] Perhaps her possession of his letters and her right to dispose of them began to poison their friendship. Or perhaps he was concerned about another reader: Valerie Fletcher, who became Valerie Eliot in January 1957—exactly ten years since Vivien’s death and just a few weeks after his letters to Hale had been sealed for posterity. What would his bride think of his professions of love and unfulfilled promises to Hale, if she could see her new husband’s letters? Sixty years was hardly long enough to seal the letters, for the much younger Valerie could have lived to see their opening, though she did not (according to rumor, she asked the library for access, and was refused). Still, Hale’s gift to Princeton may have actually freed Eliot to marry the woman he now loved. His secret was safe in the archive, for the time being.

Their correspondence and relationship came to an end in January 1957. Meanwhile, Hale’s letters to Eliot remained in the tin box at Faber and Faber, fragile but persistent, not unlike Hale’s own tenuous existence after her forced retirement at age sixty-five, in the same year as Eliot’s marriage. He waited, neither committing her letters to an archive nor destroying them, for the same reason: their monumental significance in his own private life. But finally, in March 1963, Eliot ordered Faber director Peter du Sautoy to burn the contents of a tin box, confirming in his posthumously released statement that “the letters to me from Emily Hale have been destroyed by a colleague at my request.”[6] Eliot exercised his right to destroy the paper that belonged to him, just as Hale had chosen to give her property to Princeton. He thereby rendered her the “Lady of silences” (Ash-Wednesday) that she had, actually, never been: as an actress and speech teacher, skillful conversationalist and ideal companion, and writer of hundreds of her own letters.

Always concerned with his reputation and legacy, Eliot wanted to have the final word. Before taking the irreversible step to have her letters burned, he learned that Hale had written a narrative to accompany his letters at Princeton. This information spurred him to prepare his 1960 statement, explaining, “It therefore seems to me necessary to place on record my own picture of the background of this correspondence, and my present attitude towards it.” Perhaps he feared that she would accuse him of breaking promises to her, but he had nothing to fear from Hale, whose characteristically fair-minded narrative simply stated the facts of their association and how “we kept the relationship on as honorable, to be respected plane, as we could.”[7]

Narrative written by Emily Hale, 1957
Fig. 2. Narrative written by Emily Hale (first version, 1957), Emily Hale Letters from T.S. Eliot; Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library. 

Their two statements were both released to the public on January 2, 2020; Eliot’s proclamation that “Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me,” easily available on Houghton’s website, predictably dominated the news cycle. On that day, a few choice sentences from Eliot’s love letters to Hale made their way into the Guardian, but given the statement on the finding aid at Princeton’s Special Collections that “All material written by T. S. Eliot remains under copyright with the T. S. Eliot Estate,” reporters and Eliot scholars felt under pressure not to quote from the outpourings of adoration that seemed to contradict his later statement.[8] By contrast, Hale had no heirs, and it is believed that any copyrights she might have held cannot now be enforced. Yet, ironically, her words have hardly circulated beyond the digital scans displayed by the library, probably due to four factors: her narrative was not immediately placed online when the archive opened on January 2; the scan begins with pages of her illegible handwriting; she is not the famous party in this dispute; and she wrote nothing shocking or angry.[9]

While the world waits for the publication of Eliot’s letters (edited by John Haffenden and anticipated from Faber next year), questions hang in the air about the status of his words.[10] In interviews with the media during January, those who had read his letters were scrupulously careful not even to quote him out loud. But, in fact, the distinction between paper and words may not answer the question of quotation. In 1992, the United States Congress amended the Copyright Act to make it clear that fair use applies equally to unpublished and published work (see the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. Ch. 1, section 107).[11] Scholars are therefore legally free to apply the principle of “fair use” to this newly opened collection (see The Chicago Manual of Style, sections 4.86, 4.88, 4. 93), no matter who owns the words, though such application may violate the unofficial norms of the field.[12]

As we began by noting, the distinction between paper and contents comes to seem less relevant in a digital age and, at Firestone Library, could only be enforced by prohibiting the use of cell phones in Special Collections (before the library closed due to COVID-19). In fact, any method of photographic reproduction puts pressure on this distinction, as Eliot was probably aware. His anxiety about Hale’s gift of his letters to Princeton may have been triggered in the fall of 1956 when, at the British Museum, he read a microfilm copy of his own letters to Joyce, sold to the University of Buffalo with the writer’s private papers (October 10, 1956).[13] No doubt he envisioned the same happening to his letters to Hale, which are now digitally available in a “private display”—considered equivalent to viewing the originals in the reading room, and to be distinguished from what will be their “public display” when the collection is edited, bound, and published by Faber. This digital reading room could easily be opened to other researchers by the change of a login feature. An additional ironic twist: Eliot’s preference for typing his letters means that if and when the digital scans are released to the world, no special expertise will be needed to read them, while Hale’s scrawl continues to obstruct the dissemination of her side of the story.

It seems fitting, then, to allow Hale the last word in this posting. Writing to Willard and Margaret Thorpe on November 26, 1956 as she plans to turn her letters over to Princeton, Hale muses gamely, wistfully on the fact that she became part of a narrative larger than her own otherwise fairly quiet life. She understands how and why that life has become public, how some of its most intimate and profound moments have slipped from her control and will be brought someday partly into light. She knows that these letters to her, silenced for a time, will all be revealed, and she rises above her own sadness to survey what she has not only witnessed but helped to conceive—this life of hers, these two lives together—held for this moment simply in wonder:

I find the pain of returning to the past is softened a little by remembering the story has to become a part of the life stream of events . . . of the mysteriously endowed gift of a Personality. . . . [T]he fact that innocently and unpredictably I am involved so closely with this Personality is part of the wonder which I never can get accustomed to.


[1] Letter of December 8, 1930, Emily Hale Collection, Emily Hale Letters from T. S. Eliot, C0686, Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

[2] “Pope v. Curl, London (1741),” Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), ed. L. Bently and M. Kretschmer. We are indebted and grateful to Robert Spoo, PhD, JD, Chapman Distinguished Professor of Law, University of Tulsa, for our understanding of the legal issues raised in this post.

[3] See Ronan Deazley, 2008, “Commentary on Pope v. Curl (1741),” in Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer.

[4] See also Eliot to Godfrey Childe, in response to an inquiry about whether he had any scraps of manuscript to sell: “I mention this point in order to justify placing a rather higher value on my manuscript than I otherwise should, especially as I have been told that occasionally letters of mine of no importance have been sold at auctions” (Letters 8.86).

[5] T. S. Eliot, “The Love of a Ghost for a Ghost: T. S. Eliot on his Letters to Emily Hale.” Houghton Library Blog, Harvard University, 2020.

[6] Eliot handwrote this sentence about the destruction of her letters on the last page of his statement, a page that was retyped in September 1963, suggesting the event happened later than September. However, Peter du Sautoy recalled that he burned the letters in March. “T. S. Eliot: Personal Reminiscences,” The Southern Review 21, no. 4 (Autumn 1985): 955.

[7] Narrative Written by Emily Hale,” Emily Hale Letters from T. S. Eliot, C0686, Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

[8] An exception to the widespread self-censure of reportage on the letters was Edward Helmore’s “T. S. Eliot’s hidden love letters reveal intense, heartbreaking affair,” The Guardian (January 2, 2020).

[9] The Special Collections blog announcing the release of Hale’s narrative, however, placed the later typewritten statement up front.

[10] John Haffenden, “Point of Information,” Twitter, January 5, 2020, 10:54a.m.

[11] “Copyright Law of the United States (Title 17), Chapter 1: Subject Matter and Scope of Copyright.”

[12] Chicago Manual of Style Online, 17th edition (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press), 2017.

[13] Thanks to Joshua Kotin, Princeton University, for drawing this letter to our attention.