Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 24, 2017

A New England Affair, by Steven Carroll

A New England Affair is a melancholy book, but it’s beautiful.

Emily Hale, muse to TS Eliot but never his wife or lover, returns in this, the third book of Steven Carroll’s Eliot Quartet.  Reminiscent of Mrs Dalloway, the story takes place on a single day in 1965, as Emily – now aged 74 and in extremis after learning of Eliot’s death – mulls over the tragedy of her life.  On a fishing boat heading for treacherous rocks Emily slides between past and present, reliving the scenes of her wasted life, while the reader wonders what’s inside the satchel that she clutches and what she plans to do.

It’s a small tragedy as tragedies go, but it’s real nonetheless.  The couple fell in love in 1913, in New England, and with exquisite tact Carroll depicts Emily’s memory of the moment when both realised that their destiny lay with each other but they failed to say what they were really feeling.  The moment passed and Eliot set off for what was meant to be a year of study overseas but became a new life in London.   He achieved prestige and fame as a great poet, but he also made a hasty marriage which he regretted, as depicted in The Lost Life.

Emily transcended this betrayal and they maintained a relationship through letters and her regular trips across the Atlantic, but she never became his lover.  As she relives this time in her life she is convinced that all his poems contain coded allusions to their love, and she rationalises the way she was always kept secret except with a very small circle of his friends.  But she’s no fool really: she knew only too well that Virginia Woolf despised her and that the Bloomsbury set would never really accept Eliot as the Englishman he yearned to be.

Eliot promised that they would marry when he was free, but as we know, he betrayed Emily then too.  Emily Hale spent her whole life waiting, living out a script from a previous century where women of her class had their lives circumscribed by what was proper, was expected, and was dignified.  It’s a splendid moment in the novel when she casts off this role and hurls his ring across the room!

She claws at the ring on her finger.  But it’s wedded to her skin and won’t budge.  Wedded to her very being.  She pulls on it again and again, finally dragging it over her knuckle and wrenching it free.  In tears of utter misery, she throws it across the room so that it ricochets from floor to wall and back to the floor, ringing hollow, hollow and empty, like all the promises and unspoken deals.  Like all the hollow years that never amounted to anything.  It settles, rattling to a stop.  She rubs her finger, her whole body aches for what has been wrenched from her, what sustained her all these years… She’s been used.  Used all along.  And all the talk of pure love was as hollow as the sound of the ring bouncing from wall to floor, like a ten-cent toy, a ten-cent love, a cheap imitation of the real thing. (p.175)

As in The Lost Life there is a young couple who represent the less constrained world of the middle 1960s.  By the time that Eliot dies, Miss Hale has made a life for herself in Concord as a teacher of drama, and one of ‘her girls’ is Grace who comes to the cottage for her lessons.  On the cusp of a new life away from small-town Concord, Grace is toying with a young man not worthy of her.  She knows he is not the right man for her, but he’s fun.  And while she patronises him in her heart, she feels sorry for him too because she knows that she will move on and he will be stuck in a small town going nowhere. And so, in scenes reminiscent of the way a young couple profane a sacred moment in The Lost Life, Grace and Ted intrude on Miss Hale’s privacy, just at the time when she is most vulnerable.

A New England Affair is bound to its time and place by its representation of Emily’s life as a lost life, but in real life, Emily Hale was an independent modern American woman.  She was a successful teacher, actor and theatre director at Scripps College until she abandoned her career to be with Eliot after he separated from his first wife.  While the facts of Eliot’s two marriages (in life and in the novel) suggest that he exploited her devotion, she must have found satisfaction in her role as muse or she would have moved on, surely…

Author: Steven Carroll
Title: A New England Affair
Book 3 in the Eliot Quartet
Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins), 2017
ISBN: 9781460751091
Review copy courtesy of Harper Collins

Available from Fishpond: A New England Affair


Responses

  1. I don’t remember much about Emily H; a quick look at Peter Ackroyd’s biography doesn’t seem to suggest that they were ever more than close friends. Is this novel based on more detailed knowledge, or is it speculation?

    • It’s always a problem with these books that seek to rescue from obscurity, a woman-behind-the-man. By definition the historical record is always a bit threadbare because the focus is on the man who’s famous for his achievement while the woman has been overlooked. Carroll has obviously done a lot of research but Eliot destroyed her letters to Emily so her voice is silent. From what I can tell, the main departure from the record is what happened to some of his letters to her, and how she reacted to that, but I won’t go into it because it would spoil the novel.
      As to their relationship in the novel: Since the novel is written mainly from Emily’s POV, with only two characters’ observations of her to balance it, what we get is that she is convinced that she was Eliot’s muse. What I’ve found online is commentary that makes a convincing case that she was, especially with the early poems. (There are academic papers around too, but I don’t have a password to access them, and anyway, I’m not keen to trawl around in that way.) The link I posted at the bottom of my reviews is a feminist view that paints her as Eliot’s victim (likewise his first wife) but Carroll paints her more as a willing victim of her own class and the times.

      • Thanks for that insight – seems quite legitimate to fill in the gaps of an incomplete story. I’ve so much on with work reading at the moment, and little time for my own, I doubt I’ll get to this trilogy for a while, but it’s there on the list. TSE is a fascinating figure. Maybe not such a nice person – but so many great artists were the same.

  2. That was fast!
    It sounds like you liked this one, but maybe not as much as the others?

    • I think I liked The Lost Life best of all. It was a more generous (though possibly undeserved) portrait of TSE.

  3. You have inspired me to read the complete works. Thanks!

    • If you can, start with The Lost Life. I think they can all be read independently of each other but reading them in order certainly enhanced my enjoyment of the series.

  4. […] A New England Affair by Steven Carroll (HarperCollins), see my review […]


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