A vibrant new book ... Reveals the hidden ardors running beneath the surface ... Gordon neither lionizes nor takes down Eliot. Rather, a deep respect for and curiosity about his writing, combined with a supple psychological portrait, animates her analysis ... Gordon somehow manages to keep Eliot’s poetry and prose at the center of the book, while preserving a quiet but persistent moral authority ... Gordon does an admirable job navigating the ambiguities of the tangled situations she chronicles; she is respectful of complications, of emotional messiness, of unusual attachments. She patiently evokes the intricacy and singularity of each intimate relationship.
The record has spoken now, but what it tells us is perhaps more equivocal than Gordon wants to admit. There’s now no question that Hale was a crucial figure in Eliot’s life, and the work that Gordon and other scholars have done to reassert her importance to literary history is invaluable. But to enshrine her as a 'hidden muse' perhaps grants too much power to that ultimately regressive concept—which, after all, is part of how Eliot kept Hale on the hook for all those years. If at times Eliot felt that he needed a muse, a Beatrice to inspire him and (just as importantly) to appreciate his poetry, at other times he seems to have needed only companionship, on his own perverse terms, and he leveraged his increasing fame in order to secure it ... Though he did sometimes address Hale as if she were his muse, Eliot’s own model of poetic creation, as detailed outside of his love letters, was far less sentimental. What was distinctive about poetry, for Eliot, is precisely that it doesn’t emanate from a single source, that it can never be traced back to one origin ... If it is important (and not simply interesting) to know that Eliot fell in love, and then out of it, with Hale, it’s not, pace Gordon, because it explains everything about his poetry, nor because he intended his impersonality to one day give way to a grand confession. It is because Eliot’s mind, equipped for its work, amalgamated this experience among many others. Being in love was grist for the mill, as were world war and Anglo-Catholicism: All were instrumental in producing the poetry Eliot was ultimately able to write.
Exquisitely nuanced ... Careful not to judge either Eliot or his women. While the reader longs to scream at Hale and Trevelyan to just walk away, you are also left with the sneaking suspicion that being present at the making of work that shook the 20th century was probably—just—worth the humiliation and heartache.
Gordon’s account of the fate of these two caches is as exciting as a detective story. She catches the drama of the sealed boxes brilliantly. But it is the story behind—or rather within—the boxes that makes these revelations so important.
Unrelenting focus on the women in the story ... These books don’t undermine Eliot’s life or his achievement. Instead, they set him in a wider context, connecting him to the women who contributed so much to his success and paid a high price for doing so.
Illuminating ... If this fine and entertaining account leaves readers shocked by instances of Eliot’s theatrical and self-serving misogyny... It also treats the women in his life with dignity and goes a long way in reversing the erasure he attempted.