In 1938 T. S. Eliot struck up a friendship with Mary Trevelyan. Over the years, their friendship deepened, and she came to believe it might grow into something more. Twice she proposed marriage, but Eliot always led her to understand that any such commitment would be impossible for him. Then the revelation of his long attachment to Emily Hale--and the sudden shock of his marriage to his secretary, Valerie Fletcher--caused a rupture between Trevelyan and the poet that could not be overcome.
Erica Wagner shows herself to be a forensically astute reader of the memoir and letters that Trevelyan left behind ... Wagner is 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.
Funny, sad, puzzling ... Mary and Mr Eliot is welcome in that it finally brings some of Mary Trevelyan’s memoir into the light. But it is also an opaque piece of editing, a set of extracts that doesn’t escape the (apparently) diaristic structure of the original, but, by omitting a great deal and too frequently cutting in editorial italics into Mary’s voice, makes it difficult to form a sense of the document’s overall length, structure or quality. Sometimes more glossing of factual information... would have been useful. And sometimes the text seems to need correction ... None of this detracts, however, from the book’s readability or the emotional devastation of its ending.
While Eliot scholars will be intrigued by Trevelyan’s perspective on him, accounts of Trevelyan’s leadership at the Student Movement House hostel for international students in London and involvement with the YMCA during WWII prove more captivating than her quotidian exchanges with the poet. Though readers may come for Eliot, it’s Trevelyan who will win them over.