On this, the occasion of T. S. Eliot’s birth, it’s interesting to revisit (or, I should say, visit—if you didn’t happen to be around in 1965) his Times obituary. Especially this bit:
In his later years he had an office in London in the publishing house of Faber & Faber, of which he was a director. There he carried on his business, writing letters and articles, somewhat like the clerkish type he resembled.
In appearance he was then, as he was in early life, a most unlikely figure for a poet. He lacked flamboyance or oddity in dress or manner, and there was nothing of the romantic about him. He carried no auras, cast no arresting eye and wore his heart, as nearly as he could be observed, in its proper anatomical place.
His habits of work were equally “unpoetic,” for he eschewed bars and cafes for the pleasant and bourgeois comforts of an office with padded chairs and a well-lighted desk.
Talking of his work habits, he once said:
“A great deal of my new play, ‘The Elder Statesman,’ was produced in pencil and paper, very roughly. Then I typed it myself first before my wife got to work on it. In typing myself I make alterations, very considerable ones. But whether I write or type, composition of any length, a play for example, means for me regular hours, say 10 to 1. I found that three hours a day is about all I can do of actual composing. I could do the polish perhaps later.”
Eliot’s dress was a model of the London man of business. He wore a bowler and often carried a tightly rolled umbrella. His accent which started out as pure American Middle West did undergo changes, becoming over the years quite British U.
The U was complete and unfeigned. “I am,” he said stoutly, “an Anglo-Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature and a royalist in politics.”
Even so, his ascetic austerity drew the line at gin rummy, which he delighted to play of an evening. He also kept a signed photograph of Groucho Marx, cigar protuberant, in his study at home.
These touches lend credence to Eliot’s attempts in later years to soften some aspects of his credo. His religious beliefs, he asserted, remained unchanged and he was still in favor of monarchy in all countries having a monarch, but the term classicism was no longer so important to him.
By “British U,” the Gray Lady is presumably referring to the terms introduced by the linguist Alan S. C. Ross in 1954 and popularized by Nancy Mitford in her anthology Noblesse Oblige. U stands for upper class, a very certain type of it. In her joking taxonomy, Mitford explains how to differentiate the true toff form the non-U aspirant: carrying umbrellas, saying couch or dentures or perfume, for instance.
The book was a joke, kind of, even when Mitford—and Evelyn Waugh and John Betjeman, who contributed—wrote it, delighting in obsolescence and cartoonish snobbery. But then, Mitfordania has always been rooted in a conscious, willful nostalgia for the arcane, the eccentric, and, of course, the country house. The last living representative of this specific brand of U, Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire—also known as Nancy’s little sister, Debo—died this week at the age of ninety-four. Beloved by Anglophiles—and any fan of Nancy’s novels, in which Deborah appears as one of the composite little sisters—she was celebrated in later life as the savior of Chatsworth House, the Derbyshire seat of the Cavendish family. Google her obituaries and phrases like end of an era are frequently to be found.
Just what said era had to do with most of us American readers is an open question. The Duchess of Devonshire herself was frank about the challenges of maintaining a great house in the modern era, and the necessary pragmatic diminutions in lifestyle; Downton Abbey this was not. But as I write this I am sipping from a mug commemorating Pursuit of Love, another Nancy Mitford novel; as Eliot said, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”