In 1938 T.S. Eliot struck up a friendship with Mary Trevelyan, a passionately curious woman and intrepid traveller.

Their relationship was cosy and domestic — characterised by churchgoing, record-playing, day trips with Mary at the wheel or Eliot in his rolled shirt-sleeves cooking up sausages for dinner. Over the years, Mary came to believe that their friendship might lead to something more . . . but their journey together did not end as she would have hoped.

Trevelyan left a unique document — of diaries, letters and pictures — charting their twenty-year-long relationship in her vivid prose. Erica Wagner has brought this untold story together for the first time, in Mary and Mr Eliot.

Introduction (excerpt)

It was 9 a.m. when the convoy began to rumble through London’s streets, still strewn with the rubble of the Blitz. There were, Mary wrote, ‘mobile canteen trucks, stores vans, and one private car, a Ford V8, which I had the good fortune to drive. This car was the only vehicle able to put up a reasonable speed, and I was placed at the tail-end of the party so that, should accidents occur, I could immediately pass the convoy and inform the leader.’ There were, in fact, three accidents as the train of vehicles lumbered through southern England – which, Mary confessed, she rather welcomed, ‘as I found it rather tedious driving a high-powered car at fourteen miles an hour for a long distance and thoroughly enjoyed any opportunity of passing our convoy at forty miles an hour to catch up to the leader’.

She was herself a powerful engine: her greatest energies were directed towards her work with students from all over the world. She was able to make the connection between what she had seen in distant lands and what help she could bring to those closer to home. She worked hard to make that connection manifest. It was in 1932 that she became Warden of the SCM’s Student Movement House, a hostel serving London University and based in Russell Square – yards from T. S. Eliot’s office at Faber and Faber.

The SCM had its origins in missionary organisations founded at the end of the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, SCM became a strong proponent of ecumenism, the belief in the global unity of all Christians, no matter what their denomination, nationality or race – an open-mindedness that was evident in Mary’s work and her travels around the world on the organisation’s behalf. Mary did cultivate the bonds of her own family, remaining devoted to her mother: Eliot was always punctilious in sending along his regards to her when he and Mary corresponded. She was not married. When she took on the role with SCM, she found surrogate children through her work, and her care for them became a passion; it was a truly global family. As Humphrey Carpenter wrote, ‘It became evident that her “family” was going to be this collection of rather lost young men and women, many of them from Africa, India and the Far East.’

She threw herself into the work, and she was willing to go to great lengths to understand the young people who landed on her doorstep. From the Ends of the Earth, published in 1942, is her remarkable account of a six-month journey undertaken in 1937 to the furthest reaches of the globe: Ceylon (as it was then), India, Burma, Hong Kong, Singapore, China and Japan, as well as the United States and Canada. The slim volume reveals a woman both passionately curious and absolutely fearless: she flew to Beijing – only the second flight she had ever made – on a tiny plane which ‘appeared to be tied together with string’.

Her invitation to Eliot was part of her mission to make foreign students feel part of English cultural life. The students with whom she interacted truly came from all over the world: from the Gold Coast and from Nigeria; there were Germans, Scandinavians, Tamils from the south of India, men from Punjab and the North- West Frontier; there were Persians and Lithuanians. In her early days as Warden, Student Movement House was located at 32 Russell Square, one of the last remaining grand houses on the square. (The offices of Faber and Faber were at number 24, where the company would remain until 1971.) Although it was clear the house had seen better days, there were still white marble Adam fireplaces, a grand staircase, floor-to-ceiling mirrors. Characteristically Mary wrote that she liked to think that the house was glad to give the last twenty years of its life to young people from all over the world . . . tramping up and down the beautiful staircase, crowding into the stately and spacious rooms, talking and smoking incessantly, making friends, laughing, playing, happy and unhappy, leaving at last for their homes in far-off countries with many memories and friendships which would last a lifetime.

A student membership cost twenty-six shillings a year – but many students, and especially refugees, would only pay what they could afford. That was one mark of Mary’s care for her charges; by the standards of her day she had no regard for race or creed. Students of colour ‘knew that here they need have no fear of the doors being closed to them, here they would be treated as ordinary members of society and would be accepted on exactly the same terms as anyone else’. Mary would write of her disgust at the racism often shown in England, noting when people got up on buses or trains so as not to sit by people of colour; she was aware that hotels, dance halls and restaurants, time and again, would not admit a man – or woman – of colour. ‘Why? Just because he has been born under a tropical sun? What is there that is disgraceful in having a coloured skin?’

This forthrightness marked the very beginning of her friendship with Eliot (whose name, incidentally, she misspelled the very first time she wrote to him: ‘Dear Mr Elliott’). Who would dare to mock T. S. Eliot upon first making his acquaintance? Mary would – as the opening of her manuscript shows with delightful plainness. The Pope of Russell Square is an account of an alliance that offers extraordinary and unusual insight into one of the greatest figures of the twentieth century. It is an account which, although it has been seen by scholars and biographers, has never been fully revealed until now. It is an astonishing document.

Mary and Mr Eliot: A Sort of Love Story is published on Thursday 6 October 2022.

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Erica Wagner

A rediscovered story of unrequited love which reveals an intimate new portrait of the poet T. S. Eliot – and of its author, a formidable and passionate woman.