My friend Emma once complimented me on an anecdote I’d told, saying, “I can dine out on that for years.” And there are a few stories about Emma and my days as housemates in London I still tell, especially the one about how we acted out the Lucan murder, on the stairs where it had taken place just a few years earlier. We would pull in a male dinner guest to play Lord Lucan, the villain of the piece, and tease anyone who got queasy about dessert.
As Emma knew so well, there are stories and anecdotes worth retelling. They keep a party going. They make people laugh and bring us together. Anecdotes are a form of gossip, a kind of oral history. Good ones get passed along, retold, and adapted. They get better: the timing just right, the punch line dropped with just the right inflection.
Political people are an endless source of anecdotes, and people who work in China always have amusing stories. Some are so good, and so informative, that they’ve become part of my repetoire. Just ask me about the time Kevin Nealer was lost on a country road in China, or what happened when Tim Clissold’s book Chinese Rules was translated into Chinese.
Searching for Valerie Eliot
Literary people, in particular, live and dine on anecdote. Valerie Eliot told this one often: “My husband, T. S. Eliot, loved to recount how late one evening he stopped a taxi. As he got in the driver said: ‘You’re T. S. Eliot.’ When asked how he knew, he replied: ‘Ah, I’ve got an eye for a celebrity. Only the other evening I picked up Bertrand Russell, and I said to him, “Well, Lord Russell, what’s it all about,” and, do you know, he couldn’t tell me.’” (This, unusually for her, was published, in a letter to The Times.)
Valerie was Eliot’s second wife and thirty-eight years younger than he. She was known as a raconteur, telling stories of famous people she’d known, over meals in the best London restaurants. People would encourage her to write them down, but she was reluctant. She once agreed at the end of a bibulous lunch to write an article for the Financial Times literary pages. She agonized for weeks. In the end I wrote it for her, and you can read about that here.
Now that I’m writing her biography, I have a new sympathy for the historians I’ve worked with over the years, people who spend their time in archives and agonize over footnotes. They want to get the facts right, and I now see that our easy acceptance of anecdotal information as historical fact can be problematic. Anecdotes are supposed to be true, but they are not fact checked, and depend on memory – which is, as forensic science tells us, highly malleable.
There is much we will never know about Esmé Valerie Fletcher Eliot. Was she, as she claimed, on the school playing field when a German plane flew over in 1943? This is a story that everyone seems to know. The student who gave me a tour of the school in 2016, seventy-five years later, knew about the plane and that there were bullet holes in the chapel roof. When I heard the story from Valerie, I could picture her, a fair-haired teenager in a long bright-red Queen Anne’s School cloak, standing upright in the middle of the field while the other girls lay flat on the ground covering their heads.
Valerie’s charming little story as I remember it, went like this.
“We were having dinner at Wystan (W. H. Auden) and Chester (Kallman) ‘s flat, and they were flitting about in and out of the kitchen, making a fuss, while we sat at the table and had a drink with the Stravinskys. At one point, I stretched my leg out, and my foot hit something hard. I peered under the table and – would you believe it? – there was one of those decorated Victorian chamber pots, filled to the brim with … Well, something frothy and not very nice.
“I was horrified, and thought I ought to do something. So I dropped my knife on the floor and bent down and put my scarf over the chamber pot. At this point, luckily, Wystan came in and diverted attention, and I straightened up quickly with the pot in my hands, and headed off to the bathroom. I emptied the contents into the toilet, flushed it away, washed it out and put it on top of the cabinet.
“When I got back they were still all chattering away. Dinner was served, everyone drank rather a lot, the plates were cleared. At which point Chester looked under the table, then dropped to his knees and looked again.
“‘Wystan, darling,’ he said, ‘do you know where the zabaglione has gone?’”
The poet Craig Raine, one of Valerie’s executors, repeated this story in a eulogy at her memorial service in 2013. But here is an account by Robert Craft, the collaborator of Igor Stravinsky, of dinner with the same couple, W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, in 1952, five years before Valerie married T. S. Eliot:
Visiting the lavatory and finding shaving utensils and other matter in the sink, a glass containing a set of snappers (store teeth), a mirror in which it would be impossible even to recognize oneself, a towel that would oblige the user to start over again, and a basin of dirty fluid on the floor, [Vera Stravinsky] unthinkingly empties the basin and fills it with fresh water. Not until dessert time do we discover, with mixed emotions, that she has flushed away Chester’s chocolate pudding.
Valerie’s adaption of Craft’s anecdote, with her playing the role of Madame Stravinsky, reminds me that she was a truly wicked practical joker, who loosened the tops of catsup and Worcestershire sauce bottles at restaurants. It also suggests that she was rather a good comic writer. (Here’s a photo of her and Eliot taken at about the time they would have dined with Auden, included in a 2012 obituary.)
Unfortunately for Valerie, anecdotes are assumed to be true, as are responses to interview questions. Perhaps not the entire truth, but not outright lies or distortions. In this case, because Valerie and now the Eliot estate have maintained complete control over Eliot’s papers – they are still in the flat in Kensington where I sorted and filed and typed in the 1980s – biographers have had no access to papers that in the case of other writers are kept in special collections at university libraries. This means that Valerie’s handful of interviews and the anecdotes she told have become the authoritative source for journalists and academics. I am part of this process because my 2005 memoir in the Guardian Review includes some of Valerie’s stories. My piece adds to background for further articles, like the recent TIME magazine piece on what would have been Valerie’s 90thbirthday.
History is written not only by the victors, as Winston Churchill said, but by the survivors. She was nearly forty years younger than her husband so she outlived almost everyone.
All this has made me think about the work of historians and literary scholars in a new way, and about the way we record the histories of our times. Bill (William H.) McNeill, the world historian I worked with for many years, was impatient with scholars who are religiously tied to documentary evidence. Bill felt that to get there it was essential to use your imagination as well as research. He said that if you limited yourself to documentary evidence, you were leaving out too much.
Historians and biographers are after truth, what really happened, and why. My experience with Valerie Eliot has made me more sympathetic to scholars who want to footnote every detail. Before starting on the Eliot project, I had never used the word corroborate. Now I sympathize with lawyers searching for corroborating evidence. I see them trying to find calendar or emails or travel records to proof that their client was or wasn’t in a place at exactly the right moment, or listening to WhatsApp and WeChat voice clips, trying to find something with a date stamp. I get excited now when I find some new document, or trace another person who might be able to fill details from the 1940s or 1950s, because I might be a little closer to the truth.
More Truth Than Fact
Literary writing – essays and narratives – is nonfiction, but not necessarily fact. Virginia Woolf made a case for this in A Room of One’s Own, an essay about women as writers that has become a landmark in feminist thought:
One can only give one’s audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker. Fiction here is likely to contain more truth than fact. Therefore I propose, making use of all the liberties and licences of a novelist, to tell you the story of the two days that preceded my coming here—how, bowed down by the weight of the subject which you have laid upon my shoulders, I pondered it, and made it work in and out of my daily life. I need not say that what I am about to describe has no existence; Oxbridge is an invention; so is Fernham; ‘I’ is only a convenient term for somebody who has no real being. Lies will flow from my lips, but there may perhaps be some truth mixed up with them; it is for you to seek out this truth and to decide whether any part of it is worth keeping.
What lessons are there here for writers, for publishers, for anyone who tells a story at the dinner table?
I’ve become more careful about the stories I tell, and more cautious about the stories I hear. Of course trust comes into the equation: is there a reason for a history to be distorted, or covered up? Is someone just showing off?
And it depends what the work is. Arguments about climate change, for example, should be based on data, and I’ve long demanded more data from authors writing about concepts and theories. We’ll be publishing more on sustainability science, as well as more biography, and I’d like Berkshire to be known for rigorous scholarship in both.
Last night I attended a talk by Kerry Brown, editor in chief of the Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography. One of the points he made is that biography – the stories of individuals – is an exceptionally good way into China’s long and complex history (you can hear more from Kerry on this subject at the Bookworld podcast). Volume 1 of the Dictionary opens with a chapter on “Mythical Figures,” the Yellow Emperor and Yu the Great, because the stories of people who may or may not have lived have nonetheless influenced the world.
Biographies teach us about our world and help us understand and sympathize with other people’s beliefs and values, and show us all the things we have in common. The anecdotes we tell have a similar purpose: they shed light, and let us laugh, sometimes at other people’s foibles, but also at our own.
In short, we need facts, and we need truth. I hope all storytellers – historians and scientists, journalists and speech writers, novelists and critics – will think not only of readers and viewers today, but of people who will turn to us in years to come, looking for a true account of our times.
How appropriate it is to send this message on Remembrance Day, and on my friend Emma’s birthday. It’s been a long time since we were play-acting Lord Lucan, but we’re still sharing stories and memories!