A New England Affair by Steven Carroll

In close to one of the worst book cover choices I’ve ever seen, A New England Affair by Steve Carroll is a classic case of a book that should not be judged by its cover!

Yes, a woman heading out to sea (to the Dry Salvages) is a central part of the story, but the woman (Emily Hale) is elderly and is meant to be carrying a satchel, stuffed with letters and journals (detailing her life long love affair with T. S. Eliot), slung over her shoulders. I’m sure that pink dress was fashionable once, but nothing about that cover says ‘pick me up and look inside’. Fortunately Steven Carroll’s name is in large print, and that is now enough to make me look twice.

I adored The Lost Life, Carroll’s first story in his planned T. S. Eliot quartet and admired A World of Other People. Curiously I didn’t feel anywhere near as passionate about AWOOP, as I did about TLL, although I remember far more about it.

The premise of the four stories is loosely linked to Eliot’s Four Quartets, which had the potential to make the books too clever for their own good, but the link is loose and you could read all of the books in any order, as stand alone stories, without any knowledge of the poems. Which is how I started off.

Of course, I couldn’t stay out of the loop for long!

I sourced a copy of Burnt Norton during my reading of The Lost Life, then hunted down Little Gidding for A World of Other People. Naturally I also printed off a copy of Dry Salvages as soon as I started A New England Affair. I now also have East Coker ready for the final book in the series.

My memory of The Lost Life is passion. The early, heady days of a young love, a new love, a moment in time, suspended by heightened emotions. Two young lovers wander the grounds of Burnt Norton and spy an older couple – lovers of a different age, a different time – acting secretly in the distance. The older couple are Tom Eliot and Emily Hale. I remember the intense emotions, the secrets and the garden. It was sumptuous and delicious.

It was hard for A World of Other People to live up to the high expectations I had set it. Carroll jumped in time to the start of WWII and once again we view Eliot through the eyes of another. A young poet, Iris, who shared the firewatch during the Blitz with Eliot. This book was heavier on the poetry as Iris observed how Eliot turned their nighttime duties into a poem. Intertwined is the story of an Australian pilot, the only survivor of a crash that Iris and Eliot observed from atop their building. It was a memorable, moving story, but didn’t capture my emotional state as much as The Lost Life.

With the third novel, A New England Affair, I’m realising that we have only ever seen Eliot through the eyes of others. I wonder if the fourth book will finally be Eliot’s story?

This time it was Emily Hale’s story. Although we also get to see Emily via the eyes of one her ‘girls’. Carroll enjoys playing with time and how we (Eliot and Hale) look and how our lives appear to younger generations.

I confess that by the end of this book, I came to the conclusion that Eliot was a bit of a dick. Selfish and self-important. I guess it takes a certain kind of bravado and bravura to live a complete creative life.

I felt for Emily’s lonely plight, but ultimately wondered if she didn’t buy into the whole T. S. Eliot thing to suit her own agenda. Her search for meaning and belonging was almost as desperate as Eliot’s need to be loved and adored.

The various time frames and perspectives were a little confusing at the start, but I ended up enjoying seeing Emily through the eyes of young Grace and Ted. Their mid-60’s sensibilities provided a midway point from which to judge the relationship. They saw themselves as being a modern couple, and Grace was able to live a more adventurous, independent life than Emily ever could have. But our 21st century gaze saw both couples as being dated, old-fashioned and of their time. Just like our kids and grandkids will one day view us. On and on it goes!

The ‘girls’ that Emily shared her love letters with, reminded me of Miss Jean Brodie and that need both women had to have someone observe their lives and give them purpose and a sense of specialness.

How accurate Carroll’s depiction of this lop-sided love affair is/was, will not be fully resolved until 1st January 2020 when Hale’s collection of over a thousand of Eliot’s letters to her will be opened by the current caretakers at Princeton. But for now, we can sit back and enjoy the wonder of Carroll’s considerate, thoughtful imaginings.

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