22 January 2023

Trevelyan Way: a reminder
of Mary Trevelyan from
Stony Stratford and her
unrequited love for TS Eliot

Mary Trevelyan (1897-1983) was born in Stony Stratford and her family gives its name to Trevelyan Way in Old Wolverton

Patrick Comerford

In my walks around Wolverton and Old Wolverton in recent days and weeks, I found myself one early morning at Trevelyan Way in Old Wolverton. The name of Trevelyan Way recalls the Trevelyan family, who gave the Church a distinguished family of clergy associated with Saint Mary, Wolverton, the parish based at Saint Mary’s Church on London Road, Stony Stratford, and who lived for a time at Calverton Limes across the street from the church.

The name of Trevelyan Way also reminded me this week of Mary Trevelyan (1897-1983), who was born in Stony Stratford on this day 126 years ago, 22 January 1897. She was the eldest of six children of the Revd George Philip Trevelyan (1858-1937), Vicar of Saint Mary’s, Wolverton (1885-1897).

Mary Trevelyan is remembered to this day for her work as the warden of Student Movement House in London. But two recent books also discuss how Mary Trevelyan for many years was the close companion and long-time friend of the poet TS Eliot. She believed they were romantically committed to one another and she had expected to marry him after the death of his first wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood.

Trevelyan Way in Old Wolverton … a reminder of Mary Trevelyan, who was born in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Mary Trevelyan was born in Stony Stratford on 22 January 1897, the eldest of six children – four daughters and two sons – of the Revd George Philip Trevelyan and his wife Monica Evelyn Juliet, daughter of the Revd Sidney Phillips of Worcester. Her grandfather, the Revd William Pitt Trevelyan (1812-1905) of Stony Stratford, was the Vicar of Wolverton (1856-1872) and of Calverton (1859-1881). She was raised in a family committed to public service. Her brothers were the film censor John Trevelyan and the colonial administrator and the writer Humphrey Trevelyan, Baron Trevelyan.

Mary had a privileged childhood and became a determined, idealistic and energetic women. TS Eliot described her as ‘industrious, honest, and moderately temperate.’

She was educated at the Royal College of Music, London, and became the organist and choir trainer at Saint Barnabas Church, Oxford. (The present Vicar of Saint Barnabas Jericho is the Revd Christopher Woods, one of my former students and a former Chaplain of Christ’s College, Cambridge. He is currently involved in some consultations in Stony Stratford parish.

Mary Trevelyan later joined the music staff at Radley and Marlborough Colleges. After a private tour of India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), she returned to Britain in 1932, intending to return to the musical profession. But she began to wonder if she could help groups of Indian students she noticed on the streets ‘looking lost in the wintry rain.’

She took up the post of Warden of the Student Christian Movement’s Student Movement House (SMH) in London that year. The house at 32 Russell Square in Bloomsbury, was a non-residential club for overseas students. Among its members in the 1930s was Jomo Kenyatta, later the first President of Kenya. Some members were Britons from overseas, including students from missionary families.

Calverton Limes in Stony Stratford … Mary Trevelyan was born in Stony Stratford on 22 January 1897 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Mary took a sabbatical in 1937 to travel to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), India, Burma (Myanmar), Singapore, Penang (Malaysia), China, Japan, the US and Canada. She wanted to learn about the worlds those international students were returning to. She was particularly inspired by her visit to the residential International House of New York, and returned to London fully committed to promoting internationalism and peaceful co-operation among young people.

From 1938, as the Warden at SMH, Mary led a fundraising campaign to pay for a new building for the club. The premises at Russell Square was about to be levelled in plans for extend London University, and in April 1939 SMH moved into new premises at 103 Gower Street.

London University later had to apologise for its building work at Russell Square, and a modern building in Russell Square displays a plaque apologising to the Russell Estate for a development not in keeping with the expectations of these attentive landlords.

A public and academic apology to the Russell estate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Mary Trevelyan remained at SMH throughout most of World War II. Then, in September 1944, she was given by SCM to go to Brussels to run a YMCA hostel for allied soldiers returning from war and organising a reception centre for returning prisoners of war.

When she returned to London in May 1945, tensions grew between Mary Trevelyan and her SCM employers. After beginning an appeal for another new building in 1945, she resigned and left SMH. From 1946 to 1948 she was headed the field survey bureau in the UNESCO Department of Reconstruction in Paris. She spent part of this time visiting and making surveys on priority needs in education after the war in Burma, Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong, North Borneo and the Philippines.

On her return to London in 1948, she became the first adviser to Overseas Students at the University of London, and held that post until 1965. During this time, she played a major part in the founding of the London Conference on Overseas Students. She also founded the Goats Club in 1956 as a weekly, inter-collegiate, international gathering of students.

No 24 Russell Square, London, where TS Eliot worked for Faber and Faber, is now part of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Meanwhile, from 1938 to 1957, Mary was TS Eliot’s close friend and constant companion. The two attended Communion together, ate dinner with one another on a regular basis and exchanged frequent letters. 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.

By 1950, Mary came to believe that their friendship had deepened into romance, and she expected they were going to marry now that Vivienne had died. Until Vivienne’s death in 1947, Eliot refused to consider the idea of divorce and remarriage, believing both were unacceptable in his understanding of Anglo-Catholic beliefs and practice.

It appears that during the 10 years after Vivienne’s death, he was torn by regret. He drew back from the love and happiness he longed for out of a guilt for the harm he had visited on Vivienne.

In the two recent books, Lyndall Gordon’s The Hyacinth Girl and Mary Trevelyan and Erica Wagner’s Mary & Mr Eliot, Eliot emerges as a someone who could be cold and austere as well as warm and affectionate, and whose friendship came at a considerable cost.

Tired of being on her own, Mary had written to Eliot to ask: ‘Why should we both be so lonely?’ Erica Wagner recalls Mary’s stoic heartbreak: ‘I spent a bad afternoon and evening, but came through it and was able, by the time I saw him again, to look at the picture from a new angle.’

She loved Eliot, but he did not return her affection and romantic expectations. Eventually, Eliot turned away from marrying Mary, and also pulled back from the idea of marrying Emily Hale, who had been his romantic interest during his days at Harvard and who is the Hyacinth Girl of The Waste Land.

In January 1957, to Mary’s shock, Eliot married Valerie Fletcher, who had been his secretary at Faber; he was 68 and she was 30. By then, he felt he had atoned for his marriage and subsequent abandonment of Vivienne. Eliot and Mary never recovered their friendship and they lost touch with one another.

After Eliot married Valerie, Mary Trevelyan continued to dream of a new International House for students. Her dream became a reality when International Students House opened in Park Crescent in May 1965.

With the opening of the house, she had achieved her cherished dream and the peak of her career. She retired in 1967, but continued to keep in touch with the many friends she had helped as students, ranging from the most humble to heads of government.

She was appointed OBE (1956) and later promoted CBE (1968). She died in Newbury on 10 January 1983 at the age of 85 after a long illness.

Mary Trevelyan left a detailed and riveting memoir about her experience with Eliot, The Pope of Russell Square. It was never published and until recently it was only available to scholars. In Mary & Mr Eliot, Erica Wagner presents Mary Trevelyan’s text, interwoven with letters between Eliot and Mary Trevelyan and Erica Wagner’s own commentary.

Eliot kept his women apart as each ignited his transformations as poet, expatriate, convert, and, finally, in his latter years, a man ‘made for love.’

Erica Wagner does not hide her disappointment with Eliot: ‘Where does one draw the line between privacy and deception? At this point it’s difficult not to believe that Eliot, in regard to what he shared with his friend Mary – who had stood by him through thick and thin for nearly two decades – was tilting towards the latter.’

Further Reading:

Lyndall Gordon, The Hyacinth Girl: TS Eliot’s Hidden Muse (London: Virago, 2022).

Mary Trevelyan and Erica Wagner, Mary & Mr Eliot: A Sort of Love Story (London: Faber, 2022).

The former Saint Mary’s Church Wolverton, on London Road, Stony Stratford … the Revd George Philip Trevelyan the Vicar of Saint Mary’s, Wolverton (1885-1897) when Mary Trevelyan was born (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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