Letters to Monica by Philip Larkin

by John Boland

The decade following Philip Larkin’s death in 1985 was calamitous for his reputation. On his demise, he was the most widely loved poet of his time and his passing was mourned by people for whom his beautifully crafted and deeply felt lyrics were proof that contemporary verse didn’t have to be obscurantist and alienating. But in 1992 Anthony Thwaite’s edition of his letters revealed a less cherishable figure, while Andrew Motion’s 1993 biography mainly served to confirm that impression.

Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin - Letters to Monica (Image from Guardian.co.uk)

In those letters, especially to his old pal Kingsley Amis, there was a distressing strain of casual racism, while his correspondence with Robert Conquest betrayed an enthusiasm for pornography. And the Motion biography depicted a man who was also vacillating and deceitful in his relationships with the main women in his life.

The result was that self-righteous upholders of  political correctness vied with outraged feminists to do him down, some of the most spiteful and vengeful among them even attempting to have his poetry removed from school and college courses.

But what exactly had he done to merit this? Yes, the racist remarks were deplorable, but they were common  among English people of his age and time, they were never uttered publicly and their tone suggested someone trying to prove to his male cronies that he was just like them. The fondness for top-shelf pornography (tame stuff by today’s internet standards) was that of a middle-aged bachelor living alone and seems quite unremarkable. As for the charges of misogyny, it was clear from the letters to various women in Thwaite’s 1992 volume how much he valued their friendship and love, even if – much like the rest of us – he didn’t always  behave admirably in relationships.

Now we have almost 400 pages of letters to the main woman in his life, Monica Jones, which should go a long way towards restoring Larkin’s reputation among those who feel the need for such reassurance.

Larkin met Monica in 1946 when, as a 24-year-old,  he was appointed assistant librarian at Leicester University, where she was a young lecturer in English. A friendship quickly began and then a relationship which lasted until his death almost forty years later. In that time he wrote almost 2,000 letters and postcards to her and Thwaite has selected some hundreds from these.

Although Larkin was deeply solitary by nature,  the letters are a remarkable record of his enduring attachment to Monica, not just as a lover or intellectual companion but as a kindred soul in whom he could confide his most personal feelings, failings and fears. There’s no doubt that he had the upper hand in the relationship – she would certainly have married him, but he was terrified of the notion and had dalliances with other women. However, the relationship that emerges goes beyond any simple matter of selfishness versus neediness.

The letters also reveal the chronic insecurity he felt about his poems, which he invariably sent to her as soon as they were written. “Hardly a poem at all,” he says apologetically of the wonderful ‘Days’. “I can’t feel it is very good,” he remarks about ‘An Arundel Tomb’, while ‘Deceptions’ is “rather lumpy”, ‘Afternoons’ is “about nothing in particular”, ‘Sad Steps’ is “pretty unoriginal, just another moon poem”, ‘Dublinesque’ is “pretty thin, pretty bad” and ‘The Sea’ is “no good, of course.” She, for her part, recognised his extraordinary gifts almost from the outset, telling him in 1955 that “I like your poetry better than any that I ever see – oh, I am sure that you are the one of this generation!”

There’s much fascinating literary chat here, too, as well as funny and pointed impressions of Belfast (where he worked as assistant librarian in Queen’s) and lots of barbs about colleagues and friends. Of Kingsley Amis,  whose Lucky Jim he had helped along, he remarks “I refuse to believe he can write a book on his own – at least a good one.” And on the marriage of Patsy Strang (with whom he’d had an affair) and Irish poet Richard Murphy, he incredulously asks “Are they each other’s idea of the good life?”

The same could be asked of Larkin and Monica and certainly it ended badly for the two of them. Always terrified of dying, he succumbed to a painful cancer at the age of 63, while she lived on in his house in Hull, increasingly reclusive and dependent on alcohol, until her death in 2001.

But if, as Thwaite observes in his introduction, they “fed each other’s misery,” at least Larkin was able to feed his own misery into his art, and those of us who are devoted to his poetry will always be grateful for that. Monica, alas, had no such consolation.

THE OTHER WOMEN IN LARKIN’S LIFE

Ruth Bowman

She met Larkin in 1943 when she was a 16-year-old schoolgirl and he was a 21-year-old librarian in Wellington, Shropshire. Between 1948 and 1950 they were “unofficially” engaged, but his lack of commitment led her to end the relationship.

Patsy Strang

South African-born and married to philosophy lecturer Colin Strang, she met Larkin in Queen’s University, Belfast, and had an affair with him from 1952 to 1955. She subsequently married Richard Murphy, with whom she had a daughter, Emily. They divorced in 1959 and she moved to Dublin, where she died of alcoholic poisoning in 1977. Her lightly fictionalised Playing the Harlot, written under her maiden name of Patricia Avis and documenting the literary set she knew in the 1950s, was posthumously published in 1996.

Maeve Brennan

Not the Irish short-story writer but a librarian colleague in Hull from 1955. Catholic and reserved, she had a tortuous and, because of her scruples, mostly chaste love affair with the poet for many years, which she described in her 2002 book The Philip Larkin I Knew. This relationship caused much distress to Monica.

Betty Mackereth

Larkin’s secretary at Hull University Library from 1957 to 1984. “My loaf-haired secretary,” he called her in ‘Toads Revisited’. They began a late affair, unforeseen by either of them, in 1975. At Larkin’s request, she and Monica shredded his diaries and other private papers after his death.

Eva Larkin

The poet’s mother, an austere and needy woman who survived her husband by thirty years and towards whom the poet felt a dutiful sense of obligation. He even contemplated living with her in her final years, a possibility that horrified Monica.

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