Letters to Monica by Philip Larkin edited by Anthony Thwaite

Faber, pp.475, 22.50

They were ‘soulmates’ according to people who knew both of them.

They were ‘soulmates’ according to people who knew both of them. The word has a double-edged quality; it may suggest that they got on well together because they presented such a problem to everyone else. Both Philip Larkin and Monica Jones found it difficult to suffer fools gladly, and in this collection of letters (ranging from 1946-84) from Larkin to his long-term companion and lover, the mean-spirited and misanthropic are given full rein.

Larkin met Jones in 1946, and they soon became lovers. (So much for sexual intercourse beginning in 1963). She was a flamboyant presence in the English Department of Leicester University, remaining a junior lecturer until her retirement in 1981. He went from university library to university library, ending up at Hull. They holidayed with one another; she put up with his occasional other mistresses; but only late in life did they move in together. Monica destroyed Philip’s diaries after his death in 1985, and went on living, somewhat chaotically, in his house in Hull until her own death in 2001. Most of these letters surfaced, in a terrible condition, long after Andrew Motion’s fine biography and Anthony Thwaite’s edition of the poet’s other letters.

Monica was the poet’s sounding-board about all sorts of matters. The first letters here show a familiar, guarded restraint —‘Oh dear! I do seem to have created a bad impression lately’ — but before much longer he is talking to her about anything and everything on his mind. Some letters are the sort of frank outpourings of rage (memorably about his neighbours’ taste in music) which no doubt the incinerated diaries were filled with. They were so much alike that Larkin once said to her that ‘what we have is a kind of homosexual relation, disguised.’

Unexpectedly, he does not give way much to the sorts of illiberal sentiments we know from other sources that he and Monica enjoyed sharing. The nearest to that is a line from a 1951 letter, thanking Monica for reminding him of Empire Day: ‘Queen’s [Belfast] flew a flag and I was nice to a nigger.’ In other respects, there was almost nothing he would not share with Monica.

The positive side of this is that Monica, quite clearly, is the person he talks to about literary matters, and the technique of writing. The comments on literature, both in individual cases and in general, are fascinating and insightful — for instance, his critic- ism of The Heart of the Matter for going against the fundamental nature of the novel:

The novel to me is the artform in which we show what happens in human life. ‘Miracles’ do not happen.

Often in these letters we see the first twinges of what would emerge much later as a poetic statement:

Of course, if one starts blaming one’s parents, well, one would never stop! Samuel Butler said that anyone who was still worrying about his parents at 35 was a fool, but he certainly didn’t forget them himself, and I think the influence they exert is enormous.

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Twenty years later, more sharply, that would emerge as ‘This Be The Verse.’ Most acute is an utterly disillusioned consideration of the last line of ‘An Arundel Tomb’ — ‘what will survive of us is love’:

One might say ‘penicillin is stronger than death’, sometimes with fair truth, but ‘love is stronger than death’ reminds me of that slogan ‘Britain (or London) can take it’, which irritated me in the same way. It surely meant that people can stand being bombed as long as they aren’t bombed.

Larkin, on the whole, was not filled with the milk of human kindness, and Monica was not a correspondent for whom he needed to extend himself into charm, or even write about anything very obviously interesting. Anthony Thwaite has cut down a lot of letters, he says, concerning Larkin ‘changing his sheets, washing his sheets, washing his socks, mending his socks,’ and what had just happened in The Archers.

The result —though of course of great interest to Larkin scholars — is a definitely lowering book. It is amusing to try to find the least interesting subject Larkin thought worth setting down in a letter to Monica. For my money, the prize goes to a 1959 letter, which begins:

I have four rolls of pink toilet paper on my low table, more or less at my elbow, but their only significance is that I’ve been too lazy to put them away. Pink is a new departure for me — only just discovered Bronco (why Bronco? Talking Bronco) makes it.

This defiant drabness extends even to Larkin’s accounts of their erotic life:

You were looking out of my kitchen window, and let me tuck your skirt up round your waist to be admired. You were wearing the black nylon panties with the small hole in!

One rather admires a writer who finds such pleasure in such utterly grim vignettes, one devoted to the dogged transcript of the stuff of daily life — Barbara Pym comes to mind. Larkin’s interest in the small-scale and bathetic, which often possesses such warmth in the poetry, in his letters comes across as small-mindedness. A certain comic theme emerges with his recurrent complaints about his Christmas presents. In 1952 he writes:

Not much of a haul this Christmas! A laundry bag (asked for), a 10/6 book token, a second-hand tie, & a pair of expanding cufflinks enamelled in blue with large ‘P’s in cursive script on them. That’s all, that’s all, that’s all.

Their presents to us were miserable, average cost 10/3d. Mine were opulent, average cost 27/-.

Larkin, I think, is at his least likeable in his letters about Kingsley Amis. From this volume alone you might question whether they were friends at all. He complains about the chaos of the Amis house when he stays — not that surprising, with three small children at the time. He insists repeatedly, and implausibly, that the best jokes and scenes in Lucky Jim and That Uncertain Feeling were stolen from him — as if Larkin could ever have written a novel like Lucky Jim. And, recurrently, he gives way to an unworthy belief that Hilly, Amis’s wife, would have been much better off with almost anyone else. Ludicrously,

Hilly must regret marrying Kingsley so early when she sees her sister married to a respectable husband who will (very likely) go far.

In a one-sided correspondence like this, there might be a risk that the unquoted correspondent emerges faintly. Not here. Monica’s personality is dauntingly clear in Larkin’s letters to her. Just how difficult she could be emerges strongly — a couple of quotations fromher letters to Larkin leaves no doubt of the venomous accuracy of Amis’s portrait of ‘Margaret’ in Lucky Jim. In other places, the full Lucky Jim horror of Monica’s histrionic behaviour emerges through things Larkin was obliged to say to her:

I really don’t see where the agony comes in, if you mean people would take [the poem ‘If My Darling’] as applying to you.

I’d even go so far as to make three rules: One, never say more than two sentences, or very rarely three, without waiting for an answer or comment from whoever you’re talking to. Two, abandon altogether your harsh didactic voice, & use only the soft musical one (except in special cases); & Three, don’t do more than glance at your interlocutor (wrong word?) once or twice when speaking. You’re getting a habit of boring your face up or round into the features of your listener — don’t do it! It’s most trying.

Who, reading this testimony from someone who undoubtedly loved her, can do anything but give thanks that they never dined with Monica Jones? The odd thing, which people have been wondering about ever since the Letters and Motio
n’s Life were published, is that a poet so generous and warm in his published work could be so curmudgeonly in everyday life. I don’t suppose he was very good for Monica, and she was probably not all that good for him. Soulmates, indeed.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Letters, Non-fiction, Philip larkin, Poetry