By the time Philip Larkin died in 1985, he’d long since achieved national treasure status: his poems were critically admired as well as widely read; his reticence (‘the Hermit of Hull’) was a matter of affectionate respect; and his cantankerous published remarks about ‘difficulties with girls’, children, left-wing politics, and ‘abroad’ were generally embraced as proof of valiant individualism — or possibly a grouchy kind of joke. Thirty-five years later, after the publication of biographies and his previously private correspondence, his reputation is not so much changed as turned on its head: the outbursts of racism and misogyny that are splattered through his letters have for many readers cast a sickening pall over the poems, and for others led to his outright cancellation. Hull City Council is presently considering a proposition to remove his statue from the concourse of the city’s train station.
There are signs that John Sutherland began his book in an upbeat and pioneering spirit, wanting to rescue Larkin’s longest-lasting love, Monica Jones, from the comparative neglect in which she’s languished up to now; to do for her, in fact, a version of the job that Clare Tomalin did for Ellen Ternan’s role in the life of Charles Dickens. By the end, having read his way through most of the 54 (54!) boxes of Jones’s correspondence that were deposited in the Bodleian Library following her death in 2001, 16 lonely and devastated years after Larkin’s own death, it’s hard not to feel that a part of him wishes he hadn’t made the effort. While he succeeds in presenting Jones as more than simply Larkin’s ‘dim correspondent shadow’, he also establishes the facts of her own ‘racism, spite, foul-mouthed lapses, shared misogyny and acidic streams of downright nastiness’. ‘I have written the book,’ he says, ‘in a shaken spirit.’
Larkin and Jones were undergraduates at Oxford at the same time in the early 1940s but didn’t meet until 1945, when they both ended up working at what was then University College Leicester (now Leicester University) — he as a librarian, she teaching English. She’d done well as an undergraduate but struggled to find an academic position worthy of her talents and thought of Leicester as being in most respects beneath her. Her disappointment soon congealed into disgruntlement. By sketching this background, Sutherland helps us to understand why her career never took off. She was by all accounts an excellent lecturer, much given to theatrics (wearing tartan to talk about Macbeth), but consistently refused to join the academic rat race or to publish. This meant — as the (male-dominated) department at Leicester expanded — she was delegated the role of workhorse: under-promoted and increasingly resentful of her lot.
Larkin, meanwhile, was in his snail-like way falling for her, while simultaneously carrying on with another woman (Ruth Bowman, whom he’d met at his previous job in Wellington, and to whom he was engaged). But when he eventually ended this other romance, instead of settling down with Jones as she evidently thought might be possible, he at last began sleeping with her — and then promptly decamped to Belfast.
Five years later, when he took up the post of librarian at the University of Hull, where he would remain working for the rest of his life, he still kept her at arms’ length. Although publicly acknowledging her importance in his life by dedicating his first mature book to her, and despite sharing summer holidays and annual visits to the Lord’s Test match, he was otherwise willing to string her along — largely with the bait and switch of correspondence. But while these curtailments may have suited him, and were turned into a kind of creative manure for his poems (‘Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth’), for her they were purely and sadly themselves. Over time, she fell further and further into depression and began drinking heavily.
Why didn’t Jones take control of her life and give Larkin the boot? Why especially when it became clear that Larkin had connived with his friend Kingsley Amis in creating the damning portrait of Jones that appears in Lucky Jim? There are several reasons: because she loved him despite everything (which included his long affair with a colleague in the Hull library, Maeve Brennan, and later another affair with his secretary Betty Mackereth); because she had an absolutely unshakeable sense of his worth as a poet and reverence for the pantheon in which she felt sure that he belonged; and because there was a large element of depressed passivity in her personality — a fundamental characteristic, but endlessly reinforced by the treatment handed out to her by male colleagues at Leicester as well as by the man she loved.
Larkin, for his part, and despite his serial betrayals, knew that in Jones he’d not only found someone with an apparently reliable capacity for forgiveness, but a companion who was much more nearly his intellectual equal than any of the other women he took up with — and who also liked the same kind of roughish sex that he preferred himself.
Sutherland’s telling of this tale is somewhat ramshackle and repetitive, and he doesn’t give any hard evidence for the (in fact quite plausible) suggestion that Larkin’s Oxford anthology was essentially a joint production with Jones. But his book has a compelling flow of strong feeling and a touching sense of intimate connection: Sutherland was a student of Jones’s during the late 1950s, became her friend and drinking companion, was liked and trusted by her (in one of her letters to Larkin she refers to him as ‘heavenly’), met Larkin a few times, and was also on good terms with her other bright, young (and always, again, male) academic colleagues.
But Sutherland and Jones were never intimate or confiding — which means that the darkest revelations of her correspondence seem all the more shocking, to him first, and now to us. Jones voted for the BNP on at least one occasion, she refused to sign a protest petition when Oswald Mosley visited the Leicester campus in 1961, and she cheerfully co-wrote with Larkin the odious ditty beginning ‘Prison for strikers/Bring back the cat’, which those with an interest can hear them singing together on a recording now available on YouTube. Sutherland floats the idea that Jones might have confirmed Larkin’s prejudices in the same sort of way that she shored up his taste for non-modernist poets. On the evidence of Larkin’s correspondence with others, it seems likely that they met each other halfway in this regard, as in so much else.
Eventually Larkin broke off his affair with Maeve Brennan, began to take Jones with him to public events (having previously kept her a semi-secret), and in what turned out to be the last part of his life, when Jones was suffering from acute shingles, he settled her under his own roof in Hull, where they regularly set about drinking themselves into insensibility. Who was love’s martyr now? Both of them, perhaps, although both were finally living a life they had chosen together.
In truth, though, and despite a lifetime of complaining, Larkin had managed to live pretty much how he wanted all along. Sutherland’s book adds substance to the story of these wants, and some detail to the prejudices that accompanied them, and in this and other respects it’s valuable. It’s also bound to re-animate the conversation about how much Larkin’s poems are damaged by the sides he took and the opinions he voiced as a man. There are a few poems (‘Posterity’, for instance) which are obviously soiled by stereotyping and worse. In the majority, Larkin’s approach to his subject is much less inclined to enact a quarrel with others (which would have produced mere rhetoric, in the Yeatsian formula), than with himself — which means that he was able to write poetry that expresses among other things a redemptive sense of escape from self. But making that distinction, and calibrating its success (or not), must now inform our reading of every page in his Collected Poems. And not everyone will want to take the trouble.