Review: Philip Larkin: Letters to Monica Edited by Anthony Thwaite
Published 07/11/2010 | 05:00
Monica Jones was Philip Larkin's girlfriend for more than 30 years. The strangest thing about this collection of his letters to her is that we rarely see her response.
She was a woman who tolerated the famous poet's infidelities and his refusals to marry, and in a photo on the book's cover, she looks blonde and slim and glamorous. From his letters, we can get just a glimpse of what their conversation was like -- they are full of his explanations, apologies and excuses for bad behaviour.
Between 1946 and 1984, Larkin sent Monica more than 1,421 letters and 521 postcards (all are not included here). They are alternately blunt, sensitive, angry, tender, crotchety or vulnerable. They are also darkly funny. When Larkin started work as a librarian in Belfast, he wrote that he was already fed up "with the Irish male face (craggy, drink-flushed, with greasy black curls and a too-tight collar) and the Irish female face (plump, bad-teeth, pinkly powdered, with a diamante lizard on the lapel)".
Larkin's reputation is one of curmudgeonly brilliance -- he gave few interviews and his body of work is slim, just four volumes of poetry, and two novels (which were published before he was 25). He and Monica had many things in common and were intellectual equals. They had each studied English at Oxford University, where they got first-class degrees. After college, she became a lecturer in literature at Leicester University; he a librarian, working for years as a sub-librarian in Belfast before accepting a post at the University of Hull. From there, he gradually earned a reputation as an outstanding literary figure of his generation.
Yet the couple's relationship was far from balanced. Monica sought affection and commitment, while Larkin endlessly (often ruthlessly) danced around these issues. In the middle letters, when they are in their 30s and 40s, she raises the question of marriage many times, but he is firmly against it. Over and over, he analyses his thoughts out loud in a way that must have been trying for her. "I'm very self-centred and I fear not being able to support the change to basic unselfishness I feel marriage entails," he wrote. "I should tend to be snappish if I didn't watch out. And partly I'm afraid of the bigness, the awfulness of marriage -- 'till death do us part'."
He often criticised Monica harshly -- "you've no idea of the exhausting quality of yourself in full voice". Worst of all, from her perspective, were his affairs. One of the women he was involved with even briefly became his fiancee, while he was also seeing Monica. She dropped him, and with characteristic cleverness and evasion, he later described the event as a "misengagement". Another woman, Maeve Brennan, wrote her own book about Larkin after his death, which caused Monica much distress.
But the letters also show why Monica loved Larkin and what kept her interested in spite of all their problems. The poet's writing sparkles with genius, even when he is at his most grouchy. He could be affectionate. He and Monica had "rabbit" pet names for each other and invented a fantasy rabbit world. Letters begin "My dear bunny", "Dearest of burrow-dwellers" and "Dearest Furry-Face". Yet the metaphor becomes rather tainted when he explains why he hesitated to show her his poem Myxomatosis -- "I'm not keeping 'the rabbit one' from you: it's only that in it I kill the rabbit."
Still, Larkin never promised Monica anything he couldn't give. A few weeks after she found out about his affair with Maeve, who was his colleague at Hull, he wrote to her: "I'm sorry you are feeling so awfully low -- it is silly for me to express sympathy when it is my fault, I suppose. How unsatisfactory life is."
At times, he was almost too honest. Comparing Monica with Maeve, he says: "I think we have -- that's you and I have -- got into a sort of rut that will become increasingly ludicrous and painful as the years waste by. In a way you reflect what I am, she what I might have been."
Occasionally -- though not often enough -- the book's editor Anthony Thwaite gives us Monica's response. She was no fool. On the margins of one self-vindicating paragraph from Larkin, she wrote: "Note the style, the irony of the style, and no intention of doing anything like what is said," and further down the page: "I learned a good deal more later."
Monica wasn't the only person with whom Larkin's relationship was troubled. At Oxford, he befriended Kingsley Amis, and he describes how he helped edit Amis's novel Lucky Jim -- "telling him what I think is wrong with it and scribbling rude comments in the margin". Later, professional jealousy poisoned the friendship, and Larkin frequently griped about Amis's success.
Neither do his parents get off lightly, as you might expect of the poet who came up with the lines: "They f**k you up, your mum and dad." Larkin complains that his parents never showed spontaneous affection. Most of his criticisms are of his mother, who was dependent on him and a constant source of worry. "My mother is nervy, cowardly, obsessional, boring, grumbling, irritating, self-pitying," he writes to Monica. "It seems to me a vicious circle. If she were more attractive she would have a more interesting life."
The hundreds of letters Larkin and Monica exchanged during their lives reveal how close their bond was, but also how great the distance remained between them. They never really lived together. When she became ill in 1983, he let her stay with him in his Hull flat; he died two years later and she lived on alone there until 2001.
He needed that distance, which created the circumstances for his art. Monica did have a long-standing role in his life. She certainly made many personal sacrifices for him. But Philip Larkin was never fully concerned with relationships. Much more important, to him, were the words to describe them.