16 May, 2011Issue 16.2LettersLiteraturePoetryWriters

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Larkin in Love

Judyta Frodyma

Letters to MonicaPhilip Larkin
Philip Larkin: Letters to Monica, ed. Anthony Thwaite
Faber and Faber, 2010
496 Pages
ISBN 978-0571239092

On 17 March, 1958, Philip Larkin sent the following list in a letter to Monica Jones, his longtime companion:

Nice Nasty
Rabbits Ferrets
Pints of draught Halves of bottled
Men & women Children
Fires Convector heating
Books Talk
Readers Writers
(some of them) (all of them)

Though it is unfair to diminish a man’s character to a list of likes and dislikes, this chart represents the sort of relationship Larkin shared with Monica: one of tongue-in-cheek, disinterested coarseness and genuine affinity. To most, Larkin is best known as the poet of “This be the Verse” (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad”) and “Toads” (“Why should I let the toad work / squat on my life?”). To the patient and intelligent Monica Jones (“dearest bun”), however, he was an affectionate and cheeky kindred spirit, if only a mediocre lover (“I’m sorry that our lovemaking fizzled out in Devon…”). An unpleasantly gloomy poet, Larkin’s discontent and wit have fused to create a colloquial candour that has brought him standing as one of the greatest poets of the latter part of 20th century. The 1,400 letters and 500 postcards, which were bought by the Bodleian in 2004, had been deemed lost until recently. This collection, compiled and edited by Anthony Thwaite, neither softens nor reaffirms the rough-around-the-edges Larkin we know; rather, it presents Larkin-the-poet as Larkin-the-everyday-lover: an undecided, complex yet common man.

Neither Larkin nor Jones have enjoyed flattering posthumous reputations, with Larkin’s Selected Letters doing little to help the situation. For many years, Larkin’s reputation was strained by how little we knew about him—his journals were dutifully shredded and burnt by his colleague Betty Mackereth, and until Monica’s death in 2001, we were limited to his correspondence with his mother and with male friends such as Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest. These letters, often about jazz, porn, or immigrants, presented Larkin as a habitual racist and full-time misogynist. His letters to Monica, by contrast, track their relationship over nearly four decades of minutiae, absurdity, literature, food, rabbits (including drawings), and poetry. Despite his literary fame, Larkin was known as a misanthrope, avoided the media, and was ill-suited to a public life, while Monica died an alcoholic and an unaccomplished academic at the University of Leicester (she published nothing at all in 40 years; though, to be fair, at a time when the stigma of “publish or perish” was not yet in place). Larkin met Monica at the University of Leicester in 1946 when they were both 24, he a librarian, she an assistant lecturer—titles they retained their entire lives. Both had studied at Oxford but never crossed paths.

Larkin writes to Monica almost as though he were writing to himself—the stark frankness of the letters sheds light on what may have been lost in the burnt journals—musings on taboo topics, private personal opinions, or the details of his eating habits. Thwaite’s collection, albeit carefully selected, does not attempt to conceal or apologise for Larkin’s character. Rather, it is presented in the same relaxed privacy that Larkin shared with Jones; he felt she would not judge him for his shortcomings, regardless of how crude they may have seemed to others. He even shared with her his subscription to Swish magazine (“Jolly good stuff, Swish“).

Perhaps it was expected that the publication of these private letters would soften Larkin’s notoriety somewhat. Although the collection is of a different nature (private, loving) than the Larkin we have seen before, it presents him gingerly, but fairly. Thwaite makes no attempt to hide the unpleasant. Larkin is still self-deprecating, valuing his “selfish life” essential to the poetry over married life with Monica.

In making his selection, Thwaite has chosen not to focus on any one particular aspect of Larkin’s life and relationship—neither the literary nor the personal takes precedence over the other. Larkin’s letters are indeed “jolly good stuff” themselves, refreshingly crude, holding little back. Jonathan Bate, reviewing the letters, complains: “And one could perhaps have done without the bottom fetish that is revealed when he salivates over the memory of Monica hitching her skirt around her waist and letting him see her black nylon panties with a small hole in them.” Why done without? Sometimes it’s nice to know that poets like bottoms, too. Bate’s concern about oversharing holds ground when reading the letters for insight into Larkin’s literary life. But reading them as love letters, which, peculiar as they are, is their nature, such intimate details contribute to a complete picture of the poet. We are no longer mere readers of his poetry, distanced by a book, but become the neighbours next door, partaking in his relationship as observers and eavesdroppers. This voyeuristic element is precisely what such a collection of letters captures: surely Larkin never intended for them to be published. Knowing about his preference for spanking or affinity for Beatrix Potter rightly makes it increasingly harder to stereotype him. Aspects of Larkin’s personal life and preferences in the letters do not need to be tolerated on account of their literary value; they provide value in and of themselves.

However, the letters do return often to his opinions of writers, living and dead. He categorises writers, “all of them”, as nasty, himself included. In an earlier letter, he compiles a list comparing Hardy to Yeats. The results were clear: Hardy, nice–Yeats, nasty. Humorously self-deprecating, he also seems to be aware of his own worth as a poet, even if it is admitted begrudgingly. At other times, his self-pity is less likeable: “I’ve no friends. Really I feel like a plant in a pot that nobody waters.” Often, he writes about his inability to write; only letters to Monica come naturally, sometimes selfish, other times apologetic, but always earnest:

Monday Ah! Letter from you today. I’m not one of the save-it-to-read-in-the-apple-tree school. I tear it open instantly and walk slowly upstairs reading it, not taking off my scarf & raincoat till I’ve finished. Very nice! We both seem a bit drab at present, witness this letter to date, you with reason, me without. How dreary & depressing this room-hunt is! Everything looks its worst when seen in such circumstances!

Although the collection only contains letters from Larkin to Monica, her own side of the correspondence is not entirely lacking; indeed, her loud voice often comes through. Following a trip to Grasmere, Larkin reprimands her speaking manners: “But for all that, I do want to urge you, with all love & kindness, to think about how much you say & how you say it.” He goes so far as to create three rules which she is to follow. Like listening in on a one-sided phone conversation, the silences and nods are filled in by the observant party. One can almost hear her line of argument about marriage, in contrast to Larkin’s distinguished hesitant stance: “…To me the strain would be the constant lack of solitude, the never-being able-to-relax[…] Is it better to die of disintegration or of continual watchfulness?” Six years later, in 1957, he was still mulling it over:

As you know, I think we are very queer—queerer than you do—but I can’t swear that if we were better at ‘the physical side of things’ […] I shouldn’t find some other excuse for not marrying. But if I don’t want to marry you then I don’t see why I should mind not doing so, & if I do then I don’t see why I don’t.

The letters do not read quickly. Laden with the quotidian, they provide a dreary portrait of Larkin—cooking, cleaning, complaining: “I had an awful experience with some pearl barley not long ago, that stuck to the pan and burnt. I nurse stews like a candidate nursing a constituency”. In small doses, however, they paint a charming picture of a strange man in a strangely misanthropic relationship:

Dear bun, I know what you mean about turning life into art—I sometimes have you with me for long stretches, noticing things together—actually, that sounds horrible, but yesterday I walked up the Lisburn Roads, a very dull road, for about 2 miles, a road nobody would ever walk along for pleasure—rather like, say, the Melton Road in Leicester, but I enjoyed it & so wd you, & I thought as much at the time. Simple pleasures!

Reading their 40-year correspondence, there is no doubt that he loved her and wanted to share his life with her, however mundane. But only those mundane bits he chose out for her; “I have four rolls of pink toilet paper on my low table…” It was not until 1981, four years before his death, that he finally agreed to her moving in with him. His character would perhaps be easier to stomach if one keeps in mind that the letters to Monica were read not in a weekend but over 40 years. Only then does the ordinary and deliberately quotidian become, well, almost sweet. His bleak vignettes add a comic element to his character, sometimes softened, sometimes as unpleasant as we knew him, but always presenting a much more complete and thereby complex picture of the poet in his most private affairs. Nothing, however, gives away his gloomy humour and the freedom he shared with Monica better than this beginning of a letter:

Dearest bun,

Morning, noon & bloody night,
Seven sodding days a week,
I slave at filthy work, that might
Be done by any book-drunk freak.
This goes on ‘till I kick the bucket:

Nice to be a pawet, ya knaw, an express ya feeling. Eh?

Judyta Frodyma graduated in 2010 with an MSt in English Literature from Worcester College, Oxford.