Letters to Monica by Philip Larkin; edited by Anthony Thwaite – book review

The letters Philip Larkin wrote to his lover Monica Jones provide a fascinating insight into his personality and a window on the the 'fond struggle' that was their relationship

Nearly 500 pages of misanthropy, glumness, cowardice and hypochondria (the only sort of prophecy that converges on the truth) from someone both spineless and prickly – it sounds like too much of a good thing, but Letters to Monica offers a very full and satisfying portrait of Philip Larkin in all his (negative) moods: "Honestly I don't think I did anything I wanted ALL DAY except go to the lavatory… Mother's electric blanket broke, & I have 'mended' it, so she may be practising suttee involuntarily before long…" (26 December 1962). What could better capture the spirit of the season or better beguile the Christmas market?

The 1992 volume of Selected Letters (also edited by Anthony Thwaite) hurt Larkin's reputation by giving space to his seedy side, shown particularly in letters to Robert Conquest, with whom he shared tastes in pornography, and Kingsley Amis. On many of those pages bigotry seemed to be practised as a competitive sport.

The Larkin-Amis correspondence and the Larkin-Jones have complementary leitmotifs. Most letters to Amis end ritually with "bum", most letters to Monica Jones begin with "bun". Larkin and Jones had a cult of the fluffy rodent, in a running joke that acquired its own seriousness. He wrote in September 1959: "I do deeply feel 'somehow' there is a rabbit there too, doing the things you do; even lecturing on Hopkins. It is a strange fancy. I can't explain it. I think perhaps the rabbit takes your place at times… Of course I know it doesn't really! but I feel loth to say 'there is no rabbit'." They liked Beatrix Potter even when she strayed beyond bunnies, with Larkin declaring that he would sacrifice Joyce, Proust and Mann (foreigners all, admittedly, and he had become scrupulously xenophobic) for The Tailor of Gloucester.

The Selected Letters printed parts of perhaps a dozen letters to Monica. This large book represents a heroic effort of whittling, since a total of 7,500 pages was sold by her estate to the Bodleian. Thwaite quotes from her side of the correspondence only to provide explanatory context, but even so it's obvious that she wasn't any sort of pushover, and 20-page letters from her were not unusual. She was a formidable but not threatening reader, making it clear that her admiration for Larkin's poetry functioned separately from her personal feeling for him.

This is a stirring book, despite the absence of uplift, because these were people who lived in their letters. Larkin refers to what he is doing in his letters as "talking to you", rather than writing. The one-way medium, not immediately reflexive, seems to liberate him. Interactivity doesn't suit everyone.

The great myth of the relationship, to which both parties subscribed most of the time, was that he was spoiling her life by holding back from marriage, without leaving her free to pursue other prospects. Larkin sometimes dissents from this, feeling that they are as odd as each other, and that Monica likes people at large even less than he does. In his assessment they are similar but not complementary. Love means release from one's beliefs, not confirmation in them.

This was a sexual relationship, if not a very fluent one. Its eroticism announces itself in a bat's squeak or a librarian's whisper. The bicycle-clip cries out to the garter-belt, but softly, softly. Larkin asks for pointers on technique, Monica asks for emotional reassurance. He tries to oblige, but the words he chooses are, "I don't mean, of course, that I don't like making love with you." In this fond struggle between two passive-aggressive types, each of them trying to finesse some decisiveness out of the other, she must have known that a double negative was the most she could hope for. When she points out that he tends to be chilly in letters after a successful meeting, as if to re-establish distance, he does better. His next communication at such a juncture is downright warm.

Over time there is modest experimentation, and an attempt to synthesise Larkin's courtly and kinky sides. Some incidents are relatively easy to reconstruct: "I felt deprived of you, & the love making that hadn't really been concluded. I was a fool to bring those pants – I can't think where to hide them. My cleaner will think I am robbing clothes lines." Others keep their secrets. There are a couple of cryptic references in October 1958, starting with: "I hope you are better now – I fear I didn't treat you very considerately! We had a fine large cavalier time, though, and I look back on it with delight…" The next letter amplifies the mystery: "I'm sorry too that our encounter had such unhappy results for you! I really didn't expect such a thing, though I suppose it might have been predicted. I am sorry. It does rather spoil the incident, even at best, which was very exciting for me anyway…" What can the complication have been, damaging her but not him? Spontaneous combustion? Prolapse?

Philip Larkin was a committophobe's committophobe, king of the ditherers, and his inadequacy was the only thing he was sure of. Yet what good company he is on these pages, this man who kept such poor company with himself! He gave Monica his inadequacy in full measure, pressed down and running over. He held none of it back.

The most extraordinary letters are ones where he is listening to a record or the radio (The Messiah, for instance, or The Critics) and transmutes the experience even before it has finished. In March 1958 he riffs lovingly on Handel's Solomon as if the characters were all rabbits. At times like this his letters take on the shapely frenzy of the jazz he so loved. It's like the automatic writing at a séance or surrealist soirée, expressive but absolutely untethered, coming very close to that unimaginable thing, a disinhibited Larkin. Never mind that he was relying on the faux spontaneity of drink. It was probably the only kind he trusted.

He might be a bad bargain, but the relationship with Monica was stable as long as she had the exclusivity on it. Unfortunately there was evidence (letters received while on holiday with her, for instance) that he was being inadequate with other women. For Philip Larkin to display a talent for sexual intrigue would be roughly as surprising as someone getting work as a juggler without being able to tie his shoelaces. When Monica was deeply upset, he played his top trump in this game of misère: "I've always tried to get you to see me as unlikeable, and now I must be getting near success."

In fact the dwindling flow of letters wasn't the result of estrangement but the opposite. When Larkin's mother moved into a nursing home in 1972 he was able to see Monica more often, both women being based in Leicester. When in 1982 Monica fell downstairs in her Haydon Bridge cottage, he took her in and looked after her. This has elements of both happy ending and nemesis – the belated commitment coming without dignity or real freedom of choice. It's hard not to feel that their relationship was more securely founded on separation. At one point in 1973 he laments that he hasn't written to her for a while ("sign we have been together"), as if the letter was the primary encounter. Third parties like ourselves are bound to feel that way, but perhaps despite everything Monica Jones did too.


Adam Mars-Jones

The GuardianTramp

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