The old devil and Miss Jones

Monica Jones was Philip Larkin's sexual plaything as well as his muse - and an inspiring academic in her own right. Maureen Paton, a former student of hers in the Seventies, recalls a flamboyant character who is now getting her share of the limelight
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She was a tough and intimidatingly clever woman in a man's world. Yet it was Monica Jones's fate, in her lifetime, to be famous only for being Philip Larkin's longest-serving mistress. The hard-drinking, rabidly right-wing chief Sultana in his harem of devoted women, she was the inspiration for his first published collection of poems, The Less Deceived. But that special bond came at a high price, for they were both hopeless alcoholics by the time they died; Larkin in 1985 and Jones 16 years later in 2001, in the cluttered Larkin house in Hull that she kept intact as a shrine to the poet. Monica's peculiar tragedy was that the eccentric English lecturer I remember from my undergraduate days had the flamboyant character to be a celebrity in her own right, yet the unsung Jones never rose above the role of Philip Larkin's muse - and sexual plaything.

It seems astonishing that no one until now has seen fit to make a film about a woman who, despite her intellect, was such an obvious victim of her times. "I have built Monica in my image; I've made her dependent on me and now I can't abandon her," Larkin once admitted. A subtly revealing scene from the first screen drama about their relationship suggests that the commitment-phobic Larkin was more interested in spanking than actual sex, and Monica proved a game playmate as well as a soulmate. Like Swinburne before him, Larkin was a spanking fan. While still an Oxford undergraduate, he had written lesbian novels about corporal punishment in girls' schools under the pen name of Brunette Coleman; and later he subscribed to a top-shelf correction magazine called Swish. Dutifully, Monica would wear red suspenders and fishnet (which he liked to call openwork) stockings to excite him. Contrary to the hatchet job done on Monica in a Channel 4 documentary shown last week (Philip Larkin: Love and Death in Hull), it was Larkin who controlled the relationship rather than she.

In her forthcoming BBC2 drama Love Again, the director Susanna White explores the master-slave dynamics between two intellectual equals that characterised Larkin and Jones's relationship over 40 years. When Tara Fitzgerald's Monica bends over coquettishly in front of Hugh Bonneville's Larkin, the gesture is an unmistakable insight into the couple's sexual practices and the balance of power between them in the furtive, repressed, inhibited days before sex was (according to one of Larkin's best-known poems) officially invented in 1963. "He was the love of her life. There was an element of conceit involved - you imagine you might be the one to change that person - so that's why she stayed with him for that amount of time," explains Fitzgerald.

Gestures were everything in a legacy like Jones's, for she was one of life's performance artists. She never published a single academic article or book and she was interviewed only once - on a BBC2 Bookmark programme - yet she had the instincts, and the wardrobe, of a star. As a working-class undergraduate from a council estate, I had never before encountered such an operatic character as the woman we called Miss Jones. Built like a scary Brünnhilde, this blowsy-looking blonde with black horn-rimmed glasses and a sumptuously upholstered figure left an indelible impression on me at Leicester University in the Seventies, where she would flaunt more tartan than the Bay City Rollers for her series of lectures on Macbeth.

Her dress code was always in tune with the times: in the Sixties, her black-and-white Op Art mini-dresses would attract cat-calls about Newcastle United. When she lectured on Antony and Cleopatra, she would wind a long rope of imitation pearls around her throat before casting her pearls of wisdom before swinish students. She even wore those red suspenders under mini-skirts (no namby-pamby tights for Monica), sometimes revealing them to the front row of an unsuspecting student audience. We were always agog as to what would happen next; no one ever cut her lectures.

One day, she swept into the lecture hall in her usual dramatic fashion, with her black academic gown billowing behind her like a bat out of hell, and launched into a reading of Thomas Hardy poems - Larkin was a great Hardy fan - before bursting into tears at the lectern. "I'm so sorry, I find him so moving," she apologised in that thrillingly gruff voice. No lecturer had ever broken down like that in front of students before, and the invisible barrier between tutor and pupil suddenly seemed to have melted away. It was an abrupt insight into the vulnerability that becomes only too apparent in Love Again. At the time, our student grapevine was buzzing with stories about Miss Jones and Larkin going away for dirty weekends in the Lake District. Since Jones was pretty hefty by then from all the drinking, we speculated that she probably broke the bedsprings during erotic gymnastics with a man who wasn't afraid to use the F-word in his poetry and, indeed, owed much of his fame to it. Little did we know then that both were more into spanking.

White's film shows how Jones offered Larkin the kind of bawdy companionship normally only found among his equally right-wing saloon-bar mates, such as Kingsley Amis. In other words, she became an honorary man - with sex (of a sort) on the side. "He revealed to Monica things he wouldn't reveal to anyone else," explains White. "The foul-mouthed, porn-reading, laddish, intellectual right-wing side - he really could be himself with Monica, in the way he was with Kingsley Amis. We had long discussions with the Larkin estate, which had approval on our script, and one of the things they were really concerned about was that Larkin wouldn't be seen as some really sleazy Casanova. So we were quite considered in how we handled those things. We wanted to show the emotional complexity of it all, the man dominated by his mother who didn't want to commit to marriage for serious complicated reasons - he thought he was better off on his own. And we wanted to show the human cost of that, which I hope is what people are going to carry away from it. It isn't just another bit of sex on BBC2."

So close was Monica to Larkin - and his biographer Andrew Motion considers his relationship with her to have been the most important in Larkin's life - that the spiteful Amis took an instant dislike to the token woman in Larkin's group of friends and cruelly lampooned her in print as Lucky Jim's hysterical spinster colleague Margaret. On Larkin's insistence, Amis changed Margaret's name Beale to Peel - Monica was born Monica Margaret Beale Jones - but the caricature must have nevertheless been incredibly hurtful.

If so, Jones never let on. "She was an extremely private person and didn't take kindly to intrusions into her privacy," says Roger Warren, a former colleague of Jones's at Leicester University and now an advisor on Shakespeare to the directors Peter Hall and his son Edward. Warren knew both Larkin and Jones very well, and recalls Monica as "a person of strong biases, of extremely right-wing opinions, like Larkin. She had no time for the mediocre or the sloppy; neither of them were compromising people. She was a difficult person to be fond of, but I was fond of her. She was a man's woman. Once you were accepted by her, you could do no wrong."

And Larkin, most of all, was the beneficiary of the loyalty that Monica Jones made her life's work.

'Love Again' will be shown on BBC2 on Saturday 26 July