Woman who helped launch Larkin dies

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The Independent Culture

Jean Hartley, the Yorkshire housewife who discovered the poems of Philip Larkin, has died aged 78.

Having founded the Marvell Press from her two-up, two-down cottage next door to a fish and chip shop in Hessle with her husband George, she struck up an unlikely and enduring relationship with the man who was to go on to become Britain’s most popular poet.

Although their backgrounds differed widely – he was Oxford educated, right wing and curmudgeonly; she was the daughter of a foundry worker, 12 years his junior and a former single mother – the pair hit it off instantly.

The mighty Faber and Faber had turned down the opportunity to publish Larkin’s first anthology The Less Deceived, which includes one of his most famous poems Toads. Undeterred, the poet, who was then working in Belfast, submitted it for the Hartleys’ consideration. The couple had already produced several of his poems in their quarterly review Listen but nothing could prepare them for the literary stir caused by Larkin’s hardback debut in 1955. Faber rapidly re-evaluated its view of the poet and sign him up for his second collection The Whitsun Weddings.

By co-incidence Larkin moved to Hull around the time of its publication (insisting the book should not be sold or publicised in his new home) to work as librarian at the university library and would cycle round to Mrs Hartley’s home every Saturday morning after doing his shopping.

Professor Graham Chesters, of the Larkin Society who was a friend of both, said Marvell Press had already built a reputation publishing works by Ezra Pound and TS Eliot. However she also made some notable misses – declining works by budding talents Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.

“I never heard or read a bad word that Larkin said about her. He said bad words about most people in one way or another in his correspondence in his slightly grouchy way but never her. Although he used to refer to her husband George as the Ponce of Hessle,” he added.

Jean and George divorced in 1968 and she went back to university studying English before becoming a lecturer at Hull further education college. She also persuaded Larkin to produce a number of recordings despite his trenchant dislike of performing.

Recalling the Saturdays they would spend together Mrs Hartley recalled Larkin as far removed from the bigoted, misogynistic figure to have emerged in his later biography written by former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion.

“If the weather was good we'd go out for a walk. Otherwise we just talked. And he was so funny. He was the funniest man I've ever met. Even when he was enveloped in gloom over some illness or mishap, he managed to make it sound absolutely hilarious," she wrote.