James Joyce famously sought to consign the manuscript Stephen Hero to flames once he found the means of transposing the material into Portrait of the Artist. On his deathbed, Philip Larkin, England's greatest post-war poet, urged only that his diaries be burnt. Monica Jones, his lifelong confidante, obeyed his wishes.
The material in Trouble at Willow Gables and Other Fictions survives in the Brynmor Jones Library, Hull, where Larkin worked and where James Booth teaches. It comprises, first, works written to distract the young Larkin from his Finals revision. Presented under the pseudonym "Brunette Coleman", these constituted part of a putative epistolary pact with Kingsley Amis to penetrate the world of girls-school fiction.
Two novels resulted, Trouble at Willow Gables and the unfinished Michaelmas Term at St. Bride's. Also included are Sugar and Spice, a handful of passionate woman-to-woman verse spoofs, and What Are We Writing For?, an oddly thoughtful essay on girls' fiction. The film Mädchen in Uniform and Gautier's cross-dressing novel Mademoiselle de Maupin may feature in "Coleman's" storyline. But it is the long-forgotten world of Joy Francis, Dorita Fairlie Bruce and Nancy Breary that inform these writings and allow Larkin his sly Sapphic spin.
In the period 1943-1948, Larkin saw successfully published his two extant novels, Jill and A Girl in Winter. Booth's introduction traces the similarities between the former's straight romance plot and the girly high jinks of "Coleman". Less obviously, the strong concession to the woman's perspective in A Girl in Winter may be indebted to Larkin's experiments in an all-female world.
One of the few accusations not levelled against Larkin since his death has been that of lesbian propagandist. It's a delight, therefore, to acknowledge that, as Coleman, he produces something vibrant, of biographical interest and, in Trouble at Willow Gables, well-constructed. Though Andrew Motion's biography considered "neither novel more than a fascinating curiosity", the Coleman fiction entertains, with suggestive links to Larkin's poetry.
Regarding his attempts at a third novel, however, there can be no excuse for publication. Booth includes every draft for two abandoned books, No for an Answer and A New World Symphony. As Motion noted, the material is "disappointingly thin", offering "a picture of sexual indifference, disgust, and/or violence towards women" and an "insoluble fear of marriage" that Larkin was "unable to transmute into art".
Proust and Joyce's ur-texts may or may not illuminate the masterpieces that followed. This, however, unmistakably describes a creative dead end. Larkin's genius only really found its outlet in verse. Though Booth acknowledges the "support and encouragement" of Motion and Anthony Thwaite, Larkin's literary executors, their effective absence from this project may indicate a certain ambivalence. By page 498, on balance, one knows just why.
The reviewer is writing a life of Ronald FirbankReuse content