Letters to Monica, By Philip Larkin, ed Anthony Thwaite

Fear and loving: the life of a nation's favourite poet
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The Independent Online

"I am feeling a little better today, though waves of sadness, fear, remorse, fear and all the rest of it wash over me periodically like the automatic flushing of a urinal." Philip Larkin occupies a couple of niches in our national consciousness. With his ability to connect to our everyday hopes and anxieties in plain language, he's the favoured poet for many not otherwise partial to modern poetry. And notwithstanding his self-mockery, as in these torrid lines penned to Monica Jones in 1966, he has also become our archetypal miserable old git.

Larkin's letters to Jones, his long-suffering girlfriend and sometime muse, contain many more wallows in misery and much else besides. Most of the material is published for the first time, selected from a trove uncovered after Jones's death: more than 1,400 letters and 500 postcards written between 1946 and 1984.

Larkin was philanthropic with his misanthropy. He referred routinely to his publisher George Hartley as "the Ponce of Hessle", and fantasised about his deputy librarian, Arthur Wood, being carried off by a giant eagle. Literary figures were dispatched with ruthless economy. Of Kipling, he says: "the 'feel' of his verse is as efficient & insensitive as linoleum"; of Virginia Woolf: "there is much wooden & dead in VW". Larkin's feelings about Kingsley Amis were mixed. He was his friend, but he disliked Amis pinching his jokes; moreover he envied his colossal sales and easy lifestyle. "It's not his success I mind so much as his immunity from worry and hard work," he wrote, "though I mind the success as well."

The correspondence's heart is the relationship between Larkin and Jones. They were kindred – if often dispirited – spirits. Larkin decorated his letters to her with sketches, depicting himself as a seal and Jones as a rabbit, and addressed her with leporine endearments: "My dear bunny", "Dearest of burrow-dwellers". They were fans of Thomas Hardy and Barbara Pym, while sharing contempt for writers of the moment such as Marghanita Laski and CP Snow. The most exciting parts of the letters are discussions of the wording and meaning of many of his most famous poems. We can oversee the emergence of "An Arundel Tomb", "The Whitsun Weddings" and other of his masterly explorations of the transcendences to be found within the prosaic.

Normally, Larkin was tender and supportive with Jones, though on one occasion he took her to task: "You've no idea of the exhausting qualities of yourself in full voice," he wrote, "...abandon altogether your harsh didactic voice, and use only the soft musical one." Jones's unhappiness appeared less self-indulgent than Larkin's, much of it rooted in his failure to commit. For Larkin the prospect of marriage was "like promising to stand on one leg for the rest of one's life", but he acknowledged: "Yet I never think I am doing anything but ruin your life & mine." Nevertheless, she could never bring herself to break off from her self-centred poet, even when confronted with his infidelity. Larkin's affair with fellow librarian Maeve Brennan prompted 20 sides of recrimination, but Jones stopped short of terminating her alliance. She moved in with Larkin finally only in 1983, shortly before his death.

These letters are the latest stage in a revision of our knowledge of Larkin, which began with his Selected Letters in 1992, also edited by Thwaite, and Andrew Motion's 1993 biography, Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life: if Larkin was more fun-loving than we gave him credit for (as well as Jones and Brennan, he had a relationship with his secretary Betty Mackereth), his private attitudes to race and women have attracted controversy.

The letters to Jones should dissipate the misogynist aura he has acquired. Jones was independent and strong-willed, and we are given a touching portrait of Larkin's affection for her. The correspondence is not so helpful with the issue of racism, since it contains glimpses of anti-Semitism and other prejudice. Larkin let slip to Jones that his diaries contained much more, but they were destroyed after his death. Even so, and regardless of further debate over the extent of their creator's shortcomings, it is likely that the standing of his poems will remain undiminished. In the meantime, perhaps Letters to Monica can stand as an extended footnote to "An Arundel Tomb": for all Larkin's selfishness, there can be no doubt his love for Jones survives him here.

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