Jean Hartley: Co-founder of the Marvell Press and publisher of Philip Larkin's first major collection

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The Independent Online

Jean Hartley was the publisher, with her husband George, of Philip Larkin's first mature volume of poems, The Less Deceived (1955). But her autobiography, Philip Larkin, the Marvell Press and Me (1989), earns her a place in literary history in her own right, with its elegant account of her wartime childhood and subsequent escape from a "cosy", inward-looking working-class culture through the new educational opportunities of the 1950s and 1960s.

She was born Jean Holland in Hull. Her mother had worked in domestic service, and her father was a foundry-worker. Hartley's evocation of the Boulevard area, the heart of Hull's fishing community, in the 1930s and 1940s, is unforgettable: errands to the library for her mother ("Two books for a lady please"); "The Daily Herald and John Bull (a bit shiny, this), torn into neat squares and hung on a hook in the lavatory"; the landmine which killed a fish-and-chip shop queue and wrecked their house as they prepared to treat themselves to a tin of Australian greengage jam. She cried "at the shock of it all", but also grieved over the anticipated jam, last seen "covered in soot and shards of glass".

In her teens, Hartley recounted, she became an "insufferable" working-class would-be intellectual ("'What's that you're reading Jean?' 'It's T S Eliot's The Waste Land, but you wouldn't understand it.' If the truth be told, I didn't understand it either but the sound of it was marvellous.") Leaving Thoresby high school at 15, she became a shorthand typist, then a secretary, and attended the Workers' Educational Association classes of Richard Hoggart.

At 17 her life was changed by infatuation with a poet, who seduced her "with some plausible-sounding stuff about D H Lawrence and the phases of the moon". By the time she realised she was pregnant the affair had ended, and there followed a traumatic stay in a home for unmarried mothers. But the "scarlet women" in Sutton House were innocent rather than sinful, ranging from hairdressers to an eel-catcher's daughter seduced by a married GI from Wisconsin. "The most tragic," though, "were the 14-year-old incest victims". Hartley later made a radio programme, The Wayward Girls, based on her experiences at this time, which was broadcast in 1992.

When her daughter, Laurien, was born, with "two shell-pink ears, a lovely big light-bulb-shaped forehead and perfect, clutching little fingers", all Hartley's plans to give her up for adoption flew to the winds. But her fortunes now improved with marriage to the art student, George Hartley, also a poet. With Laurien and their new-born daughter, Alison, the couple moved to a tiny house in the suburb of Hessle, where with unrepressed idealism and no more technology than an old Underwood typewriter, George founded a poetry magazine, Listen, with Jean acting as co-editor. The second issue of Listen attracted contributions from the new Movement poets, Larkin, Donald Davie, Al Alvarez and Kingsley Amis. Another early contributor was Anthony Thwaite.

Determined to publish a volume, they called themselves the Marvell Press, alluding to the 17th-century Hull poet, but also because it would be a "bloody marvel" if the project succeeded. They invited Larkin to be their first author. Having been rejected by all the major poetry publishers in 1948, he was pessimistic about his publishing prospects, and agreed. Since they could not afford the production costs, advance subscriptions were solicited. Only days before The Less Deceived was published, in November 1955, Charles Monteith of Faber, reading "Church Going" in The Spectator, wrote to Larkin soliciting a volume. He was too late.

By coincidence Larkin moved at this point from Belfast to Hull, to take up the post of librarian at the university. The middle-class Oxford-educated poet encouraged the working-class woman's ambitions, helping Hartley with her O- and A-levels, which she took in the late 1960s. When she was awarded a "B" for A-level English he commented to Monica Jones: "Not bad for someone who was in hospital and anyway had never taken an exam in her youth." (Hartley was at the time ill with undiagnosed rheumatic fever, which caused long-term damage to her heart.) Larkin also wrote a reference when she applied for mature entry to Hull University. By now separated from George, Hartley completed her BA and went on to a BPhil in Victorian studies, becoming a teacher in further education, a job she loved.

In 1995 Hartley published the invaluable guide Philip Larkin's Hull and East Yorkshire. She was vice-chairman of the Philip Larkin Society and the first editor of its journal, About Larkin. In 2010 she served on the steering committee of the Larkin25 programme, which commemorated the 25th anniversary of the poet's death. Late last year a play concerning her life, Wrong Beginnings, by David Pattison, was mounted at Hull Truck Theatre. Earlier this year, already frail, she was awarded an honorary DLitt by Hull University. She spent the days before her death at home, cared for by her daughters, Laurien and Alison, and her granddaughter Sarah.

Jean Hartley, writer and publisher: born Hull 27 April 1933; married George Hartley (two daughters); died Hull 18 July 2011.

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