Maeve Brennan

Librarian whose romance with Philip Larkin won her an unusual niche in 20th-century literary life
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Maeve Maureen Brennan, librarian: born Beverley, Yorkshire 27 September 1929; died Hull 11 June 2003.

When, some time in the early 1960s, Maeve Brennan told her father that Philip Larkin had likened her to Yeats's Maud Gonne, the father was amused: "You like Maud Gonne? Don't be ridiculous. She was very beautiful, even in middle age!"

Maeve related this story with characteristic self-deprecation. She was in fact extremely attractive, as the numerous photographs taken by Larkin attest, and their relationship was as important one, to him as well as to her. She came closest to being the woman he almost married - even bearing in mind Ruth Bowman, briefly his fiancée in the 1940s, and Monica Jones, with whom he shared so much for almost 40 years.

Maeve Brennan was born in Beverley, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, in 1929, the eldest child of a dental surgeon who came from Kilkenny in the south-east of Ireland. Her mother was a Yorkshirewoman, brought up as an Anglican but converting to Roman Catholicism when she came to marry. Maeve herself was throughout her life a serious and committed member of the Church. She went to St Mary's High School for Girls in Hull during the Second World War, where she was well taught, if traditionally. As she put it in her later memoir:

Little wonder that my outlook on life, as gleaned from literature, was idealistic, a view in turn supported by the Church's teaching on the sanctity of marriage and chastity in love.

She went on to take a general degree in History, French and English at the then University College of Hull, graduating in 1951, and briefly took up a post in the city library as Music Librarian. She joined Hull University College library in 1953. In 1955, Philip Larkin arrived, aged 32, as Librarian of the newly independent Hull University.

As Brennan later put it, Larkin "took me in hand" when she was trying to grapple with the Library Association exams; but initially, and for some time, with no suggestion of familiarity, let alone "love". It was only gradually that reserve on both sides was broken down, and the two began to develop a much closer relationship, compounded not only of mutual attraction but games, jokes, presents, exploring the hinterland of Hull; and also a real sense of creating a new library, in two successive stages, in which Larkin was the prime mover and Brennan an essential lieutenant.

Brennan herself said, "My close friendship with Philip began in 1960." It went through many vicissitudes, and at the time of Larkin's death in December 1985 Brennan knew that Monica Jones, by now an invalid, was, however he may have regarded it, at the centre of his depleted life. She herself had taken early retirement a few weeks before.

In the period after Larkin's death, when his collected poems, and then his letters, were being gathered together, and his biography was being written, Brennan played a key part. She was central in founding the Philip Larkin Society, in aiding his editors and his biographer, Andrew Motion, and in helping edit the journal of the society, About Larkin. She published her memoir, The Philip Larkin I Knew, with Manchester University Press in 2002: it was described by John Bayley in the TLS as a "wholly engaging and agreeable memoir" which "should persuade the most carping of the poet's critics to, at least a grudging, agreement".

The Larkin poems which are undoubtedly Maeve Brennan's are "Broadcast", "Morning at Last" and the unfinished "The Dance" - the last two unpublished in Larkin's lifetime. These poems, her close relationship with Larkin, her careful and devoted memoir, and her own warm cheerfulness, ensure her a certain place in the affections of many people, and a small niche in 20th-century literary life.

It amused her that she herself had become almost a character in literature, in Ben Brown's 1999 stage play Larkin with Women (a revival at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, closed last week) and in a BBC 2 drama, Love Again, scheduled for 26 July. And it is fortunate that Channel 4 recently made great use of her memories, in Philip Larkin: love and death in Hull - going out on 22 June.

She was a brave, generous, wry and sometimes exhilarating companion, for all Larkin's slyly reductive remarks in letters to some of his friends. That she was important to Larkin is beyond doubt.

Anthony Thwaite