Inês Gaspar da Rosa

 

[Versão em português / Portuguese translation]

 

Both were born in 1922, both studied English Literature at Oxford between 1940 and 1943 («City we shared without knowing», as Larkin writes in «Poem about Oxford»), both had First Class degrees.[1] Monica Jones and Philip Larkin, however, only met in 1946 at Leicester University College, where Jones had been appointed as an Assistant Lecturer in English, and Larkin as an Assistant Librarian. They were lovers and confidants until death them did part.

Monica Jones died in February 2001. The thirteen letters Larkin addressed to Jones, published in Anthony Thwaite’s Selected Letters of Philip Larkin (1992), as well as the allusions made to an even smaller number of them in Andrew Motion’s Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life (1993) were nonetheless rendered obsolete in the face of the c. 7500 pages of correspondence unearthed upon Jones’ death. In 2006 the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, acquired this large collection which included Larkin’s dated correspondence exchanged with Jones spanning from 1946 to 1984; Jones’ letters and postcards to Larkin; as well as some undated correspondence, namely postcards and photographs.[2] Only Larkin’s letters to his mother surpassed such a prolific endeavour: «I have three regular correspondents – you, Mother, & Kingsley, & Kingsley never writes.» (p. 146) A new edition was thus called for.

Thwaite’s Philip Larkin: Letters to Monica (2010) aims to present a selection of the correspondence exchanged between Larkin, the seal (for Larkin’s drawing, see p. 173), and Jones, the rabbit («[d]earest bun & only», at one point – p. 194). It is unfortunate that these are not the complete letters of Larkin to Monica, as are Kafka’s Letters to Milena (1990). In the «Note on the Contents», Thwaite pinpoints a crucial feature of the letters: «[i]t was with Monica that Larkin shared the trivial details of his daily life» (p. xiv). It would certainly be hard to argue otherwise:

 

I’m sitting down after a quite busy though fairly enjoyable day – didn’t get up till 10.40 ogh, ogh, then, it being a fine sunny morning, I got on my bike & went out eastwards: had a drink at Paull, a village on the Humber, & round through Hedon & home. About 30 miles in all. On the wall of the Paull pub there was a notice saying ‘old golfers never die, they simply lose their balls’. Bucolic humour. A dull ride on the whole, but I feel in better physical shape – isn’t it odd that on Friday I was so feeble, just going to town tired me, yet today I could cycle a long way without feeling exhausted. And do the bed & laundry & wash socks & make a proper supper of two very nice lamb chops, rice and onions. This sounds like boasting, but when I feel low I tell you, so when I feel well I might as well tell that too. [editorial deletion] (p. 287)

 

The so-called triviality also extends to the details of when Larkin wrote each part, with markers such as «Back again», or «Later –», or «Thursday» highlighting the fact that his letters were often written in more than one sitting (see, for example, pp. 158-60; 346). This, in turn, accords with Larkin’s «wonder» of Jones’

 

effortless writing of 14 pages: damme if I can do it. It takes me ages to write anything: even a simple letter goes to the typists scored over like a MS. of G. Flaubert. […] You must not mind if I don’t write much […] – it is really fantastic to write twice [a week] to you from the point of view of output – though that sounds a shade unchivalrous. (p. 46)

 

Similarly, comments such as: «How nasty my writing looks» (p. 10); or «O blast! no more paper: have to dig for it. Here we are» (p. 108); or even «[t]here’s a hair on this pen – dreadfully difficult to dislodge» (p. 208) resurface, again and again. As Larkin himself explains, «I mention these things because I always believe in telling my correspondent what is around me in case it seeps into my text» (p. 5). As in his writing, the loyalty to the experience — Larkin’s daily life, in the letters’ case — is present: «I feel the only thing you can do about life is to preserve it, by art if you’re an artist, by children if you’re not. Otherwise it flies forgotten, as a dream Dies at the opening day (p. 222)

Although Thwaite identifies triviality as one of the features of the correspondence, he nonetheless adds that «I have included some of all this, but have omitted much» (p. xiv). Readers of William Wordsworth’s letters might experience a feeling of déjà vu, as Wordsworth’s first editors decided to remove passages they deemed domestic.[3] Readers of T. S. Eliot’s essay on Keats’ letters may similarly shudder at the thought of having trifles editorially removed.[4] The suppression of everyday details is even more regrettable considering that Larkin made sure his diaries, «which I suppose I keep partly for the record in the event of wanting to write an autobiography, & partly to relieve my feelings, will have to be burned unread in the event of my death» (p. 279). From the body of letters that actually made it to the book, many are marred with strong-handed elisions — a letter dated 4 May 1957 is thrice elided, for instance. This letter could also have benefited from editorial addition: Larkin refers to Jones’ «earlier letter», but Jones’ letter is left unquoted (pp. 220-1). Furthermore, editorial deletions give rise to the problem of criteria: How does one rank trifles? Why would travel arrangements be considered less important than washing socks? Are there trifles at all?

At times, between trifle and trifle, poems and ideas for poems emerge. To the description of how a letter «from Bob» arrived simultaneously with Jones’, Larkin parenthetically adds: «(I think there is a poem to be made out of the letters that arrive together)» (p. 331). Moreover, the seemingly unimportant description of a train ride in a letter dated 3 August 1955 is the likely antecedent of «The Whitsun Weddings» (p. 170). The reader is left to wonder what the relationship between preserving life in poems and preserving life in letters is; a question which could only be fully answered by an unabridged set of letters.

The reader also learns that Larkin was «not sure» whether «Church Going» should be included in The Less Deceived (p. 137); and that, following Jones’ advice, Larkin replaced «litany» by «liturgy» in «Water» — although Larkin valued her judgement, he was not particularly enthused over this decision:

 

I rather wish I hadn’t listened to you on this: it seems to wreck the whole verse, it’s so heavy, as opposed to the dancingness of litany – liturgy anticipates images in the next line, too, the g sound. I don’t think the meaning is sufficient gain, as no one know what either word means anyway. [editorial deletion] (p. 416)

 

This passage also attests to Larkin’s remarkable ability of distancing himself from his own work, which results in numerous discussions of his own poems’ strengths and weaknesses throughout the Letters. In fact, it is hard to differentiate Larkin’s criticism of his own work from Larkin’s criticism of other writers. An avid reader, Larkin finished books «very quickly at top speed» and continually comments on them (and music, especially classical and jazz) to Jones (p. 202). Yeats, D. H. Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield are recurring subjects of discussion. Even when poetry or books are not in the spotlight, literary allusion is always present — a hotel room with a view is compared to «the fellow in Clough’s poem»; Larkin’s life «stretches before me (to use my favourite quotation) like an infinitely tiring staircase. One learns nothing and forgets nothing, like the Bourbons. It’s ghastly» (p. 421). From the tiring staircase of Larkin’s pessimism, the feeling that he was not writing enough stands out:

 

You know that my sole ambition, officially at any rate, was to write poems & novels, an activity I never found any difficulty in fulfilling between the (dangerous) ages of 17-24; I can’t very well ignore the fact that this seems to have died a natural death. On the other hand I feel regretful that what talents I have in this direction are not being used. Then again, if I am not going to produce anything in the literary line, the justification for my selfish life is removed – but since I go on living it, the suspicion arises that the writing existed to produce the life, & not vice versa. And the life it has very little to recommend it: I spend my days footling in a job I care nothing about, a curate among lady-clerks; I evade all responsibility, familial, professional, emotional, social, not even saving much money or helping my mother. I look around me & I see people getting on, or doing things, or bringing up children – and here I am in a kind of vacuum […] because to me to catch, render, preserve, pickle, distil or otherwise secure life-as-it-seemed for the future seems to me infinitely worth doing; but as I’m not, the entire morality of it collapses. (p. 107)

 

I find my life very scrappy: I write no letters or diary, let alone anything else, I am always tired or bored, I never get out (why don’t I live in the country?), I am completely selfish without achieving anything. And my time is taken up so easily! (p. 239)

 

Larkin partially blames his full-time job as a librarian: «[h]ow little our careers express what lies in us, and yet how much time they take up. It’s sad, really [editorial deletion]» (p. 150). This longing for more time to write — «I HAVE NO TIME» (p. 247) — often takes the form of jealousy of other people’s lives, namely Kingsley Amis’: «I’d certainly like to work 3 days a week six months a year, & THE REST NOTHING.» (p. 195) The culprit is not solely his time-consuming job, or even the numerous literary reviews he wrote — «I seem to write nothing but reviews these days» (p. 291) — but also himself: «I have a very deep sense of unhappiness, or something, that seems more convincing than literary success.» (p. 346) It was a life spent «hold[ing] everything off in order to write», without enough writing actually being done, the poet felt (p. 368).

«We are strange correspondents», Larkin wrote in a letter dated 26 May 1955, «each sitting in his tiny threadbare uncomfortable life, sending messages of hope and good cheer». Indeed, in his crusade against lost time, and for a life that held everything off for poetry, Larkin always had both all-present humour and all-present Monica Jones to get him through:

 

Oh, darling, I wish you were here & we could gossip and booze & back bite, & be cheerful and talk about great writers such as me and B. Potter & Shakespeare. (p. 384)

 

 

[1] The poem dedicated to Monica was not published in the poet’s lifetime. See Philip Larkin, The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), pp. 312-3 (p. 312).

[2] For an itemised list of the entire collection, see: http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/dept/scwmss/wmss/online/modern/larkin/larkin-jones.htm [accessed 20 September 2017].

[3] «Introduction», in The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, ed. by Ernest De Selincourt, 2nd ed., 8 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967-93), i.

[4] «[Keats’] letters», Eliot wrote, «are what letters ought to be; the fine things come unexpectedly, neither introduced nor shown out, but between trifle and trifle». T. S. Eliot, «Keats», in Keats: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by Walter Jackson Bate (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1965), pp. 11-12 (p.11).