Trouble at Willow Gables and Other Fictions
Philip Larkin. Edited by James Booth Faber and Fab
Around the time of his 60th birthday, Philip Larkin, that notoriously private poet, was extensively feted, in two television programmes and a festschrift. He took this in his lugubrious stride, but wrote to Ann Thwaite: "Just as it takes chaps twenty years to grasp you've started writing, no doubt it'll take 'em twenty years to grasp that I've stopped." Twenty years later, with Larkin long dead, another volume of his writing emerges. His literary executors, Anthony Thwaite and Andrew Motion, along with Faber and Faber and the Philip Larkin Society, are helping us not to grasp that Larkin in effect stopped writing in 1974. Edited by James Booth, Trouble at Willow Gables and Other Fictions is a selection of Larkin's previously unpublished fiction - unpublished largely because it consisted of jeux d'esprit, unfinished drafts, plot summaries and scraps from notebooks. Even so, this is only a selection: there are some more short stories still to come, at the very least.
Larkin's schoolgirl fiction - the short novel Trouble at Willow Gables and the aborted novel Michaelmas Term at St Bride's, in which the Willow Gables girls are all at Oxford together - has already received a good decade's worth of critical attention (most notably, M W Rowe's excellent article in James Booth's New Larkins for Old, which argues that it helped Larkin through a period of writer's block during and after his Finals). It has also excited periodic media attention, presumably because the lesbianism and corporal punishment in the stories chime with Larkin's own taste in pornography. Booth smartly refers to a letter to Robert Conquest from 1959: "Yes, I got the pictures - whacko. I admired the pains-taking realism of it - I mean, the teacher did really look like a teacher, & I greatly appreciated the school-like electric bell on the wall. The action and standard of definition left something to be desired - I'll leave you to guess what."
Anyone seeking pornography in the school stories, however, will also find that "the action and standard of definition" leave something to be desired: the lesbianism is not graphic, the corporal punishment only violently sadistic in a couple of much-quoted and decontextualised epi-sodes. They are charmingly innocent for the most part, especially when compared with the reality of boarding-school life.
Yet they are appreciably "painstaking". They are written as if by an alter ego, Brunette Coleman, for whom Larkin also provided a fictional memoir, a volume of Betjemanesque and Baudelairean poems ("Sugar and Spice") and an essay on girls' school stories called "What Are We Writing For?", all published here. This metafictional frame (and the po-mo self-referentiality with which the St Bride's story disintegrates) adds texture to what would otherwise be spiced-up pastiche. Blended with gently adult themes and in-crowd allusions (Larkin's fellow undergraduates Kingsley Amis and Diana Gollancz are among those "named" in the stories), not to mention the amusingly elevated use of epigraphs and allusions, the stories are entertaining and intriguing for readers familiar with their background and with the genre.
What is evoked - deliberately and playfully - is adolescent homoeroticism. Larkin himself had homosexual crushes when at Oxford, just as boys and girls at boarding schools often do (Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise contains an exemplary account of such a passion). Larkin even wrote, buffoonishly, of entering a "lesbian phase" at one point, and critics have rightly touched on his identification with and revulsion from the feminine, just as Larkin himself worried at these questions in various ways, via D H Lawrence, or John Layard, a cranky psychologist. (Larkin was so enthused by the latter's lectures that he later kept a dream diary for a while, though Layard becomes a lampooned figure, "John Barnyard", in St Bride's: Larkin's enthusiasm for psychoanalysis swiftly became an outright and lifelong hostility - "that crummy textbook stuff from Freshman Psych" - which psychoanalysts might see as fearful repression and denial, and others might see as sturdy common sense.)
The Brunette Coleman material was, in the end, put to productive use, stripped of its campness, in Larkin's first published novel, Jill, whose protagonist also invents a schoolgirl. The other material - various drafts of unfinished novels, including a sub-Lawrentian novel about Birmingham and marriage, and a coma-inducing realist narrative about university politics - is soul-crushingly boring (though it does display many of the Larkin attitudes with which we are already unhappily familiar). Booth even quotes Ruth Bowman (Larkin's ex-fiancee in the 1940s) to this effect: "I never felt that he was a novelist, in spite of his own belief to the contrary. Even at the time of their publication, I secretly found Jill trivial and A Girl in Winter heavygoing, but they were both better than 'Wagstaff' was going to be, judging from the fragment."
This is really a book for the serious collector of all things Larkin. The descriptions of the manuscripts - their sizes, materials, typography and orthography - are detailed beyond utility, though have their own odd amusement value: ". . . the remainder of the page being occupied by two caricatures of male heads . . . and 21 sloping versions of 'Larkin', four of them in boxes. There are also 11 games of noughts and crosses of various sizes." Three of the four slim volumes of poetry that Larkin did choose to publish in his lifetime are the sole reason anyone reads his novels, reviews, juvenilia and wastepaper these days. Whether the value of those poems will be slowly drowned out by these offcuts and biographical trivia, or whether they become "smaller and clearer as the years go by", is anyone's guess. The publication of Larkin's doodles cannot be far off.
Robert Potts is co-editor of Poetry Review