Letters to Monica

A quarter of a century dead, the posthumous Philip Larkin seems far more prolific than his flesh-and-blood original. Since his death in December 1985, there has been a Collected Poems, an Early Poems and Juvenilia, a Selected Letters, Trouble at Willow Gables, the roguishly Sapphic girls' school spoofs from the 1940s, and Further Requirements, a meaty collection of "interviews, broadcasts, statements and book reviews". And this is to ignore such essential contributions to Larkin studies as Andrew Motion's authorised life (1993) and Richard Bradford's critical biography, First Boredom, Then Fear (2005). To the activities of Bloomsbury Corp (shares today in precipitous decline) and Lawrence & Co (trading on past glories) can now be added Larkin Industries: credit good; assets (see above) appreciating; current CEO, Anthony Thwaite, in no mood to relinquish the reins.

To a certain kind of critic - a Tom Paulin or a Lisa Jardine - all this is evidence of a morbid obsession on the part of contemporary Eng lit with a kind of writing or frame of mind that would be better ignored, and whose worst excesses are an affront to civilised values. To another kind - one more willing to regard Larkin as a creature of his time - it offers a route into a strain of Englishness whose effect on postwar literary culture is impossible to overestimate. If, as Evelyn Waugh once complained, W H Auden, Stephen Spender et al "ganged up" and captured the 1930s, the same is true of Kingsley Amis, Larkin and their satellites 20 years later. The index of Dominic Sandbrook's Never Had It So Good, which covers the years 1956-63, contains over a hundred references to them. Curiously, the most reliable guides to the Attlee-Wilson stretch of our postwar history turn out to be a Humberside hermit and a skirt-chasing comic novelist.

It was Anthony Powell, brooding over the Selected Letters (in which he found himself described as "the horse-faced dwarf"), who noted: "All Larkin's life was lived as a provincial librarian, so that perhaps inevitably his point of view, notwithstanding his gifts, was 'provincial'." Letters to Monica, consequently, can be read as a series of scenes from provincial life, to borrow the title of that groundbreaking 1950 novel by William Cooper - like Powell, a writer to whom Larkin owed rather a lot but was, in the end, keener on mocking. Its angst is the pulse of the overloud radio, its pleasures the Sunday-afternoon bike ride to Beverley and mid-evening cuisine-for-one ("I grilled some chops very well, I thought"). Nothing wrong with provincialism, naturally: it gave us George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell and, more recently, Alan Sillitoe, and no writer ever suffered in the public imagination for being shown up as "ordinary". Here, on the other hand, it becomes a minutely particularised special subject, a PhD to last a lifetime, and - significantly - a part of the almost mythological view that Larkin took of himself as both poet and human being.

Larkin first met Monica Jones, his exact contemporary, at the University of Leicester in 1946. Their relationship survived his transfers to Belfast (1950) and Hull (1955) and continued until his death. The almost 40 years' worth of letters, sent out from such rookeries as 30 Elmwood Avenue, Belfast, and 200 Hallgate, Cottingham, E Yorks, are touchingly affectionate, but also self-aware and self-protecting. One knows that Larkin is never going to marry her ("To me the strain would be the constant lack of solitude"), however much she might want it, and one suspects that he preferred to keep her at a distance. Their brief cohabitation (1983-85) was prompted by her ill-health. Larkin thought they were "much alike, but not exactly complementary", yet the evidence suggests a towering stack of shared interests. Each was reticent, buttoned-up, fond of animals, faintly hysterical and horribly fearful, confiding while remaining deeply suspicious of what the other might get up to behind the absent partner's back, in Monica's case with very good reason.

Life itself often seemed to stop yards from the table. An unstifled cough in the room beneath his digs - he became a homeowner at the ripe age of 52 - leaves Larkin winded with fury. The prospect of changing his address worries him profoundly ("Oh dear, I was considerably flustered by the whole business . . ."). Some of this, perhaps, can be taken with a pinch of salt. After all, six-figure budgets of the kind Larkin routinely administered at the University of Hull's Brynmor Jones Library don't manage themselves. There is a staginess about some of the self-diagnosis ("a sense of psychic cripplehood"), but also an absolute matter-of-fact tone about the implications ("someone in whom desires are not strong enough to break shells of convention"). Larkin is easily moved (often, for example, reduced to tears by pictures of animals), but he is rarely pushed in the direction of movement.

Meanwhile, there are poems being written, books read and reviews planned: a whole literary life inching into view. If, as tenant, lover or common-room colleague, Larkin was the worst kind of quietist - the unquiet kind, that is - as a writer he was a tough customer, with a business sense of which his father, the Coventry city treasurer, undoubtedly would have approved. Some of the funniest letters offer shrewd appraisals of such fellow workers in the vineyard as F R Leavis ("the ideas rattling in him like peas"), Iris Murdoch ("the look of a plump, unhappy schoolgirl") and Angus Wilson ("a small, bunchy man looking every minute of his 60 years (he is 49)"). All this takes us back, inevitably, to Larkin's stance, the cultural vantage point from which he surveyed the Fifties and Sixties.

“I am a leaner, a stopper, an analyst, a discourager, a scoffer," he wrote of his duties as a librarian. The same could be said of his literary tastes. Like Amis, whose Princeton students in the late Sixties remembered him for being as much a closer-off as an opener-out, Larkin led an aesthetic life that sometimes seems to consist in a series of retreats, gross constrictions, toes dipped and hastily withdrawn. Not all postwar literary life was like this. John Lucas's memoir of England in the Fifties, Next Year Will Be Better, exults in the new wave of colonising Americana as represented by Jack Kerouac, Lionel Trilling and J D Salinger. Larkin, by contrast, was still working out why he preferred Hardy to Yeats. Much of this timorousness, you infer, was willed, part of the self-mythologising process that as early as 1955 was invoking the spectre of the future biographer.

“I feel like a bald vulture sitting on a crag, while the broad tide of human life goes further and further out," he claimed in 1951. Among other things, Letters to Monica, expertly assembled by the reliable Thwaite, is a mark of the poet's strenuous efforts to deny himself something that most writers are anxious to embrace: the room to manoeuvre. The poems, naturally, are a triumphant exercise in defying your limitations, but it is remarkable how many of these checkpoints and barriers - all the shadowy passport controls and machine-gun nests of Larkinland - turn out to have been self-imposed.

Letters to Monica
Philip Larkin, edited by Anthony Thwaite
Faber & Faber, 475pp, £22.50

D J Taylor's most recent novel is "At the Chime of a City Clock" (Constable, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, What a carve up!