Old favourites: Philip Larkin: Letters to Monica, edited by Anthony Thwaite

Lucy Sweeney Byrne on her favourite books

English poet Philip Larkin with his muse and mistress Monica Jones at Westminster Abbey, London in 1984. Photograph: Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty

English poet Philip Larkin with his muse and mistress Monica Jones at Westminster Abbey, London in 1984. Photograph: Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty

 

The relationship that developed over many years (and many letters) between Philip Larkin and Monica Jones could be described as a love story, or as a warning shot.

Reading the letters, one is overwhelmed by a sense of inertia. They were two people, faced with the unsolvable problem of their love, combined with his unwillingness to commit. Larkin recognised their tendency to inspire the worst in each other. He also prized above all else his solitude. Writing to Jones of the noise of a neighbour’s radio, he said:

“It really affects me strongly: a kind of spiritual claustrophobia – I can’t get out & can’t get away, there’s no way out, I can’t stand it! Oh hell.”

One imagines that this is not dissimilar to how Larkin viewed marriage. In another letter, he wrote: “I think what frightens me most about marriage is the passing-a-law-never-to-be-alone-again side of it.”

Certainly, their relationship was, in its own quiet way, fraught. Yet they were true companions. According to Anthony Thwaite’s introduction, between December 1946 and April 1984, Larkin wrote Jones more than 1,421 letters and 521 postcards, “about 7,500 surviving pages altogether”. They were two odd-bods, providing for one another an intimacy and a refuge from the often baffling and distressing world.

The letters themselves cover a range of topics and, like all truly enjoyable letters, are not invariably cerebral. Larkin discussed his poetry, jazz, books they loved. They discussed colleagues and other writers, (most notably Kingsley Amis, of whose writing Larkin thought little, but of whose success he was envious). Mostly, though, they complained about their lives, their work, his mother. They used pet names, drew pictures and, in effect, grew old together.

As Larkin said: “Life is first boredom, then fear”. If this is so, the letters between Larkin and Jones show two people attempting to relieve the symptoms of living for one another, offering companionship and love, or, as Larkin put it: “We are strange correspondents, each sitting in his tiny threadbare, uncomfortable life, sending messages of home and good cheer.”

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.