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
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.”