Book of the week: Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me
John Sutherland’s ‘eye-opening’ book about the poet and his long-term girlfriend
The story of Philip Larkin has been told many times, said John Carey in The Sunday Times. John Sutherland’s new book, however, is “singular” in focusing on the poet’s long-term girlfriend, Monica Jones. The pair met at Leicester University in the mid-1940s. She was a young lecturer; he, the assistant librarian. They maintained their relationship for the next four decades, though for most of that time Larkin was living in Hull, and was having relationships with other women. He carefully rationed their time together: “they had a fortnight’s holiday each summer, an annual visit to some great cathedral, and three days watching a Test match at Lord’s”.
Jones has often been “defamed” by writers: Kingsley Amis called her a “grim old bag” and depicted her as the harpy-like Margaret Peel in Lucky Jim; Christopher Hitchens described her as “frigid, drab and hysterical”. Yet Sutherland, who got to know her while a student at Leicester in the 1960s, “liked and admired her” – and in this “eye-opening” book, an engaging blend of biography and memoir, his old tutor “comes alive”.
Sutherland seems to have begun this book hoping to rescue Jones from the “comparative neglect in which she’s languished”, said Andrew Motion in The Spectator. He emphasises her charisma (she regularly took favourite students to the pub) and theatrical lecturing style – when talking about Macbeth, she would dress in tartan. But as he trawled through her voluminous correspondence, he was shocked by what he discovered. Jones, like Larkin, was a virulent racist and anti-Semite who “voted for the BNP on at least one occasion”. Her letters, Sutherland notes, were full of “foul-mouthed lapses, shared misogyny and acidic streams of downright nastiness”. This book, though “ramshackle and repetitive”, provides a compellingly intimate portrait.
If Jones became embittered, you could hardly blame her, said James Marriott in The Times. Her relationship with Larkin, as this “bleak but convincing book” demonstrates, “slowly destroyed” her life. For decades, she subsisted on “whatever pathetic crumbs of affection” he cared to toss her – and her resulting unhappiness was “wild and uncontrolled”. The poet, it’s true, could be “blithely cruel, as well as cowardly and muddled”, said Rachel Cooke in The Observer. But to suggest, as Sutherland does, that he “coercively controlled” Jones is taking it too far. Ultimately, she believed life was with better with him than without him – “she preferred half a loaf than no bread at all”.
W&N 288pp £20; The Week Bookshop £15.99
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