Monday, 25 July 2011
Jean Hartley RIP
Co-founder of the Marvell Press, an early publisher of Philip Larkin's poems
Anthony Thwaite guardian.co.uk
Thursday 21 July 2011 18.22
Jean Hartley was half of the tiny firm that published the first mature book of poems by the best poet of the age. Philip Larkin's The Less Deceived was brought out in 1955 by the Marvell Press, run by Jean, who has died aged 78, and her husband, George, from their two-up, two-down house in Hessle, on the outskirts of Hull. The book instantly made Larkin's reputation.
A few years earlier, the Hartleys had started the literary magazine Listen on the proceeds of Jean's accumulated child allowance. She was the "business manager", which meant that she did most of the work while George was out and about scouting for "contacts". The Marvell Press was so named partly because of the 17th-century poet Andrew Marvell's connection with Hull, partly because they realised it would be a marvel if the thing worked.
It did work, and Jean herself was a remarkable woman. She was born in the heart of Hull's fishing community. Her father, Billy Holland, was a foundry worker. In the early months of the second world war, Jean was briefly evacuated to North Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. She went on to win a scholarship to Thoresby high school, in Hull, and found, at the age of 14, that she had to choose one of the three vocational courses offered. She chose "commercial", but left after only a year. Her first job was as a shorthand typist with a small firm of accountants, where she was paid £1 a week.
She already had a hunger for serious reading, and spent part of her first week's wages on a book of poems by Edith Sitwell. It "did not stand the test of time. I was more selective thereafter." At the age of 17, dallying with a boy called Peter, who purported to be a poet, she became pregnant. Jean was sent to a strict but kindly Anglican home for unmarried mothers. When she returned to Hull, she took up with an earlier bohemian acquaintance, George Hartley, who was now a shoe salesman. He courted her with flowers stolen from local gardens. Before long, pregnant again, she married George.
In her memoir, Philip Larkin, The Marvell Press and Me (1989), Jean observed: "Hindsight tells me I should have been reading Dr Marie Stopes rather than Ernest Dowson." But she and George got the first issue of Listen out at the same time that Jean's second daughter was born.
The magazine began to thrive ("critically at any rate"), with a range of contributors that broadly represented what was collectively labelled "The Movement" – Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, Donald Davie, John Wain, and also, in almost every issue, Larkin. There followed The Less Deceived, first published with a list of 120 subscribers. (The current dealers' value of this book is about £500.) Jean was busy packing copies, rushing to the post office, keeping a house and family, while George went back to the local art college.
By 1967, George had acquired a teaching certificate and was teaching at a local boys' school. Jean decided to pack in her secretarial job, and take some O- and A-levels. Soon she was encouraged to apply for university. Feeling too embarrassed to ask Larkin for a reference, she consulted him over whether she should try Richard Hoggart (who, much earlier, had taught her on some Workers' Educational Association courses) or CB Cox, to which he replied: "Why not let me do one for you? I've known you long enough. Of course you'll need an UCCA form. UCCA! God's gift to limerick writers." Jean was touched that Larkin came round after she had taken each of the three A-level English literature papers, to see how she had done and talk about the questions.
By the summer of 1968, Jean found that life with George had become unendurable, so she moved out with the girls. They found an attic flat, where they lived for three years while Jean was an undergraduate. At the beginning of this course, Larkin told her: "I expect you'll be hard-up living on a grant. I opened a book account for my niece when she went to university. Why don't I do the same for you?"
Jean did well at Hull University and, after graduating in 1972, was accepted to read for a BPhil degree. Needing money while studying, she managed to get a job teaching English in "a smart, purpose-built girls comprehensive" – her old school, Thoresby, rebuilt and now called Amy Johnson school, after the Hull aviator. Later she taught at the local college of education.
After Larkin's death in 1985, Jean was instrumental in setting up the Philip Larkin Society, and for a time edited its journal, About Larkin. She had warm relationships with several women who had been close to Larkin: Ruth Siverns (nee Bowman), Winifred Dawson (nee Arnott) and Maeve Brennan. In 1995 she published the very useful guide Philip Larkin's Hull and East Yorkshire. She was also a gifted painter and potter.
In 2010 Hartley's memoir was reissued by Faber Finds and Hull Truck theatre presented a stage adaptation, Wrong Beginnings, by David Pattison, as part of the events commemorating the 25th anniversary of Larkin's death. Earlier this year Hartley was awarded an honorary DLitt by Hull University, in response to which she said, of herself and her fellow mature students: "We all learned, like the hairdresser heroine of Educating Rita, that we too could sing a different tune."
After her separation from George, Jean never received any money from The Less Deceived. In her last years and final illness she was fortunate to have the love and support of her daughters, Alison and Laurien, and her granddaughter, Sarah, who survive her.
• Jean Hartley, publisher and writer, born 27 April 1933; died 18 July 2011