A loving, loyal friend or a misogynist monster – which was the real Larkin?
Larkin's poems cultivate solitude, withdrawal, "the wish to be alone". His persona is that of an awkward bachelor, too fond of his own company to crave other people's, too old (even when young) to take advantage of the sexual revolution, too conscious of "the sure extinction we travel to" to have fun. Even casual readers, let alone those who knew the man personally, must have realised this misanthropy was a performance – a poet playing at being his gloomiest self. Still, few were prepared for the picture of Larkin that emerged in his Selected Letters, edited by Anthony Thwaite in 1992, and in Andrew Motion's biography the following year. It wasn't just the number of women he was involved with that came as a shock (at one point, towards the end of his life, three at once), but the illiberal views privately expressed to friends on everything from immigration to the awfulness of children. "I can't believe I am so much more unpleasant than everyone else," Larkin wrote, but in bleak moments he did believe it and after the biography and letters even former admirers started believing it too.
Thwaite and Motion were close friends of Larkin as well as his literary executors; they didn't see why revealing the man should diminish the reputation of the poet. The letters are hugely enjoyable and the biography is magisterial, all the more so when you consider how soon after Larkin's death it appeared. But two decades on, with a great deal of other Larkin material having since appeared (poems, letters, juvenilia, fictional pastiches), there's no doubt that a corrective is needed before the myth of Larkin as monster (misogynist, racist, porn addict, gin-swilling Thatcherite bigot) hardens into fact.
This is where James Booth comes in. His Larkin – the man he knew for 17 years at Hull University – was Mr Nice not Mr Nasty: attentive to friends, loyal to his women, kind to animals and even rather fond of children. "All those who were close to him remember him with affection and feel privileged to have known him," he writes, in the tone of a eulogist, and – accentuating the positive – takes us briskly through the life (middle-class Coventry childhood, Oxford in wartime, first library job in Wellington, escape to Belfast and return to Hull, where he remained till his death), carefully scrutinising poems for their own sake as well as for their emotional insights.
Booth doesn't claim to offer much new material, but one woman in Larkin's life comes to the fore: not Monica, Maeve, Patsy, Ruth, Winifred or Betty (his relationships with whom are by now well-known) but Eva, his mother. None of the letters he wrote to her twice weekly, 4,000 in total, were included in Thwaite's selection, but Booth quotes a few, and though their tone is mostly dutiful ("Dearest Mop", "Dearest Old Creature", etc) sometimes it's more. "We must go again up that road to the wood, where we found the scarlet toadstool, & listen to the wind in the trees," he writes in one, as though to a lover. Larkin was only 25 when his father Sydney died, whereas Eva hung on, in failing health and through spells of clinical depression (including admission to a mental hospital for electric shock treatment), for three more decades. Feeling responsible for her made him resentful: he worried he'd not get free till he was 60 ("three years before cancer starts"), and he wasn't far wrong. But Eva inspired one of his most moving poems, "Love Songs in Age", as well one of the bleakest, "The Old Fools", and was instrumental in his finishing "The Building" (a week after she went into a nursing home) and "Aubade" (a week after she died).
Monica Jones held Eva partly responsible for Larkin's failure to commit himself to marriage. Few other women would have stuck out their long-distance relationship or his falling in love with a younger rival, but Booth does his best to vindicate Larkin. There's no requirement for poets to be virtuous, he says, but where virtue is at issue and seemingly lacking he manages to find it. When Monica's father dies, for instance, and Larkin fails to offer her emotional support, Booth explains that this is because he's "in danger of being overwhelmed by her grief. Loyalty was his strongest instinct, and his inability to console Monica at this time distressed him deeply." Well maybe. Later, when Larkin is shuttling between Maeve Brennan and Monica, Booth concludes that his motive is "kindness" and speculates that they "were taking advantage of Philip, rather than he taking advantage of them. He was the victim of the breadth and generosity of his sensibility and the narrowness of theirs."
Here Booth is the victim of his generosity. However tangled these relationships, and whatever pain they brought him, Larkin was always the dominant partner, jealously guarding his own space and never quite escaping what he called his "monstrous infantile shell of egotism". This isn't to say that his feelings didn't run deep. But he believed that "giving in" to a woman "spells death to perception and the desire to express, as well as the ability". It's no coincidence that the most overused term in Booth's book is "misogamy", hatred of marriage. "I do feel terrible about our being 40 & unmarried", he writes, after a decade and a half of keeping Monica at bay. Later, when she suffers a nervous collapse because of his vacillations, he writes: "I feel quite awful, as if I had, well, kicked something to death." The abject apologies allow him to alleviate guilt while going on exactly as before.
Booth is tough on Monica: "a woman with her limitations could not but disappoint and bore him", he says, and holds her responsible for some of the feebler choices in his Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse. Kingsley Amis is another malign influence, a shallow showoff who "encouraged Philip to follow his own example of shameless promiscuity" and who failed only because Larkin's "empathy with and respect for women made him less aggressive than Amis in the pursuit of sexual conquest". Harsh on Amis, Booth is also less than fair to Ted Hughes, whose poetry is said to attribute "human pride, guilt and deviousness" to animals, whereas Larkin's "respects" (that word again) their "non-human otherness". It's true that Larkin writes with great tenderness about animals. He even enlists his women into their world through the use of pet names: Monica is a rabbit, Maeve a mouse, Patsy a honey bear, Betty an alligator. The accompanying drawings in letters are charming, but the pet names are indicative of where he likes to keep these women, at a cosy remove.
Booth is stalwart in defending Larkin against charges of political incorrectness, highlighting his youthful leftist sympathies, his desire to escape "heterosexual patriarchy", his denunciation of racism in jazz reviews, his aversion to the Orange marches he witnessed in Belfast ("staggering dullness … & stupefying hypocrisy") and the relative innocuousness of his taste in porn (part of his collection was kept in a university ring binder with the words "Staff Handbook" on the spine). The points are well made, but an air of desperation creeps in: the book's so partisan, so Hull-centric, so anxious to present Larkin as decent and companionable (an inspiring boss, a genial colleague, a paid-up member of the RSPCA), it underplays his troubled genius. "I think I am mad and odd," he once wrote to Monica, and he was indeed madder and odder than Booth finds it prudent to admit.
Luckily, he doesn't lose sight of the savage comic brilliance of Larkin's epigrams, whether on life ("life is slow motion dying"), sex ("almost as much trouble as standing for parliament", "like asking someone else to blow your nose for you") or his own appearance ("an egg sculpted in lard, with goggles on"). Luckily too, he offers some astute commentary on the poems, demonstrating that Larkin's ambition to tackle the themes of "Life, Death, Time, Love, and Scenery in such a manner as would render further attention to them by other poets superfluous" was entirely in earnest, however jokily expressed. Achieving perfection was a slow process – "Aubade" took three years, "Love Again" four – and his lack of productivity in later years made Larkin distraught: poetry had abandoned him, he said, and all he had was a fucked-up life. Booth doesn't see it that way. He's especially good on the big Keatsian odes and the subtlety of their rhyme schemes. He also shows how if Larkin used a key word once (whether the simple "unsatisfactory", the neologistic "immensements" or the demotic "wanking"), he didn't use it again.
The critical analysis is not without its agenda. Booth's emphasis on Larkin's indebtedness to French symbolism, and his talk of ellipses, anacruses and intertextuality spring from an urge to present his subject as a European modernist rather than a little Englander: Larquin not Larkin. There's a lot of numerology, too – "Face" (or "faces") occurs, as noun or verb, 48 times in Larkin's poetry after 1945 – and less statistic-minded readers may wonder how helpful this is as proof of Larkin's greatness. Still, Booth's diligence is unquestionable and even readers who think they know the poems will see nuances they had previously missed.
Despite the glut of recent years, there may yet be more Larkin to come. The letters he wrote to his friend Bruce Montgomery are embargoed in the Bodleian till 2035. His relationship with his sister Kitty remains little explored. And "Larkin's Vision: the drawings and photographs" is a PhD waiting to be written. But Booth's supplement to Andrew Motion's biography – the light to his shadow – should render further attention by biographers superfluous for several years.