Sunday, 3 October 2010

More Larkin Letters...

Philip Larkin letters to Monica: highlights from 1950-4
The Telegraph's literary editor, Gaby Wood, selects her favourite moments from Philip Larkin's early letters to his lover Monica Jones from 1950-4.

02 Oct 2010

July 23 1950

12 Dixon Drive, Leicester

My dear Monica,

I have just been weighing my new Journal: it weighs 2 lbs 2 oz. The first little record of my schooldays weighed 3½ oz: how monstrously the ego has flowered since! Before I start it I am going to have My life and hard times stamped on the back. In gold.

Thanks very much for your letter […]. I’m sorry if my ponderous adumbrations(!) sounded melodramatic: all I meant is this: that our friendship, though successful, has been confined to a narrowish front, and if from that you’ve constructed an over-favourable image of me I do feel almost bound to say that to my mind you wd like me less – or think less of me – if you had had more opportunity of learning my general behaviour-patterns. […] And I say it in the spirit of one who points out the defects of a thing when praised for being, owning or doing it. Not in panic or in patronage. So there we are, and of course nothing is spoilt. […]

October 21 1950

Queen’s Chambers

Dear White-and-gold,

[…] I was interested by your D. H. Lawrence remarks: any judgments on him are to me like a stick incautiously poked into the cage of a tiger […]. He has always meant so much more to me than any other writer. I have adopted his conclusions so uncritically, that half the time I have been living in a sort of interchanging dream, where I am him & he is me. […] If I might add a word about your remarks, I think Lawrence was a complete egoist in the sense that he felt how beautiful life could be if he had his way. He’d never make the compromise required to settle in society. After all, we agree ourselves that work is quite boring & people quite tasteless, but I at any rate haven’t the courage or the energy to do anything about it. You can get away from the Acacias & the office if you have sufficient wits to earn money otherwise & sufficient resilience to do without the balms of familiarity & custom & the benefits of the herd. D.H.L. had both & I admire him enormously for it. […]

But I could – as you’re no doubt uneasily aware – go on about him for ever. Now it’s a quarter to 6 & I must cross the busy dusky road for supper.

October 28 1950

Queen’s Chambers, Belfast

Chère chatte sacrée

[…] Regarding poems, the fundamental reason I am shy of sending them is that they’re not very good. If I were sure of a generous ration of congratulations from you I’d send them like a shot […]. For all my nightly labours under my lamp looking out over the tramlines I have only done one since arriving.

January 13 1951

Queen’s Chambers, Belfast

Dearest Monica,

Well, what a blow, what a mean job – heavens, I do sympathise with you: talk about being shaken down like a cobweb! [Monica had been asked to leave her lodgings.] It’s quite the most unpleasant thing I have heard of for a long time. […] The keenest memory of your room – not so much as a room but as a mise-en-scène – I have is on the day of the Evans wedding. You boiled me an egg. I fetched your spray. That day ranks very clearly in my mind. […] The other time I remember your room is the tea-time when I fetched in some logs. That must have been since 1948. It would be in my journal somewhere: it was a very cosy hour or two. […]

May 23 1951

Queen’s Chambers, Leicester [sic]

Dearest Monica –

I can neither stand, sit nor lie, think, feel or intuit – the toothache with which I closed my last letter has blossomed & this is the morning of the second day looked at through the red spectacles of pain. […]

I think what I did mean about not having talked much was that I felt we were not making much contact – plenty of talk, in fact, but almost an increasing strangeness. I feel I am not good at making contacts anyway. Not that I’m awkward or reserved … You’d understand better what I mean if I could describe the progress of my misengagement [to Ruth Bowman, Larkin’s first serious girlfriend; they were “unofficially” engaged between May 1948 and 1950] – not that I want to describe it – but I found I was able to develop simultaneously what would pass for friendship & love along with a more definite detachment than ever before. Not that I acted insincerely: it was the first time I have had anyone to please and I found I enjoyed it, but the affair – or my side of it – moved if I pushed it, so to speak; if I made no effort it didn’t move. I thought that a point would come when the partition between myself and the whole situation would break down and I should be carried away by it, seeing the point of everything. It didn’t; all I felt was that I’d irretrievably committed myself to the other side of the glass while being forced to remain separate. That wd have been dreadful, a kind of waking death, so I had to uncommit myself, which wasn’t pleasant either, except that fundamentally I was getting what I wanted, despite all my crocodile tears & poems […]. At any rate, I feel very much back in my shell. My nature, perhaps, is rather like a spring – it can be stretched out straight, but when released leaps back into a coil. […] You surely can’t regard my sealed-off ineffectualities as anything but failure, or think that I regard them as anything but failure.

Brrr! Comes that chilly backwash that always succeeds talking about oneself. Like Pernod, it has the quickest lift, but it drops you as far. Let’s talk about something else. […]

Bed now. I think it is raining. My teeth are stirring, uneasily.

Much love


June 27 1951

Queen’s Chambers, Belfast

Dearest M.,

Many thanks for your long letter – it is a wonder, this effortless writing of 14 pages: dammed if I can do it. It takes me ages to write anything: even a simple letter goes to the typists scored over like a MS of G. Flaubert. […]

You must not mind if I don’t write much. I mean I write home once a week, & other letters as they arise – about one a week – it is really fantastic to write twice to you from the point of view of output – though that sounds a shade unchivalrous. […]

Do not think I neglected your enquiry about your clothes! But I honestly should not say anything about the way you dress. You have style, and that is sufficient: it would be quite unwarrantable for me to suggest you alter anything. I can only speak of general effects: beware of too-tightly done hair, or tight jersey and skirt too often. It looks very neat and business-like, but after a while it seems like a never-relaxed tension, as if you had no softness or luxuriance to fall back on, and that insensibly tires the observer. This sounds impossibly precious! But it is all I can say. You know far more than I of the possibilities of fashion & cut & material: I can only try to describe the “psychic effect”. And that is probably a lot of nonsense. […]

August 26 1951

7, College Park East, Belfast

Dearest Monica,

A putty-coloured fit of torpor on me this weekend – the sinful sort, the deadly sin. Truth is that my holiday lasts just about a fortnight, then I fall backwards … So any hint of spinelessness will be due to that. I sit in my room like Miss Havisham, about whom I have been reading this week. Better the Dickens you know than the Dickens you don’t know – on the whole I enjoyed it. But I should like to say something about this “irrepressible vitality”, this “throwing a fresh handful of characters on the fire when it burns low”, in fact the whole Dickens method – it strikes me as being less ebullient, creative, vital, than hectic, nervy, panic-stricken. If he were a person I should say “You don’t have to entertain me, you know. I’m quite happy just sitting here”. This jerking of your attention, with queer names, queer characters, aggressive rhythms, piling on adjectives – seems to me to betray basic insecurity in his relation with the reader. How serenely Trollope, for instance, compares. I say in all seriousness that, say what you like about Dickens as an entertainer, he cannot be considered as a real writer at all; not a real novelist. His is the garish gaslit melodramatic barn (writing that phrase makes me wonder if I’m right!) where the yokels gape: outside is the calm measureless world, where the characters of Eliot, Trollope, Austen, Hardy (most of them) and Lawrence (some of them) have their being. However, as I say, I enjoyed much of Great Expectations & may try another soon. […]

October 15 1951

c/o The Library,

Queen’s University, Belfast


[…] Reflections on cooking: what can I do with a Pyrex dish & top? Can I cook meat in it? […] I grilled some chops very well, I thought, but I had to keep one for today, & it was a bit tasteless warmed up. My potatoes unwreathed themselves like something at a seance and the Spanish onion went on boiling & boiling until that had to be kept until today too, & that was pretty tasteless. However, it seems so miraculous to be eating anything at all that I don’t grumble. Not much, anyway. […]

November 1 1951

30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast

[…] I think – though of course I am all for free love, advanced schools, & so on – someone might do a little research on some of the inherent qualities of sex – its cruelty, its bullyingness, for instance. It seems to me that bending someone else to your will is the very stuff of sex, by force or neglect if you are male, by spitefulness or nagging or scenes if you are female. And what’s more, both sides would sooner have it that way than not at all. I wouldn’t. And I suspect that means not that I can enjoy sex in my own quiet way but that I can’t enjoy it at all. It’s like rugby football: either you like kicking & being kicked, or your soul cringes away from the whole affair. […]

July 8 1952

30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast


Slowly life returns to normal. Slowly fatigue passes from the bones & sinews. The lungs breathe normally again. The light goes off at 11.55 p.m. Meals are taken at customary times. I can even consider mending & cleaning again. No, there is no one like our K. [Kingsley Amis, who had been to stay] – mister-my-friend – for prostration & etiolation: no one like him for irritating me either: why doesn’t he carry a nail file? a fountain pen? notepaper? stamps? since he appears to need these things daily? Well, well. […]

September 11 1952

30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast


[…] I’m just finishing a course of revising Kingsley’s novel [which would become Lucky Jim, and contain an unflattering fictionalised portrait of Monica] – not word for word, but telling him what I think is wrong with it, & scribbling rude comments in the margin. He is prepared to go to endless trouble, & I think if he could get it accepted he’d die happy, but he has little instinct for writing once he gets outside a sentence. And he has no idea how people talk: in the margin I scribble repeatedly “People don’t talk like this”, “Ladies don’t use words like this” […] It is however full of “laughs”, and would amuse many people – not unlike Anthony Powell. […]

October 9 1952

30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast

[…] I really am going to meet Forster: I thought I shouldn’t, but apparently the old boy E.M.F. is staying with remembered my name & I am bid to John Hewitt’s at 8 tomorrow. Shall I ask him if he’s a homo? It’s the only thing I really want to know about him, you see. I don’t even care why he packed up writing.

Dear, I must seem very pompous & huffy, with my portentous hints and veiled criticisms of you, & I wonder you are so patient. But for all that, I do want to urge you, with all love & kindness, to think about how much you say & how you say it. I’d even go so far as to make 3 rules: One, Never say more than two sentences, or very rarely three, without waiting for an answer or comment from whoever you’re talking to; Two, abandon altogether your harsh didactic voice, & use only the soft musical one (except in special cases); & Three, don’t do more than glance at your interlocutor (wrong word?) once or twice while speaking. You’re getting a habit of boring your face up or round into the features of your listener – don’t do it! It’s most trying. You notice I don’t say anything about what you say – I don’t mind about that – these simple points of technique are what I want to urge on you, because I’ve thought about it for ages & finally’ve decided that my feelings are abstractly just & not a personal foible. I think you’d get on much better all round if you took yourself in hand in this direction. […] Oh dear, how rude & embarrassing all this is. I write it instead of saying it, as I suppose I ought, because I really don’t think I could say it out loud to you, unless drunk.

Please don’t mind what I say. […] Anyway. To things pleasanter. […]

October 23 1952

30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast

[Monica feared, incorrectly, that she was pregnant, and had written to Larkin to say so.] I’m glad you wrote – worries are always better shared, especially such formidable ones; but really, I must say I think the chances are extremely slender & remote of there being anything in the air. To my certain knowledge I was never within a mile of endangering you, and it’s only a disinclination to tempt fate & the fact that I don’t know much about such things except generally that prevents me from saying flatly that it’s out of the question – you do understand that I personally think it is. I’m not surprised you feel sick, with all the worry & gins and salts. Surely it’s not unknown to miss a time? especially if you are worrying about missing a time?

Now please don’t torment yourself any more: just go on ordinarily, & give up all these specifics & things. I’m sure it’s quite unnecessary. Keep me posted, of course. […]

1 comment:

  1. These letters demonstrate that Mr. Larkin clearly did have moments when he was not angry and mean. Positive? Don't push it.