The joys and misery of Monica

This is not only an objective biography by a distinguished academic, it is also a warm personal memoir


This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Early in his fascinating biography, John Sutherland relates that Monica Jones, on first seeing Philip Larkin in Leicester University College, was heard to say that he looked “like a snorer”. Sutherland suggests, plausibly, that this was a mishearing for “schnorrer” — slang Yiddish for worthless Jew — and that “Monica was casually anti-Semitic in her conversation”.

Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me by John Sutherland, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20

Within a matter of months the young novelist had embarked on A New World Symphony, focused on an unpleasantly anti-Semitic provincial lecturer, Augusta, with bad teeth and a pulsing vein at her temple.

Larkin’s plans for the later part of the new novel show that the aloof, vulnerable, Augusta was to throw off her prejudices and be transported by Mrs Klein, a Jewish colleague whose husband had been killed by the Nazis, to the New World where she was to be welcomed by a family of “wonderful loving Yanks”.

The novel seems designed as a moral lesson for Monica as well as a fantasy of her escape from dreary Leicester, though characteristically Larkin did not reveal its story to her, or to anyone. When he finally abandoned it in 1953 he commented to his friend, Patsy Strang, that any continuation would inevitably be “largely an attack on Monica”.

Instead, Monica Jones became a literary legend through an even more hostile fictional version. Kingsley Amis’s Margaret Peel in Lucky Jim (1954) has none of the promised complexity of Augusta. Amis had, it seems, not yet met Monica, and her characterisation was supplied by Larkin. Sutherland’s summary of the novel’s climax deftly catches its coarser, masculine version of the escape from provincial dullness in Larkin’s novel: “But finally Jim escapes the harpy, and her sub-Oxonian, redbrick slum with a beautiful popsy and the prospect of lots and lots of dosh in the City of London.” Comic euphoria and sexism carry the reader over the clichés and caricatures.

Sutherland is the first scholar to have access to the 54 boxes in the Bodleian of Monica’s letters to Larkin

By the time Sutherland became a student in Leicester in 1960, “‘Margaret Peel’ was sniggered about by every knowing student” on the campus. The piquancy of her fictional persona, however, was not necessarily a negative element in her image as flamboyant lecturer and, as some knew, the lover of a great poet.

Sutherland’s Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me is an objective biography by a distinguished academic. But, as its allusion to Jean Hartley’s autobiographical Philip Larkin, the Marvell Press and Me suggests, it is also a warm personal memoir, with Sutherland writing, “it is hard to do justice to the ways in which she enriched my life and enabled my career. In crucial ways Monica made me.”

Sutherland is the first scholar to have access to the 54 boxes in the Bodleian of Monica’s letters to Larkin. Their unsuspected racism shocks him; and he finds the depth of her isolation painful: “There are, in Bodley’s vaults, boxes of lonely misery.” Inevitably the question arises as to whether he knows Monica better now than when he was “witness to what Miss Monica Jones actually was in her prime and in the flesh”.

Monica was the victim partly of unique academic circumstances, but also of her own puzzling failure of nerve. When Larkin arrived at Leicester University College in 1946, the English department consisted of a head, Arthur Collins, and Monica, the only lecturer. The following year, with expansion in the air, Collins was made to reapply for his headship, and an outsider, Arthur Humphreys, was appointed over him.

The students went on strike. Monica joined them. She “paid for her dissidence … with her career. At the end of her three-year probation, Humphreys delayed making her a tenured lecturer. She brought it on herself. Her defiance took the form of declining to publish.”

Sutherland concedes the justice of Humphreys’s decision. “Miss Jones did not do what she was paid to and took half the year off not to do it.” He notes that Larkin, a nine-to-five man with an onerous workload, “occasionally grizzled about the same delinquency”. As well as Monica’s stubbornness, “vanity was in there somewhere”. She told Anthony Thwaite that publishing was “rather showy”. “Oxford Firsts” was her private toast with Philip. Professors with specialisms multiplied around her.

Over time, her relationship with Philip became central to her self-image, proving her superiority to what the poet called “nonentity professors”. They “were selling bottled literature … She drank at the Pierian Spring”. It is she who is in the Dictionary of National Biography for services to literature, not Professor Humphreys.

But her inner self-critic was unpersuaded. She wrote to Philip in 1955, “you may be as miserable as me, but in the world’s eyes you are a successful man.” A decade later her despair is abject, “You’d like me better if my life were less shrunken, less dingy, less squalid, if everything around me, and everything I did, didn’t cry out failure … I expected better of myself.”

In one area Monica was a resounding success. Sutherland is exhilarating on her teaching. To her, in the best traditions of Oxford generalism, “literature was crossing a field and enjoying the view, not digging a hole”.

She would wear tartan for lectures on Scott or Macbeth, black for Hamlet (a “lout” in his treatment of Ophelia), imitation pearls for Antony and Cleopatra. She would passionately rip up her notes or break down in tears during a quotation. “The joke was that Miss Jones was the only lecturer at Leicester who needed a St John’s Ambulance crew in the back row.” The connection with Hamlet, she asserted, “must be felt carnally, through the whole body and mind aided by the resources of high native intelligence. She did not say that: she expressed it. She was it.”

Monica would fail contemporary tests of correctness. She was “sexy”. She had her favourites, her “boys”, including “that sweet creature Sutherland”. She enjoyed student pub culture. “I do like public houses with men, don’t I?” she wrote to Larkin, hoping to pique his jealousy. “I have an immense success with all the young men.” Sutherland concedes that both he and she were for a time “pre-alcoholic”.

Monica’s continuing failure to publish is puzzling. Did she feel crushed by the male egos surrounding her? Why did she not collect together a volume of her lecture scripts or swallow her pride and write the chapter on George Crabbe in the Pelican History of English Literature that Humphreys offered to her?

Sutherland’s attempts to construct a literary CV for her at one remove, are unconvincing. She is not a “collaborator” in Larkin’s poetry, “apart from occasionally suggesting the right word”. And Sutherland’s assertion that Larkin’s Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Verse, is her “major publication” is tenuous. There remain the letters.

Sutherland is nonetheless right to claim for Monica a unique place in literature. The poet could rely on their harmony of views. A poem she wrote before they met describes the function of poetry, in Larkinesque terms, as “to fix the thought in the safety of the word”. But, more profoundly, the literary compatibility between poet and lover transcended any personal sentiment.

Sutherland is nonetheless right to claim for Monica a unique place in literature

The contrast with Maeve Brennan is illuminating. Larkin declared “Broadcast”, addressed to Maeve, the nearest to an “outright love poem” in his work. When he published it in The Listener in 1962, Monica was deeply hurt. Then in 1964 he included it in The Whitsun Weddings and Monica renewed her bitter reproaches.

But Larkin’s relationship with Maeve was a comedy of errors. She inspired poetry while being herself flat prose: a classic “muse”. Her literary sensibility is shown by the couplet she jotted in a Christmas card from Larkin, re-used as a bookmark: “I heard a bird sing in the dark of December/ A magical thing and sweet to remember.”

Being unenthralled by the greatness of Larkin’s poetry, Maeve, unlike Monica, could strike out independently. After he tired of her, she developed a new relationship, and is buried in another man’s grave, though only yards from Larkin’s and with the line “What will survive of us is love” on the stone, from a poem intimately associated with Monica.

Sutherland is puzzled that Larkin left Maeve nothing in his will. There is no mystery. The bloom of their 1960s courtship had faded and, as age descended, her “innocence” became simply irritating. When he abruptly broke with her in 1978 he explained that he might have to look after Monica if she became ill.

Striving too hard after correctness Sutherland writes “Larkin damaged the lives of two highly able women”. Elsewhere he asks: “Would their lives have been richer, for all the drawbacks, had they not known him?” In 1960 Monica wrote: “I never get over the unbelievable good fortune of having you in my life.” She was “Love’s martyr”, yes. But, more profoundly, she was a willing martyr to poetry.

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