- Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me: Her Life and Long Loves, by John Sutherland. Weidenfeld, $32.99.
Philip Larkin has been termed by some as Britain's greatest poet of the 20th century. For nearly 40 years, Monica Jones was his on-off lover. When Larkin died in 1983, Jones became his literary executor, but many have not forgiven her, as literary trustee, for authorising the destruction of 30 volumes of his diaries.
John Sutherland, professor of modern English literature at University College London, mining "the last unclimbed peak in the Larkin range", the previously embargoed 2000 letters that Jones wrote to Larkin, seeks, ahead of Larkin's centenary in 2022, to reassess their relationship.
Sutherland says, "my larger aim has been to salvage Monica Jones from the versions of Monica Jones circulated in her life and still circulate". These began when Kingsley Amis, in cahoots with Larkin, viciously caricatured Margaret Monica Beale Jones as Margaret Peel, a needy, dowdy, academic spinster in Amis's bestselling novel Lucky Jim (1954), dedicated to Larkin and which has never been out of print. Sutherland says this depiction made her "a lifelong figure of fun".
Sutherland terms this "double-dyed" treachery, and reflects this was a time "when she could/should have broken with Philip, and sued the backside off [the publisher] Gollancz, rendering Amis an untouchable author". From then on it got worse, with Christopher Hitchens calling her "frigid, drab and hysterical", while to Maureen Paton she was "built like a scary Brunhilde".
Monica Jones and Philip Larkin met at Leicester University in 1945. They had both been at Oxford University but never met. Jones, who gained a first-class Oxford degree, was, at the age of 21, "a woman of promise". At Leicester she was a charismatic lecturer, wearing tartan when lecturing on Macbeth and swinging pearls for Antony and Cleopatra, occasionally revealing a glimpse of bright red suspenders under her dress.
Jones's academic career never progressed because she adamantly refused to publish and accept the rules of a male dominated English department. She never escaped Leicester, "locked like Rapunzel in her (red brick) tower with no release until retirement". This led to Jones developing what Sutherland calls a "depressed passivity", a condition which was exacerbated by her long relationship with Larkin.
Sutherland, who was Jones's student at the University of Leicester and then supervised by her, became of one of "her boys". He interweaves his personal memories and interactions with her, including regular drinking sessions, into the narrative. Sutherland writes, "I am in two minds: which is the more real? The Monica I knew as a young man in the 1960s? Or the Monica Jones from thousands of pages of manuscript documentation sixty years on? The book turns on that pivot".
Sutherland acknowledges that he was shocked with "the Monica Jones I didn't know", particularly her racism and "acidic streams of downright nastiness" which she shared with Larkin. According to Sutherland, Jones was Larkin's intellectual equal, a sounding board of "high literary sensibility", who "helped erect around Larkin the scaffolding which let his poetry happen". Ultimately, they needed each other.
Larkin was the only man that Jones slept with in her 78 years, while he was unfaithful throughout their 40 year relationship, notably with Maeve Brennan and Betty Mackereth, Larkin's colleagues in Hull University Library, where he was University Librarian. This reviewer met Larkin several times, including in the Bodleian Library, but with his lugubrious demeanour, balding hair, dark rimmed glasses and long raincoat he hardly struck one as a poetic Don Juan.
Jones had few female friends; she was too private. She was, Sutherland comments, "a one-woman huis clos, writing desperate, often drunken, letters to the only man she could love". Jones could, however, be said to have had the last laugh over Larkin's other loves.
Larkin, in later life, took her as his companion to important public and ceremonial occasions and she moved in with him before his death in 1985, both by then being heavy drinkers. Larkin bequeathed most of his substantial estate to Jones, who became increasingly reclusive before her death in 2001.
She may not have known that Larkin, on his deathbed, said that he only wanted to see Monica, "to tell her that I loved her". Sutherland notes, this was "an act of confession and conscious of the hardship that loving Philip Larkin meant, an act of contrition".
Sutherland, as a male biographer of a female, asked Jane Miller, Rosie Boycott and Rachel Cooke to comment on his manuscript. Cooke thought that his book should have been called "A Clever Woman: The Unhappy Life of Monica Jones", which might have been a better title but clearly not as salesworthy.