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Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me by John Sutherland review

John Sutherland’s memoir-cum-biography hinges on a profound question: how well do we truly know a person? Sutherland – who is Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at UCL, and author of, among other books, Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives – ponders which Monica Jones is more real: “The Monica I knew as a young man in the 1960s? Or the Monica I now know from thousands of pages of manuscript documentation, sixty years on?”.

Jones, who was born in 1922 and died in 2001, was a lecturer in the English department at University College, Leicester. It was in this capacity that Sutherland, who studied there as an undergraduate student in the early 1960s, came to know her.

But she is best known as the partner of Philip Larkin. Along with Andrew Motion and Anthony Thwaite, she was named one of Larkin’s literary executors. After he died in 1985, she organised his diaries to be shredded and burned.

Roger Lewis condemned her as “the biggest criminal in literary history”. Christopher Hitchens called her “frigid, drab and hysterical”. And Kingsley Amis fictionalised her as Margaret Peel in his campus comedy novel Lucky Jim; a neurotic academic who is Jim Dixon’s love interest until he ultimately abandons her for a younger, prettier woman.

Sutherland wants to revive her from these portraits, offer a more balanced account of her life: “Monica deserves, after all these years, clear-sighted judgement”. The book flits between distance and intimacy. It is partly a biography of Jones’s life – her upbringing, her time at Oxford, her move to Leicester, and her relationship with Larkin.

For this, Sutherland relies on her letters archived at the Bodleian library, and the work on Larkin done by Motion, Thwaite, and James Booth. Other parts of the book are written with the intimacy of an insider – Sutherland, Boswell-like, portrays her in all her convivial wit and striking personality.

Margaret Monica Beale Jones was born in Llanelli to a working-class Methodist family. They later moved to Stourport-on-Severn, in Worcestershire, where she grew up. Her father’s side of the family came from that part of the country; her mother’s side came from Northumberland, and Jones, throughout her life, maintained a strong affinity with the North. She was an only child. And she was fiercely independent. She wanted, Sutherland quotes her, “a life chosen by one’s self and not imposed on one”.

This individualism was manifested in her dress style. “My first acquaintance with her”, Sutherland writes, “was ocular. That was how she was publicly known: the flamboyance (floating flame) of her dress”. She never published an academic article or book in her career – probably because of this, she was never promoted, in her 37 years at Leicester, to the position of Senior Lecturer.

Lecturing utterly consumed her at the university. In the most engaging part of the book, Sutherland writes how, “Miss Jones would, on occasion, become so impassioned at the lectern that she ripped the pages of her handwritten text”. He emphasises this point by adding that, “On other occasions she would be so moved by the beauty of the poetry she was reading out that she would break down, croakingly, in tears and be unable, for a minute or two, to continue”. She scorned Theory and modernism; to qualify as worthwhile, a literary work needs to touch you. She shared, in short, Larkin’s aesthetic vision.

Although they were both at Oxford at exactly the same time, Jones and Larkin first met in Leicester in 1946. They became lovers in 1950 – the year Larkin moved to Belfast to take up a librarian post. For the rest of their relationship, which lasted until Larkin’s death in 1985, he had significant affairs with three other women: Patsy Strang, Maeve Brennan, and Betty Mackereth. Patsy, who was a married woman, got pregnant by him and suffered a miscarriage. He also pursued a mostly chaste seventeen-year romantic affair with Maeve, his Hull University library colleague, which ended soon after she broke with her devout Catholic faith by having premarital sex with him. And he started his affair with his library secretary Betty when he was still in a relationship with both Jones and Maeve. Larkin was the only man Jones ever slept with.

After the death of her parents, in 1959, she became dependent on Larkin. Sutherland argues that Larkin “stripped away connection from her living family to have sole dominance”. What makes this stranger is they were still living separately, in different cities. As Sutherland brilliantly puts it: “Theirs was a relationship without the conjugal cement of cohabitation. It was a house built on ink, paper and postage-stamp”. Larkin was incapable of fully committing. He suffered from what Sutherland calls “relational impotence”. Why did Jones, a confident, strong-willed, good-looking woman sacrifice her independence for a man who continually betrayed her? This is one of the questions Sutherland ponders. It is, he concludes, because of the poetry. Sutherland says of Jones and Maeve Brennan: “They conspired in the injury because they believed his literary genius made sacrifice a tribute“.

And she loved Larkin: “He lied to me, the bugger, but I loved him”. One thing that deeply connected them, apart from shared literary sensibility, was venomous spite. “In Monica”, Sutherland writes, “spite was a sign of life”. This spite sometimes manifested itself in gratuitous racism. Sutherland shares some of this in the main body of text, but only properly confronts the full scale of it in his afterword. This is a structural flaw of the book that aims to offer a balanced portrait.

Larkin and Jones conceived a ditty together in response to Harold Wilson becoming Prime Minister in 1964 with the verse: “Prison for strikers / Bring back the cat. / Kick out the n*s / How about that?”. Jones told Larkin in a letter she enjoyed singing the song alone “to relieve my feelings”. And you can hear the evident relish with which she sings it in a recorded audio clip of them singing it together. (Which you can find on Youtube here, from minute 43:58). She was also viciously anti-Semitic. In one incident, she describes a socialist woman talking in the university common room as a “mincing lisping foreign Jew dwarf”.

So who is the real Monica Jones? Sutherland affirms near the start of the book. “The case I make in the following pages is not a partisan vindication, nor nil nisi memorial, nor the fond recollections of an undergraduate in the presence of a woman of cultivated mind and life-changing kindness to him”. However, he later states: “Despite what has recently passed under my eyes, I hold on, stubbornly, to the image of what Monica was to me in the 1960s”. If he is “stubbornly” holding on to that image, rather allowing it to be complicated, how is this book not “partisan”?

Larkin himself embodied complicated tensions. He was the pooterish man of Middle England who at times dressed as a dandy in bow ties and red socks. He preferred Beatrix Potter to most modern novelists yet owned a large collection of pornography. He was a passionate jazz aficionado who denounced the Wilson government as “n*-mad”.

The same is true, in her own way, of Jones. She was a vivacious lecturer; but she was also a vile racist. She was a depressed companion to a constitutionally unfaithful man; but she was also the woman who cultivated the aesthetic sensibility of one of the greatest poets of the last century.

To borrow a phrase from Walt Whitman: she “contained multitudes”. Sutherland’s book – often moving, with some wonderfully-expressed insights – would have been greatly strengthened by formally acknowledging her multitudinous character rather than searching, desperately, for the “real” Monica Jones.

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