Larkin’s everyday news offers a rare insight into his loyalty, rage and guilt as a long-suffering son
“My very dear old creature,” Larkin wrote to his mother Eva in August 1968, “a man has just presented me with a copy of The Letters of Wilfred Owen … Most of his letters are to his mother! The book is 629pp long. He starts his letters ‘Sweet my Mother’, which takes some living up to. I like mine better – my beginnings, I mean. My mother too probably.”
James Booth’s selection of Larkin’s letters home, most of them written to his mother, is 688 pages long. “Dear Mop,” the early ones begin – he addressed his father, Sydney, as “Pop” but “Mop” also evoked Eva’s role as domestic drudge. His letters include drawings of her as a seal-like creature, often wearing a servant’s mob cap. After his father died in 1948, he began addressing her differently, as “My Dear Mop-MonstHaugh” or “Dear creaturely one” or “My dear old creature”. The drawings are sweetly affectionate and the letters never less than dutiful; the burden of looking after their widowed mother fell mostly on his sister, Catherine, but Larkin wrote to her every weekend, visited regularly and, while working at Leicester University in the late 1940s, lived with her for two years. He had a library to run and literary ambitions to pursue. Still, the subtext of the letters is guilt: he spent so little time with her and couldn’t help her feel less lonely.
The guilt came out as exasperation and rage. The day before that letter to Eva about Owen, for instance, he wrote to his lover Monica Jones about how, once home, “I become snappy, ungrateful, ungracious, wounding, inconsiderate & even abusive, longing only to get away, muttering obscenities because I know she can’t hear them, refusing to speak clearly so that she can hear, refusing to make conversation or evince any interest in her ‘news’ or things she has to say.” He knows what underlies this – “my anger is a fight for emotional freedom against the enemy” – but the violence of his feelings bemuses him nonetheless: “Sometimes I wonder if I’m fond of my mother at all.” edited by James Booth, Faber, £40
For three decades, from his mid-20s to his mid50s, until she died aged 91, he spent his letters trying to cheer her up and to suppress any filial unfondness. A few letters take the form of apologies, after a temper loss at home or over the phone. Otherwise, they are warm, chatty and anodyne, with a focus on matters he thinks will interest Eva: the weather, meals, domestic chores (“Did I tell you that last Sunday I cleaned the gas cooker?”), work, holidays, his hay fever, his melancholy (“clay-cold depression” was something he knew about, too). He tells her how much he weighs, how badly he’s done on the football pools, how hostile he feels towards immigrants and what clothes he’s wearing, especially his choice of socks – to darn or not to darn, he asks, knowing she’ll have the answer. Occasionally they discuss his poems (extracts from Eva’s letters appear as footnotes) but there is little of what makes his letters to friends and lovers so rewarding: the jokes, anger, obscenities, agonies and so on.
The preponderance of banal quotidian detail perhaps explains why Anthony Thwaite included none of Larkin’s letters to his family in his 1992 selection. Even fans who thought they could never get enough of Larkin may struggle to get through more than 600 pages of “I hope your sciatica has gone”, “I had the pleasure of finding the cheque the laundry sent me for that shirt they lost” or “Snow here today! Not very deep though”. A sample of index entries for Eva runs: “outof-date tins of salmon … neighbour’s dog … new electric fire, cistern and immersion heater … light and heater in outside lavatory … pedal bin”. Here is such stuff as tedium is made of. And yet the book is well worth having because we see a side of Larkin little glimpsed until now: not the friend and lover but the determinedly loyal, long-suffering son. Eva may have fucked him up, but he can’t hold that against her, since she was fucked up in her turn.
Larkin’s sense of “dooty” towards his mother was one of the reasons he remained single. If they married, he told Monica, there might be pressure for his mother to move in with them – a terrible prospect given her “whining panicky grumbling maddening manner”. What he’d seen of his parents’ marriage was discouraging: better gloomy isolation than marital boredom. “I think the impulse of loneliness in everyone is stronger than the impulse of love or ‘cosiness’,” he told Eva at the age of 22. He fell in love several times but his entanglements with Jones, Maeve Brennan and Betty Mackereth weren’t something to be shared with his mother. No other woman could ever dislodge her from being The One, or so he pretended. “We must go again up that road to the wood where we found the scarlet toadstool and listen to the wind in the trees,” he wrote to her from Belfast
Larkin’s sense of duty towards his mother was one reason he remained single – if he married, there might be pressure for her to move in with him
Philip Larkin: Letters Home, 1936-1977