‘You are as nice a pussy as ever trod’

Philip Larkin’s un­pub­lished let­ters to his mother prove she was the poet’s muse – and his mill­stone, says James Booth

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - COVER STORY -

On the morn­ing of Sun­day 13 Septem­ber 1964, Philip Larkin sat in his flat at 32 Pear­son Park, Hull, writ­ing a po­lite, cer­e­mo­ni­ous let­ter to his mother, “My very dear old crea­ture”:

His “writ­ing home” be­gan when he started his first term at Ox­ford. For the first seven years, “home” had meant his fa­ther, Syd­ney (“Pop”); his mother, Eva (“Mop”); and on oc­ca­sion his sis­ter, Cather­ine (“Kitty”), 10 years older than him. Af­ter Syd­ney died early in 1948, “home” meant Eva. The cor­re­spon­dence lasted un­til Eva’s death in 1977 at the age of 91. Be­tween Fe­bru­ary 1972 and her fi­nal months, Philip wrote to Eva most days, some­times twice on the same day.

The main strand in these let­ters is the hum­drum and do­mes­tic (“How long in min­utes do you pum­mel & squeeze a woolly?”; “How ex­cit­ing about the lava­tory!”) but the story they tell is psy­cho­log­i­cally fas­ci­nat­ing, and takes us to the tragic core of the poet’s life.

Philip’s love for his mother is matched by his sense of obli­ga­tion to en­sure her well-be­ing. Af­ter the death of her hus­band, Eva was in­ca­pable of cop­ing on her own, so Philip bought her a house close to his work in Le­ices­ter where they could live to­gether. It was a frus­trat­ing sit­u­a­tion for a man of his age. By 1950, the year in which he turned 28, he was des­per­ate to es­cape. He wrote to a friend on 4 May 1950: “My chief hand­i­cap at present is this bloody set up here, Christ knows how it will all end. But it can only be bro­ken up by a good ex­cuse like a new job, you see [. . .] I do re­al­ize that my mother must live with some­one – only I’d rather pre­fer it not to be me.”

Philip made his es­cape in Septem­ber 1950 by tak­ing up a sub-li­brar­i­an­ship at Queen’s Uni­ver­sity Belfast, across the Ir­ish Sea. As time passed Eva aban­doned the hope that her son would bring her to join him in Belfast. Just over a year af­ter his de­par­ture Kitty and she found a suit­able house at 21 York Road, Lough­bor­ough, a hun­dred yards or so from her daugh­ter. Eva moved in in De­cem­ber 1951, and was to live here for the next two decades.

It is in­evitable to spec­u­late on the im­pact of Philip’s life­long love for Eva on his at­ti­tudes to­wards other women. Both Maeve Bren­nan, the Hull li­brary as­sis­tant with whom he con­tem­plated mar­riage in the early 1960s, and Mon­ica Jones, an English lec­turer at Le­ices­ter and his life­time lover, be­lieved Eva to be a ri­val for his af­fec­tions. On 16 Oc­to­ber 1957 Philip wrote a let­ter of con­torted self anal­y­sis to Mon­ica: “if I don’t want to marry you then I don’t see why I should mind not do­ing so, & if I do then I don’t see why I don’t. You’ll say Mum is at the bot­tom of all this. Well, if she is, I don’t know what to do about it, though I wish I did.” Here we find a clue, per­haps, as to why, as he put it in “Love Again”, “it never worked for me”.

As the 1950s pro­gressed, Eva be­came more and more dispir­ited. In 1955, just when Philip should have been en­joy­ing his first na­tional suc­cess as a poet with

The Less De­ceived, she suc­cumbed to clin­i­cal de­pres­sion, and was given elec­tro-shock ther­apy over Christ­mas.

What sus­tained Eva was her “work”. Their let­ters main­tain the fic­tion that Eva is valiantly cop­ing with a life of en­forced do­mes­tic labour. On a cou­ple of oc­ca­sions, Philip can­not help al­low­ing the re­al­ity to show through. Over­whelmed by prob­lems in the li­brary, he wrote on 10 March 1963: “It must be nice to be like you, noth­ing to do but shop, cook & eat!” Eva was a wealthy widow with­out re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, who, as her bank man­ager told her, could have made her whole life a hol­i­day if her spirit had been so in­clined. But her spirit was not so in­clined. She lacked the sim­ple plea­sure in ex­is­tence which is the lifeblood of her son’s po­etry.

Gen­er­ally, the tone of his let­ters to Eva is as pro­saic as hers to him. But there is a fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence. Prosi­ness was her only op­tion; Philip’s pro­saic writ­ing is self-aware: in in­vis­i­ble in­verted com­mas as it were. His mother is his muse of the every­day. “I love the com­mon­place, I lead a very com­mon­place life. Every­day things are lovely to me.” Po­etry is made of her, but she is un­con­scious of it.

‘I do re­alise that my mother must live with some­one – only I’d pre­fer it not to be me’

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