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Philip Larkin’s unpublished letters to his mother prove she was the poet’s muse – and his millstone, says James Booth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