Monica Jones has not been well treated by eminent literary men. Her lover Philip Larkin told her that her speaking manner was so objectionable urgent action was needed to remedy it: “You would do much better to revise, drastically, the amount you say and the intensity with which you say it.” Larkin’s friend Kingsley Amis lampooned her, with Larkin’s assistance, as the eternally unlovable Margaret Peel in Lucky Jim, in a caricature laced with bile. Kingley’s son Martin Amis described her simply as “a beast”.
Many of Larkin’s contemporaries found it hard to fathom Jones’s relationship with the poet. Many more scholars of his work have never forgiven her decision (taken as Larkin’s literary executor) to obey the terms of his will and destroy his diaries. The result is that the academic has often been represented in print as a literary wrecking ball, smashing between Larkin and his best poetry, between the man and his friends, and finally, through an act of archival destruction, between his posthumous readers and a full understanding of his life.
If lovers of Larkin’s work have blamed Jones for stifling the poet’s voice both during his life and thereafter, those less devoted to his poetry may find themselves wondering why the story of one of the women he made miserable merits book-length attention at all.
In Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me, John Sutherland acknowledges that his subject’s claims to significance are slender without her connection to Larkin. He counters this by asserting that she was of significance to him, during the time he spent as “unlucky Jim” under her tutelage at Leicester.
Her story also enables him to combine memoir, biography and social history in order to contemplate the relationship between art and the damage its creators can wreak, as he navigates the treacherous hinterland between creative greatness and personal fallibility. He takes as his starting point an assertion attributed to Jane Carlyle, another maligned literary partner: “I too am here.” In that spirit Sutherland tells Jones’s story on its own terms, following her first to wartime Oxford, and then to the academic job at University College Leicester that brought her into contact with Larkin.
Jones’s life was characterised by a refusal to conform. As a student she rejected the bluestocking uniform of coupon-enforced “sacking” in favour of bright colours and revealing outlines. At Leicester in the 1950s she withstood the changes sweeping red-brick academia by steadfastly refusing to produce or publish the scholarly research that was becoming a central requirement of the profession.
Sutherland vividly recalls a memory of her in the lecture theatre, sweeping up to the lectern in a black Oxford MA gown with a thematically appropriate outfit peeping out from underneath (tartan for a lecture on Macbeth, swinging pearls for Antony and Cleopatra).
Her lectures commenced with the banging down of a travel alarm clock and were notable for their excoriations of the professionalised literary critics whose work she refused to imitate. She was, Sutherland writes, “the sharpest-eared of listeners to literature I’ve known”.
Although Sutherland announces himself as a defender of Jones he is clear-sighted about the difficulties represented by her story. Her history contains within it the history of a changing nation, but in certain important respects Jones did not move with the times.
Her archive, like Larkin’s, contains plenty that is bigoted and racist, and Sutherland is open about the pain this brings him. He also acknowledges that it would be easy to represent Jones as a victim of Larkin’s serial infidelities. Of their relationship, he writes, ambivalently: “People whose opinions I respect venture the term ‘coercive control’.”
Yet Jones, in Sutherland’s telling, is not just a victim of a faithless man, a tragic postwar poster girl for #MeToo. He ends by confronting the dilemma faced by those who choose to write the histories of the “invisible women”, in the writer’s Claire Tomalin’s phrase, who appear in literary biography either as obstacles to or collateral damage of the work of famous men.
“Many might think,” he writes, “that the human spoilage in the wake of the poems of Larkin’s maturity is immaterial.” Sutherland does not absolve the poet of responsibility for the suffering he caused so easily, but neither, in the end, does he let Jones’s life become symbolic or representative. “In crucial ways”, he writes, “Monica made me.” In return he remakes her in print, not as victim or villain in the story of another, but triumphantly and solely as herself.
Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me: Her Life and Long Loves, by John Sutherland, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP£20, 288 pages
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