Poor Monica Jones. She would have liked to marry Philip Larkin but he kept her at arm’s length (or the 100 miles between Hull and Leicester) for more than 30 years. An academic, she loved her subject, English literature, but failed to publish any books and, as a result, was never promoted by her university department. She dressed with flair and flamboyance but was dismissed by Larkin’s friends as “a grim old bag”, “a beast”, “frigid, drab and hysterical”, and appeared, thinly disguised, as the appalling Margaret Peel (her own middle name was Beale) in Kingsley Amis’s debut novel Lucky Jim. “I dread the whole of the rest of my life,” she wrote in her 30s, and death has done little to rescue her reputation.
Enter, like a shining knight, John Sutherland, who was taught by Jones as an undergraduate, became a good friend and drinking partner, and rightly believes she has been hard done by. “In crucial ways Monica made me,” he says, and his book pays generous tribute to the woman who kick-started his prolific academic career. As the first scholar to see Jones’s letters to Larkin (all 54 boxes of them in the Bodleian Library), he has also learned things about her he didn’t know, some of them hard to take.
Born in Llanelli, south Wales, the only child of upwardly mobile working-class parents, Jones was the archetypal school swot, a keen reader and occasional writer of poetry (a few of the lines Sutherland quotes aren’t bad). A scholarship took her to Oxford at the same time as Larkin, but they didn’t meet until he joined the library at what was then University College, Leicester shortly after she’d been appointed as a lecturer. To begin with, the English department consisted of just her and one other lecturer; by 1960, when Sutherland arrived, there were 15, with Jones still the only woman, a distinction she enjoyed. (A victim of misogyny, she was a bit of a misogynist herself.) With her blond hair, horn-rimmed specs and elegant legs, she was considered sexy, and had a habit of matching her dress to her lecture topics – tartan for Macbeth, pearls for Cleopatra.
No feminist, with a particular aversion to George Eliot, she had a passion for boxing and cricket. The evenings she spent in pubs with Sutherland and other favoured male students (“my boys” as she called them) were among her happiest, as she was careful to let Larkin know: “I’d never have expected I’d be a great success with a lot of young men but I can see that they all like me.” If his jealousy was piqued, it wasn’t enough to lure him into marriage; he had another woman on the go by then, Maeve Brennan, as Jones would painfully discover. When Sutherland and other proteges moved on, she boozed alone at home and would turn up drunk to 9am staff meetings. Only for the last couple of years of his life did she and Larkin live together, “in mutual collapse”. Till then, for decades, her time with him was rationed to weekends (roughly one in every four), annual holidays on Sark and test matches at Lord’s.
Sutherland’s memories of Jones – as loud, witty, inspirational – are in stark contrast to the letters he quotes from, which are full of suffering, paranoia, despair and self-loathing (“I am simply ridiculous – a reject, an incapable”). She wrote to Larkin late at night and would run on for 30 pages, with brave attempts to entertain him, before lapsing into grievance and reproach. The low point came when she was lampooned in Lucky Jim: rather than spring to her defence, Larkin proclaimed the novel (which he’d helped to edit) the funniest book he’d ever read. His one piece of gallantry, or cowardice, was to abandon the novel he’d been working on himself: “If it is to be written at all,” he told another of his lovers, “it should be largely an attack on Monica, & I can’t do that.” She felt rejected even so – and destroyed all the letters he sent in the months after Lucky Jim came out.
When he died she destroyed his journals, too, before her co-executors could intervene. It seems unlikely that she did so protectively, to conceal evidence of his racism, since her own was even more extreme. Sutherland experienced a little of it in their Leicester days and reproaches himself for not calling her out. But the extent of it in her letters – from virulent antisemitism to endorsement of Enoch Powell – came as a shock. It wasn’t just Larkin’s poetry Jones nurtured but his bigotry too.
The relationship was sad and sometimes toxic, as Sutherland’s excellent biography shows. Jones’s awareness of her lover’s damaging effect – how she “sparkled” in the company of young men whereas with him “I’m always hopeless, cut eye in the first round” – left him, in return, consumed by guilt: “It seems to me I am spoiling yr life in a hideously ingenious way.” A woman would have told her where to stick him. But Jones had no female friends. In thrall to his genius, her love for Larkin endured – and so did the misery that went with it.
• Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me: Her Life and Long Loves is published byWeidenfeld. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.