One summer morning about a decade ago, I went to the Hull History Centre to look at its collection of photographs of Monica Jones, girlfriend of the more famous Philip Larkin. What I remember about this now is that I felt horribly furtive – a burglar, intent on rifling a knicker drawer – right up until the moment I opened the first album, at which point I understood in a glance that these pictures were made to be admired. Here was a model, as well as a lover. In the photograph of her that I still like best, it is 1960 and Jones is curled up in a wing-backed armchair wearing only a sweater and a pair of dazzling black-and-white striped tights. Seeing her like this – a groovy vision straight out of the pages of Vogue – it’s hard to imagine her walking out with the man behind the camera, in his drab mackintosh and bicycle clips.
But walk out with him she did, usually in high heels. She and Larkin met in 1947 at University College, Leicester, where she was the only female member of staff in the department of English, and he was an assistant librarian; they became a couple three years later and remained so until his death in 1985 (she would outlive him by 16 years). The relationship was tormented almost from the beginning. When Larkin dedicated The Less Deceived to Jones in 1955, it was an act of atonement as well as allegiance. The year before, his friend Kingsley Amis had depicted her, thinly disguised, as Margaret Peel in Lucky Jim – a harpy in the eyes of contemporary readers and a portrait based, Larkin admitted, on details lent by him. Jones tried desperately hard to make light of her lampooning (“some of it is really funny”) and was determined to exonerate Larkin (“I do not believe you would be so treacherous”) – and thus, the die was cast. Pressing down her anger and disappointment, she would now always look ahead: to their next meeting, if not to a shared future.
Larkin’s letters to Jones, published in 2010, revealed the couple’s ceaseless emotional conflicts, as well as their attraction for one another, more richly than the poet’s biographers had done. Even this view, though, was partial: Jones’s thousands of letters to Larkin languished in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, unread. In his new book, the academic John Sutherland, once a favourite student of hers, makes full use of them: his odd hybrid of memoir and biography is dedicated to their curator, Dr Judith Priestman. Mission-wise, however, they present him with a major problem. While Sutherland, who liked, and perhaps even loved, Jones, wants to rescue her reputation from the men who have so casually trashed it (men such as Martin Amis, who pronounced her “an all-in wrestler” after precisely one long-ago meeting), their contents make this close to impossible.
Horror mounting at their incontinent bulk, he pokes at them as if with a stick. There are difficult women and then there is Jones: a racist, an antisemite, an emotional masochist, an alcoholic. It’s not the job of a biographer to make his subject likable. But her only claims to fame are her teaching (she refused to publish as an academic, a position that fatally damaged her career) and the fact that she clung to Larkin like ivy. Even if you understand what she was up against – the misogyny, the internalised sexism, the booze – she’s no phoenix, about to rise from the ashes.
The only child of a factory fitter, Jones grew up in Stourport-on-Severn (though she clung to Weardale roots on her mother’s side; the only home she ever owned was a damp weekend cottage near Hexham). Having graduated from Oxford with a first, the best academic job she could land was at the then rather lowly Leicester and there she would remain for the rest of her professional life. She was, by all accounts, a vivid lecturer. But her tastes were fusty and marginal: she liked George Crabbe and Walter Scott; she loathed George Eliot and modernism. Away from the department – Sutherland catches it, in all its corduroy glory, quite brilliantly – and her mocking, sexist colleagues, her chief interests were cricket, gin and Philip Larkin.
Larkin, though, was ever detached: a large cool store, you might say. He would not live even in the same city as her and, as all the world knows, he was always cheating. His long affair with Maeve Brennan, his colleague in Hull, caused her particular pain, tipping her, at moments, into madness. But while he could certainly be blithely cruel, as well as cowardly and muddled, there’s no avoiding the fact that Jones preferred half a loaf than no bread at all. Struggling to comprehend this, Sutherland dutifully suggests (he knows the lingo) that Larkin coercively controlled her, a judgment that wilfully ignores the physical distance between them, her financial independence and, above all, her abiding conviction that life was better with Larkin than without him.
If the desolate story this tells is extreme, it’s also universal. How little we understand our desires
I don’t believe that only a woman can write a woman’s biography, something Sutherland modishly worries about in an afterword (in mitigation for a crime he hasn’t committed, he tells us that he showed his manuscript to feminists such as Jane Miller and Rosie Boycott). It’s possible that a female biographer might have been less timid here, or more empathic, but it’s not certain. Jones is hardly the first clever, beautiful female to have been brought to abjection like this, to have embraced, even to have exalted, such a state as her lot: think of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre or Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. But women, too, tend to balk at the idea of examining forensically the notion that love sometimes bends us out of shape. The truths involved are too agonising and shameful.
It’s difficult, moreover, to turn Larkin into a villain, whatever the current pressure to do so. I often wonder why people are made so indignant by a man who slept with relatively few women in his life, who didn’t much fancy marriage and who chose to take Jones at her word when she insisted that she didn’t like the idea either. Some will see this book as a correction: let us usher yet another neglected female into the light. But it’s not that. If the desolate story it tells – about two people, not one – is extreme, it’s also universal. How little we understand our desires. How we struggle to make ourselves happy. How easily we get stuck. Here is a warning, if only people would take it, that sententiousness, in matters of the heart, is always a mistake. What will survive of us isn’t love, but the struggle for survival itself.
• Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me by John Sutherland is published by W&N (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply