Old flame kindles warmth and revisits dismal ground

The Philip Larkin I Knew

December 20, 2002

There is something rather noble and moving about Maeve Brennan's memoir The Philip Larkin I Knew . Far from being a kiss-and-tell account from one of Larkin's lovers, it reads much more like an attempt to salvage his reputation, to correct the lurid misapprehensions generated after Larkin's death.

Andrew Motion's biography of Larkin, published in 1993, presented a view of the poet that has been difficult to dislodge. Motion wrote that the "beautiful flowers" of Larkin's poetry grew "on long stalks out of pretty dismal ground". This dismal ground for Motion was Larkin's reactionary politics, his racist and sexist attitudes, his predilection for pornography, and his simultaneous affairs with at first two and then three women.

Brennan was one of these women. Born in 1929, she was the daughter of an Irish Catholic dentist who had set up a practice in Hull. She was brought up in Hull and studied history at the then University College of Hull and became a librarian in 1951.

Four years later, Larkin was appointed the head librarian; he died in post in 1985. Although privately lonely and miserable during his early years in Hull, he was a cheerful and sensitive boss to the "girls" in the library. He encouraged them to become properly trained and set about teaching them; only Brennan stayed the course. A close friendship developed despite the fact that both of them were in other relationships. Brennan broke off her engagement to her fiancé but Larkin did not terminate his liaison with Monica Jones, a lecturer in English whom he had met in Leicester in 1947. Instead he chose to divide his romantic life between Jones and Brennan. Later on, things became even more complicated when he embarked on an affair with his secretary, Betty Mackereth. Finally, after much anguish, he broke off with Brennan in 1978 but seems to have found some sort of rapprochement with her before his death from cancer.

Put so coldly, the facts appear to condemn Larkin, but it becomes clear from this book that far from being a callous manipulator of women, Larkin was a confused man who was - contrary to his carefully cultivated misanthropic image - a closet romantic. Brennan argues that it was their shared idealism and perhaps, most interestingly, a profound spirituality that lay at the heart of their love for each other. In a fascinating chapter on Larkin's attitudes towards religion, Brennan writes of his "sensitivity, idealism and susceptibility to mystical experiences". This is a side to Larkin that is often overlooked but is surely central to his finest poetry; most of the truly great poems such as The Whitsun Weddings, An Arundel Tomb, The Trees and High Windows are suffused with a sense of the numinous.

While using personal reminiscence to prove her points, she also reveals her correspondence with the poet as well as interviewing acquaintances from the library. Her descriptions of her burgeoning love for Larkin during his heyday in the 1960s when he enjoyed enormous literary and professional success - he essentially transformed the university's library into a top-class facility - are touching. She never fully illuminates the complexity of the poet, who seems to have presented many different characters to different people. However, she is honest: she acknowledges that there were sides to him that she knew nothing about. What she does powerfully show in this modest but important memoir is that Larkin was a kind man whose poetry was nourished by genuine warmth and compassion.

Francis Gilbert is a writer and teacher.

The Philip Larkin I Knew

Author - Maeve Brennan
ISBN - 0 7190 65 6 and 66 4
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £40.00 and £14.99
Pages - 240

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