Having given you a break whilst I was away ( very nice thank you since you ask!) its time to conclude our look at famous librarians with an unapologetically prurient look at the the personal life of a librarian. By his own estimation Philip Larkin was no leading man summing up his appeal in one of his letters to Monica Jones. “Youth…” he exclaimed “Why didn’t I have one. I’ve always been aged 65” sto how did someone looking like a stereotypical librarian from central casting manage to keep a string of women dancing in attendance for most of his adult life?
The courtship rituals of people in western society have been established for centuries. At a certain age we start taking an interest in other people with a view to creating some form of family unit for the purposes of companionship, procreation and mutual happiness, after, we hope a brief period of rampant sex of course. We may try a few people out for size as part of this process before we settle on a permanent lifelong partner of our dreams after finding that there wasn’t much beyond the sex or that the sex wasn’t up to much anyway. We might also when we discover that when the sex wanes we need a third party as well as the partner to get through life or we may need a couple of goes at finding the right partner when we realise that lifelong companionship with TV remote permanently attached to a barely conscious blob in on the sofa wasn’t what they were selling in all those teen magazines. Larkin’s life wasn’t at all like that containing as it did at least two life long loves co-existing uneasily in parallel, a series of affairs involving neither of these, other attempted affairs, at least one instantly regretted proposal of marriage and a number of other apparently platonc relationships with other women. And yes all this whilst a practising librarian. It is, as they say, complicated so pay attention.
After some frustrating and humiliating experiences at Oxford Larkin found his first real relationship with one of his younger borrowers at Wellington Library, Ruth Bowman to whom he became very close and eventually fell in love. Larkin and Ruth were a typical courting couple sharing lengthy discussions about their range of common interests as well as meals, holidays and of course sex. In private though Larkin was already falling prey to the indecision and anxiety that was to come to characterise his life Larkin confided his fears that this developing relationship might clip his wings especially as in the same letter he talked through the pros and cons of trying to get one of Ruth’s friends into bed. Despite all of his vacillation and his private priapic fantansies, when he went to Leicester Larkin remained very close to Ruth despite the fact that she was now studying in London. His confused emotions did not prevent Larkin becoming engaged to Ruth though it was on the clear understanding that it would not necessarily lead to marriage straight away or indeed any time soon thank you very much. Part of this confusion was because, engagement notwithstanding, he was now developing an interest in another woman, Monica Jones a lecturer at Leicester University. He found an intellectual relationship with Monica that he could never share with Ruth but he was not brave enough to end his relationship with her. Then, just as Ruth moved to be nearer Larkin, Larkin like many men faced with a difficult choice between women decided that the most adult and honourable way to solve the problem was to run away, to Belfast. As always of course it only made matters worse. Realising the enormity of the implications of his engagement he withdrew the offer by letter, the contemporary equivalent of dumping someone by text message. Ruth decided that she had enough of his ambivalent attitude to her, returned the ring and got on with her life.
In Belfast, free of the suffocating committment to Ruth, Larkin still had the consolation of a developing relationship with Monica Jones. The fact that she was still in Leicester, rather than being a barrier to a successful relationship as it would be for many of us, was just how Larkin liked it and would continue to like it for the rest of his life and he found himself attracted to a completely new cast of women in Belfast. There were several women colleagues who seemed to welcome him if for no other reason than he was the only presentable male on the staff. Larkin also found their company enjoyable and became particularly close to Winifred Arnott alhough, or perhaps because, she was already in a relationship with someone else to whom she eventually became engaged making her unavailable. This didn’t stop Larkin dropping heavy hints about his ambitions towards her. Whilst this relationship was flourishing Larkin still continued to visit Monica in Leicester who may or may not have been aware of his interest in Winfred and as Monica did visit Northern Ireland to spend time with Larkin as far as she was concerned this confirmed that she had a particular place in his affections.
Larkin’s idea of such a commitment was to begin an affair with another woman, Patsy Strang, undeterred by the fact that she was the wife of one of his close friends. This was apparently a passionate affair and Patsy did offer to leave her husband and support Larkin whilst he wrote but again Larkin found the idea of commitment a bit tricky. So just to recap then in case this is getting a bit confusing and before we move on; Ruth, to whom he became engaged and then broke it off, has gone and so too has her best friend Jane whom I mentioned Larkin also attempted to bed, but Monica, who was around at the same time as Ruth, is still there and under the impression that she is the only one in his affections, but unfortunately there is now also Winifred in Belfast who has been joined by Patsy as well. Oh and I almost forgot Larkin has also started another entirely platonic relationship with another married friend from Belfast, Judy Egerton, with whom he corresponded very candidly for the rest of his life. Its complicated isn’t it but I hope you are keeping up because there is still more to come. If we had the space we could do one of those maps of the country with brightly coloured pins showing the location of the women and sweeping arrows showing the complex relationships between them all as newspapers do when they try to illuminate one of their “web of deceit” stories, or track the route of your flight home compared to that of your luggage! But we haven’t the space or the time so you will just have to pay attention.
Eventually this potentially tricky situation with various women was resolved by the simple expedient of Winfred marrying her fiancee and Patsy, despite her offer to Larkin, following her husband to Newcastle. Suddenly left with only the ever persistent and astonishingly faithful Monica still hanging in there Larkin now in his 30’s thought that Monica might be a good bet for settling down so of course it was also time then to meet yet another colleague to whom he is irresistably attracted and who appears to reciprocate his feelings. I told you to pay attention.
Maeve Brennan had worked with Larkin for five years at Hull before they started to become close and she soon became a serious rival to Monica. Part of her mystique was that as a fervent Roman Catholic she was firmly against sex before marriage which must have been some kind of new challenge to Larkin for whom at times sex seemed the only reason for a relationship. Once Larkin and Maeve became close for the rest of his life Monica and Maeve co-existed in full knowledge of each others existence and they ebbed and flowed for supremacy in Larkin’s affection showing remarkable loyalty in the face of both his frequent displays of cruelty and neglect to both of them and his all consuming selfishness towards both. And in the face of his terminal inability to choose between them. Eventually after a break in their relationship Maeve did sleep with Larkin and he professed his passionate love for her even though he had been telling Monica that the relationship was over.
Larkin’s letters to Monica Jones provided a fascinating glimpse of the emotional contortions he appears to have gone through during this period of his life. Maeve Brennan appears merely as “Ms Brennan” in a 1955 letter but in February 1962 her presence in Larkin’s life has clearly upset Monica and he attempts to deflect any suggestion of a close relationship referring to her dismissively as “old Charity Boots”. Eventually however he does have to go into full damage limitation mode in 1964 when Monica discovers his affair and he has to grovelling admit how ashamed he is of the pain he has caused her as he attempts to expiate his guilty admitting he is“infantile & cowardly and selfish” and his inability to settle for one woman or the other “perhaps too fond of you perhaps not fond enough of her perhaps just too cowardly all round”. Unfortunately this awareness isn’t enough to prevent Larkin thinking that it is perfectly all right then to share with Monica his feelings for Maeve and using her as if she was just a close mate and not as he so frequently claims something significantly more. If you or I were having an affair, even if our regular partner were aware of it, we might well avoid any mention of the third party in letters home but not Larkin. In one letter he shares with Monica how upset Maeve gets when he is away on holiday with Monica, presumably expecting her to be understanding and sympathetic. It is perhaps as well that this was done by letter because if he had done it face to face across the dining table for example he may well have been surprised at how painful it can be when both hands have been pinned to the table by kitchen knives and your partner is attacking your head with a blunt instrument. I am sure she was just as understanding when Larkin explains how he tries hard to keep the balance between the two of them in his life. I am sure she found that very comforting and must have been even more touched when he adds that he recognises the sacrifice she has made for him and how lucky he is that she has not “frogmarched him to the altar”.
Perhaps her forbearance wasn’t quite as noble as it seems as their sex life appears to have been less than wonderful not helped by Larkin’s own admission of his rather inept lovemaking which gets more than a couple of mentions in his letters. Despite my best intentions to stick to library matters for some reason I found myself drawn to his letter of 9 August 1958 as I caught sight of the sentence beginning “I’m sorry our lovemaking fizzled out in Devon, as you rightly noticed” and he continues “And of course qualify it how I may I am not a highly sexed person or if I am not in a way that demand constant physical intercourse with other people. I tire very easily & and always more prepared for sex in the morning than at night.” Elsewhere he laments their “love making that hadn’t been concluded”. Adding intriguingly “I was a fool to bring those pants – I can’t think where to hide them – the cleaner will think I am robbing clothes lines.” Yes I know this is book is supposed to about libraries and librarians but I am trying to show how interesting librarians can really be so bear with me here.
Perhaps also there is a hint that Larkin was intimidated by the women in his life and that would explain why each of them was reduced in correspondence to a cuddly pet name; Monica was a rabbit and habitually addressed as “bun” in his letters, Maeve became “Mouse” a name Larkin borrowed from her previous relationship, Ruth had been a cat and Patsy a honey bear. A desire for life in a pet shop was clearly buried somewhere deep in his subconscious.
So the two women in his life coexisted uncomfortably for several years each striving for ascendancy but each at least aware of who and what the competition was. It would have been fascinating to be there when they each discovered that despite all of this; the intimate attentions of two women and his enjoyment of it; the pain he clearly realised he was inflicting on each of them; his self loathing guilt about this and his love hate relationship with sex, it hadn’t prevent him from beginning a deliberately planned and carefully conducted affair Betty Mackreth a relationship about which Maeve and Monica were blissfully unaware. Unlike Orson Welles’s Third Man the third woman was not skulking in a dark alleyway to avoid detection but right there in plain view in the office next to him every working day. Betty was his Secretary of the past 17 years and no one knew about Larkin and Betty until Andrew Motion’s autobiography of Larkin several years after Larkin’s death. You see I told you it would get more complicated.
Ben Brown’s play Larkin with Women tells the story of these relationships much better than I ever could and so if you want to follow up this intriguing menage then you might like to track down a copy of his play or find a revival when one comes along. In her very even-handed and generous review of Larkin with Women Maeve Brennan confirms that the play is a pretty good reconstruction of at least parts of those relationships although she wished that the author had shown “more of the tenderness and vulnerability which were present in such good measure in the man I knew”. Nor did she recognise the Larkin that that emerged after his death.
After his death of course and the subsequent biography and release of some of his letters Larkin’s reputation as the quiet avuncular poetic genius took quite a battering with accusations variously of racism, misyogny, misanthropy, a love of pornography and the frequent examples in his letters of what he called his “boiling rages” which led him to say of his Deputy that he would like to “bash his head in” or refer to his librarian colleagues at their annual conference as ”jolly ladies with hearing aids, awful seedy looking men with side whiskers and wet teeth who look as if they ought to be employed ghosting hack biographies of royal mistresses in the B.M., and thin young men in new chocolate brown suits & Brylcreem who resemble engineering apprentices.” Larkin had died long before I reached the same level as he did and earned the right to attend those same conferences and of course times change. For a start no-one still uses Brylcreem, but, actually, thinking about it apart from that, they hadn’t changed much. I don’t want to dwell on all that stuff, though, as it has been well documented elsewhere but I did want to mention just one critical essay about the revelations from someone who I would have thought knew better.
Alan Bennett gave voice to his feelings on the posthumous relevations in his 1993 review of Larkin’s biography in the London Review of Books. In the review entitled Alas Deceived. Bennett expresses his “disappointment” following the relevations saying that he feels he has lost a friend even though he never knew Larkin and although he is dispassionate enough to acknowledge that Larkin’s work just about emerges unscathed from its association with such a perverse character Larkin himself and his chosen professions don’t fare quite so well. Bennett is convinced that Larkin was always tarred with the brush of his father’s Nazi sympathies but youcan’t help thinking he goes just a little too far when he spitefully suggests that his decision to go into libraries was an obvious one because “if you cannot be a gauletier then a librarian’s the next best thing“, adding just to sure you get his meaning that “It’s a short step from the jackboot to the book-jacket.” Which is a bit harsh really and as far as I can recall not even academically accurate. Although I have only a hazy recollection of the various projects and other tests that were required to achieve my professional accreditation as a librarian I am pretty sure I would vividly remember the practical exam in Formation Goosestepping, for the boots if nothing else.
When he died in 1984 the shy, stammering unprepossessing librarian had three women all of whom shared some of Larkin’s affection, all aware of his inadequacies, his neuroses and his utter selfishness and his frequent cruelty, all painfully aware that as Monica Jones put it they would never be able to make him want them enough, but all totally devoted to him. Not bad for a librarian who could write a bit of poetry as well. It is perhaps all best summed up by the word Monica speaks to Larkin in Brown’s play, as he is dying “Oh well. I guess you must have some redeeming qualities. Otherwise we wouldn’t stick by you, would we?”
And that concludes our look at all those famous people who you never knew were librarians together with our look at library history we have a common base from which we can now explore the many incidents of libraries and librarians on the world of literature, film and television and even music. All that will be coming up in future posts.