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John Sutherland makes a brave attempt to rescue the reputation of Larkin’s longstanding lover and muse
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.
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