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Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me: Her Life and Long Loves Reviews

Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me: Her Life and Long Loves by John Sutherland

Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me: Her Life and Long Loves

John Sutherland

3.62 out of 5

7 reviews

Imprint: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publication date: 15 Apr 2021
ISBN: 9781474620185

The story of Philip Larkin's long-term partner Monica Jones based on her never-before-seen letters to the poet.

  • The ObserverBook of the Week
3 stars out of 5
Rachel Cooke
18 Apr 2021

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

 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.

Reviews

4 stars out of 5
25 Apr 2021

"Using unpublished letters, John Sutherland's book Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me reveals the tragic squandering of a brilliant woman"

What to make of the racism that peppers their letters to each other? To us it seems repulsive, and rightly so, but two points should be made. One is that at some level, their feelings about “the coloureds” were unexceptional in their era and class; and secondly that they were part of a jokey discourse embracing a wide range of antipathies that they indulged in private without ever expecting them to be taken seriously. They should have known better, of course – their sneers and cracks are as stupid as they are malign – but they didn’t. The greatness of Larkin’s poems and the vivid and poignant fascination of his correspondence with Monica Jones remains.

2 stars out of 5
Andrew Motion
24 Apr 2021

"Sutherland’s telling of this tale is somewhat ramshackle and repetitive"

In truth, though, and despite a lifetime of complaining, Larkin had managed to live pretty much how he wanted all along. Sutherland’s book adds substance to the story of these wants, and some detail to the prejudices that accompanied them, and in this and other respects it’s valuable. It’s also bound to re-animate the conversation about how much Larkin’s poems are damaged by the sides he took and the opinions he voiced as a man. There are a few poems (‘Posterity’, for instance) which are obviously soiled by stereotyping and worse. In the majority, Larkin’s approach to his subject is much less inclined to enact a quarrel with others (which would have produced mere rhetoric, in the Yeatsian formula), than with himself — which means that he was able to write poetry that expresses among other things a redemptive sense of escape from self. But making that distinction, and calibrating its success (or not), must now inform our reading of every page in his Collected Poems. And not everyone will want to take the trouble.

4 stars out of 5
21 Apr 2021

"a tribute to a real woman, who lived a real life"

Sutherland introduces himself fully as a participant about halfway through this memoir. He reveals that his original plan had been to tell more of his own story, but decided to leave the spotlight on her, “where it belongs”, leaving out most of the compliments she bestowed on one of her most promising students. This must have been the right choice. What he has given us has indeed salvaged her from the abusive caricatures of many who knew her, including Larkin himself, and many who knew her only at second hand. He has presented her in all the lively complexity of her prejudices and her fears, her courage and her wit.

4 stars out of 5
17 Apr 2021

"often moving, with some wonderfully-expressed insights"

Sutherland wants to revive her from these portraits, offer a more balanced account of her life: “Monica deserves, after all these years, clear-sighted judgement”. The book flits between distance and intimacy. It is partly a biography of Jones’s life - her upbringing, her time at Oxford, her move to Leicester, and her relationship with Larkin...

To borrow a phrase from Walt Whitman: she “contained multitudes”. Sutherland’s book - often moving, with some wonderfully-expressed insights - would have been greatly strengthened by formally acknowledging her multitudinous character rather than searching, desperately, for the “real” Monica Jones. 

4 stars out of 5
James Marriott
17 Apr 2021

"Sutherland has written a bleak but convincing book"

Reading this book, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Larkin slowly destroyed Jones’s life. That this hadn’t quite been understood before is partly down to the fact that Sutherland is the first biographer who has had access to the thousands of letters written by Jones to Larkin. And also because our principal previous source for the relationship, Larkin’s side of the correspondence, are some of the most charming, beautiful and elegant letters ever written in English.

4 stars out of 5
John Carey
11 Apr 2021

"The poet’s troubled relationship has been written about many times, but this biography is unique in its focus on the maligned woman"

“I would sooner marry you than anyone else I know,” Philip Larkin told Monica Jones, unenthusiastically. He never did marry her, of course. Rather, his lies and infidelities destroyed her, as John Sutherland spells out in this eye-opening book. The Larkin story has been told many times, but Sutherland is singular in focusing on Monica. Other critics have defamed her. For Kingsley Amis she was a “grim old bag”; for Christopher Hitchens, “frigid, drab and hysterical”. Sutherland, however, liked and admired her as his tutor, supervisor and friend, and in his account she comes alive.