Letters Home — edited with care and superhuman patience by James Booth — tells a different story. Yes, on the basis of these missives — whittled down from over 4,000 to a mere 607 — we can safely say that Larkin’s best-known line, “They f--- you up, your mum and dad”, didn’t come out of nowhere... Letters Home reminds us of the bond between Larkin’s life and his great poems of love, loss, hope and regret in the most humdrum surroundings.
In an interview with Ian Hamilton in 1964 Larkin expressed annoyance with reviewers of his work who complained that there was something ‘uniquely dreary’ about the experiences depicted in his poems. ‘I’d like to know how all these romantic reviewers spend their time – do they kill a lot of dragons, for instance?’ Rather than saddle up and seek out dragons, Larkin boiled handkerchiefs – twice if need be – and washed his terylene pyjamas, and worried about his mother’s mangle.
He writes: ‘I think if you kept a little diary and marked every day when you were worried about storms, and every day that there was a storm, you’d be astonished at the amount of worrying about nothing that you’d done.’ If you like that kind of thing, you’ll savour every domestic detail of Larkin’s existence. A joy.
It takes a degree of resolution to set about reading a book of nearly seven hundred pages consisting largely of letters to an increasingly sad and isolated old lady. What Larkin may have claimed not to do for love he certainly did for duty, once a week and sometimes twice. In 1972 he wrote to her 277 times. His letters home number about four thousand in total, as do Eva’s replies. It’s often absorbing stuff, though increasingly grim. James Booth, a recent biographer of Larkin, has made a substantial, thoroughly annotated selection from this vast correspondence,
As editor James Booth remarks in his bright introduction, there is no hint of “constraint or duty” in these letters. Eva, depressive and needy, may have been a drag on his life, but Larkin is almost unwaveringly filial in his devotion, always looking to divert and amuse her, illustrating his letters with blobby drawings of her as “the dear old creature”. You can’t help loving him for it.
Booth, Larkin’s biographer, has edited these letters superbly well (there are 607 in this volume, a mere sliver of the terrifying total in existence), even if his footnotes are pedantic at times. Neatly tracing the poet’s adult life from Oxford University, through Wellington, Leicester and Belfast, where he worked in various libraries, and finally to Hull, a picture of the man slowly emerges. It’s not new, but perhaps the emphasis is slightly altered. Larkin as we find him here is witty, wise, grossly impractical, and extremely modest, in every sense of the word...But he’s such a good writer that he cannot ever be bad – even when he is only tackling the vexed issue of his mother’s linen basket (how I shrieked at the letter in which he carefully thanks her for having washed a certain basque, a “very worthwhile” garment – though not, perhaps, as loudly as when I read the footnote informing me that said basque “must have been Monica’s”).
And what social history is here. You can almost smell it. This is a realm, now entirely disappeared, in which Louis Armstrong plays Bridlington, every posh dinner begins with celery soup, and little girls still keep their bedclothes in nightdress cases, as Kitty once did. It’s like visiting another planet – a chilly one, where the immersion heater is on only very rarely.
he preponderance of banal quotidian detail perhaps explains why Anthony Thwaite included none of Larkin’s letters to his family in his 1992 selection. Even fans who thought they could never get enough of Larkin may struggle to get through more than 600 pages of “I hope your sciatica has gone”, “I had the pleasure of finding the cheque the laundry sent me for that shirt they lost” or “Snow here today! Not very deep though”. A sample of index entries for Eva runs: “out-of-date tins of salmon … neighbour’s dog … new electric fire, cistern and immersion heater … light and heater in outside lavatory … pedal bin”. Here is such stuff as tedium is made of. And yet the book is well worth having because we see a side of Larkin little glimpsed until now: not the friend and lover but the determinedly loyal, long-suffering son. Eva may have fucked him up, but he can’t hold that against her, since she was fucked up in her turn. Larkin’s sense of “dooty” towards his mother was one of the reasons he remained single...In the end, though, it’s Eva who dominates this collection – and who dominated Larkin’s life. “I am what her savage loving has made me,” Beckett said about his mother. Eva’s love wasn’t savage but cloying. Larkin wrote to her out of pity and tenderness, knowing how proud of him she was and how much his letters meant to her. But the guilt never left him. “Have just found out that Arnold Bennett wrote to his mother every day!” he told Eva five years before she died, as if he could have done better.
The good news is, Booth is an efficient editor and provider of footnotes: this is the last significant collection of papers relating to Larkin’s life that needs to be published...The less good news is that the vast mass of the letters’ content is humdrum or trivial — because it speaks so exactly to the minute particulars of Eva’s life, and to similar elements in his own day-to-day existence.
In that respect this selection exposes less of Larkin’s inner self than Anthony Thwaite’s edition of Letters to Monica (2010). The howling rage that sometimes possessed him is also less in evidence... Inevitably, much of the news that mother and son exchange in these letters is trivial — “My lavatory brush is on its last legs,” is about the size of it. However, as Booth observes in an incisive introduction, the trivial and mundane were vital to Larkin’s poetry. His genius lay in exposing the gulfs of feeling that opened behind them... But to stop there would make this selection sound gloomy, which it is not at all. It is enlivened throughout by Larkin’s deadpan humour and rampant, indomitable pessimism, as well as by the love and gratitude he feels for Eva... More than 500 pages of new writing by our greatest modern poet would be a treasure whatever they contained. But in the end these letters are uplifting because they are the record of 30 years trying to make someone else happy.
James Booth, editor of collections of Larkin’s early stories and poems, has also published two critical works on the poet. He puts his shoulder to the Larkin wheel yet again in Letters Home, a collection that shouts of industry and carries whispers of something substantial... Letters Home has been hailed as a work of scholarship. Its attention to detail, its range in years, its scope in material are all remarkable. But its attractions are severely limited for the casual reader, if gently intriguing for those of us who regard Larkin as a great poet and a profoundly desperate man... These letters are testimony to the practical demands of maintaining a relationship with a vulnerable loved one... This may not be the recipe for the most stimulating collection of letters for the general reader. But it adds a gentle smile to the largely severe Larkin portrait that has been painted since his death in 1985... “What will survive of us is love,” he wrote in An Arundel Tomb. The truth of that lies in Letters Home.
Despite his protestations, Larkin was obviously devoted and I found the correspondence gathered in this book mesmerising. It is like a dialogue composed by (and starring) Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood... Although, to a large extent, Letters Home is a monochrome comedy about outside lavatories, inside lavatories (“it is very nice to have the light in the toilet”) and unaccountable smells on the landing, Eva was more insidious than amusing... This book’s account of emotional claustrophobia, bitter cruelty and the absolute blunt refusal to be happy and fulfilled, pared down by James Booth from more than 8,000 items in the Hull History Centre, is essential and revelatory reading for Larkin addicts...
Booth admits the correspondence is “humdrum and domestic” but loyally maintains it is “psychologically fascinating” nonetheless. The truth is that these are some the most prosaic letters ever printed. Larkin writes about the weather, what he has eaten, what he has drunk, his weight, the laundry, his socks, his shopping, his expenses, his teeth, his hat, his glasses, his aches and pains, his work, and his noisy neighbours...In these letters that misery is revealed. Larkin’s transformation of it into such great poetry can only be the more admired.