Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me by John Sutherland

Review by Karen Langley

Monica Jones, the subject of a new biography by John Sutherland, is a fascinating figure who, up until now, has generally been discussed in terms of her relationship with the poet Philip Larkin. Yet, as Sutherland’s book sets out to prove, Jones was a formidable woman in her own right; as well as being muse for much of Larkin’s writing, his longest amour, his final live-in companion and his literary executor, she was a powerful and mesmeric lecturer who had a profound effect on many undergraduates over the years. Yet she was passed over for promotion within her university, mocked by Larkin’s friends and contemporaries, and in some ways became a figure of fun in her later years. The question has to be asked: why?

Margaret Monica Beale Jones was born in 1922 in South Wales. The family moved to Stourport-on-Severn when she was seven, and after attending Kidderminster High School for Girls, she went to Oxford University on a scholarship to study English. In 1946 she was appointed an assistant lecturer in English at Leicester University College, and it was here she met Philip Larkin when he joined as assistant librarian in the September of that year. It’s not too dramatic to say that the meeting changed her life forever; for the rest of her days, her existence would revolve around her relationship with Larkin. 

Sutherland approaches Monica’s life in the main via her letters, having had unprecedented access to those which survive (many of both her and Larkin’s papers were destroyed by her, under Larkin’s willed instructions). Exploring her early life, Sutherland reveals a talented and spiky character who transcended her background in the same way Larkin did; yet Jones was an uncompromising woman and it could be argued that what could be perceived as the lack of success in her career was partly her own doing.

Jones worked at Leicester University (as it became) until her retirement in 1981; yet, despite being a fiercely intelligent woman and a compelling lecturer, she never published. At the time, academic progress tended to go hand in hand with publishing your research, but Jones refused to take part in that aspect of academic life. This worked against her, seeing her sidelined and missing out on promotion; instead, she spent her career making her mark on the young minds she tutored, and it’s clear from Sutherland’s memories of his time at Leicester that she was unforgettable. 

Was Monica Jones badly treated? She was. In its new professionalised, career-seeking form…. there was no respected place for those who ‘merely’ knew a vast amount of literature, had judged what was good and bad, and could convey what, in their considered judgement, the ‘greatness’ of great literature was. Her belief that senior men in her profession ‘despised women’ was overstated but, in the 1950s, not far off the truth.

In many ways, the heart of the book is the chapters covering the period when Sutherland studied with her. Here we get a privileged first-hand look at Jones, life in the Leicester Uni of the period, and glimpses of Larkin coming and going on flying visits. Of course, underpinning Monica’s life from the time they met was her relationship with Philip Larkin which really was the most important thing to her. Their early days involved much physical passion; in later times, when the ardour had cooled a little and Larkin was continuing to spread his favours about elsewhere, he and Jones still had a strong intellectual connection, and the book demonstrates that it was that link which made their relationship outlast all of his others. She was his muse, strongly influencing his poetry, and a co-conspirator on his Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse.

So the decades pass; Philip and Monica exchange letters, have holidays together, attend Lords to watch the Test Match, and meet at weekends when he visit his ageing mother in Loughborough. In between these meetings, Monica continues to entrance undergraduates while privately going through agonies from the absence of Larkin. Living on her own makes her nervy; she becomes too dependent on alcohol; and as the years take its toll on them both, she will eventually end up under the same roof as Larkin, his wife in all but name.

One sees in her letters to Philip a sad awareness that their love had lost its drive. Theirs was a relationship without the conjugal cement of cohabitation. It was a house built on ink, paper and postage stamps.

Monica Jones… is a partisan book, and Sutherland nails his colours to the mast from the very start. He’s clear that the book is his wish to set the record straight and do justice to the memory of Jones and her effect on his life. His book is therefore a very personal one, and all the stronger for it. Sutherland’s affection for Jones is obvious, although he’s not afraid to discuss and explore the less pleasant aspects of both her and Larkin’s personalities. Reading the letters shows him a side of Jones he didn’t see; both her and Larkin’s casual racism is repugnant (and complicated: Jones had a flirtation with her Indian colleague, Dipak Nandy; and Larkin loved jazz and its musicians). Sutherland’s musings have him calling into question how much we actually really know about other people; many elements of Jones’ personality are not pleasant and he was not aware of them when he actually knew her. 

It’s notable that Jones’ only appearance on Wikipedia is as one of the series of woman who influenced Larkin, and it’s perhaps frustrating for modern readers to find that we are still considering Jones only in relation to him; yet that is, in many ways, how she would have wanted it. Sutherland has given his book the subtitle Her Life and Long Loves, and actually that is the point – Jones loved and was loyal to Larkin long after most women would have walked away; she could have easily had other partners and lovers, but she didn’t want them. Her personality was strong and unconventional; had she lived in a different time, perhaps her strengths would have been recognised; as it was, she was judged (mostly by men) by the norms of the time and they found her wanting.

John Sutherland has clearly put his heart and soul into writing Monica Jones… and it’s something of a triumph; an absorbing and fascinating book, although ultimately rather tragic. He does assume a certain degree of familiarity with the life stories of all the protagonists; but the recent spate of books and writings about Larkin and the vagaries of his love life have probably ensured that the bones of the story are known to most people who’ll approach this book.  Nevertheless, Monica Jones… is a moving tribute to a woman who should be remembered as an inspirational teacher and a lively companion, as well as muse to one of the 20th century’s greatest poets. Monica Jones deserves a better epitaph than a satirical portrait in a Kingsley Amis novel, and here she gets it, in this affectionate and fascinating biographical study. 

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and sometimes thinks she’s actually glad she never went to university…

John Sutherland, Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2021). 978-14474620185 296pp., hardback.

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Comments

  1. The curious thing about Jones was her complete refusal to write or publish – taking what was presumably matter of principle to the point of absurdity. A few articles or essays or even reviews would have solved the problem. Does Sutherland discuss this?

    1. He does, and it obviously was fundamental to the failure of her career to progress. Which is a great shame, because I would *love* to know what works she would have come out with, as she was obviously an intelligent and inspiration teacher. But for some reason she just refused to take the normal academic route, and never researched or published. I do think that under the often brash exterior there was a *lot* of insecurity and of course she was a woman in what was still very much a man’s world.

        1. It’s so interesting – of course she wouldn’t have got away with the not publishing research now. But she just presumably wanted to teach and then have the rest of her life – fair play to her.

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