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June 2011

Nomination: Love [7 December 1962. From Collected Poems 1988]

In 1981 my father died very suddenly and my mother came to stay with me for a few days later in the year. Whist she was in my partner, John Osborne’s, flat on Eldon Grove she began to read High Windows: one of the volumes of Larkin’s poetry on John‘s bookshelves. She told us how much she had enjoyed them but she couldn’t be prevailed upon to take the book home with her and read it at her leisure. At the time I was a Ph.D. student at the University of Hull and working on my dissertation on Thomas Hardy’s women characters. I was based in a room on Salmon Grove, one of a number of postgraduate study rooms in the houses there. Thinking about my mother I suddenly had the idea of buying a copy of High Windows and sending it to Philip Larkin, then the librarian of the Brynmor Jones, telling him how much she had enjoyed the poems and asking him, politely, if he would be kind enough to sign the copy for her.

A few days later there was a knock on the doordoor of my Salmon Grove room and following my request to “Come in” there was Philip Larkin himself. He did come in and asked me straight away if I was the person who had sent the book and asked him to sign it. I admitted that I was and he said: “I’m afraid I don’t sign books for people I don’t know”. I said I quite understood. Then he glanced over my bookshelves and noted most of the library’s collection of books on Thomas Hardy there. Larkin used automatically to buy into the library any new book on Hardy as he was such a fan of his work. I expect he had also been sent many for review and simply donated them to the library after he had finished with them. This was wonderful for me and meant that I never had to request one through what was then the ‘inter-library loan’ system. He was curious as to why I had all these books and we began talking about Hardy, my thesis and the current state of Hardy criticism.

I offered him a cup of Nescafe and powdered milk, which he accepted! Then his eye lighted on a copy of Roy Morrell’s Thomas Hardy: The Will and the Way published in 1966 and he asked me what I thought of it. I felt the book had mounted a very persuasive challenge to the critical consensus that Hardy was a pessimistic determinist. My own view was that Hardy’s vision was far more politically engaged than most critics gave him credit for – especially where women were concerned. Larkin disagreed strongly and felt that Morrell simply hadn’t grasped what was fundamental to Hardy’s view of existence. We talked until he had finished his coffee and then he politely took his leave. I remembered that he had titled a review in the Critical Quarterly ‘Wanted Good Hardy Critic’ and on checking it I found that it was mainly about Morrell’s book. He had felt, quite strongly, that Morrell wasn’t going to fit the bill. Morrell’s thesis was ‘perverse’ and he had failed to register what Larkin saw as Hardy’s ‘sensual cruelty’ (a brilliant phrase!) and that ‘the presence of pain in Hardy’s novels is a positive, not a negative, quality—not the mechanical working out of some pre-determined allegiance to pessimism or any other concept, but the continual imaginative celebration of what is both the truest and the most important element in life, most important in the sense of most necessary to spiritual development’. Larkin then added in his review ‘To examine this element, his perception of it and treatment in literary terms would be the business of the proper study of Hardy which, as far as I know, has yet to be written’. I thought about my own thesis and concluded: “Well, I don’t do that either!” Larkin’s poem ‘Love’ was printed just before his review.

About an hour later there was another knock on my door and in came a library porter carrying a brown package, “From Mr Larkin”. “Ah”, I thought, “My copy of High Windows – unsigned’. I opened the package and, indeed, there it was – but with Larkin’s signature on the inside front cover. He had also enclosed a paperback copy of A Girl in Winter and inside it he had written ‘For Jane Thomas, with all good wishes – Philip Larkin’. I was, and remain, touched and delighted. Perhaps he felt he knew me sufficiently well by then.

Jane Thomas

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