No keen analyst is required to unravel this. Larkin had not only a bombastic fascist for a father, but a simpering weakling for a mother. Sydney Larkin had the grace to die early but his widow, Eva, lingered on, querulous, demanding, and hypochondriacal (and extremely unwell), for decades. She may not have meant to make her son’s life a nightmare of guilt and annoyance, but she did. This resulted in Monica Jones’s winning at least one round. On no account, she told her man, should he be blackmailed into living with Eva. “Don’t be robbed!” she beseeched him. “Don’t be robbed of your soul.” If she couldn’t have him, she at least wouldn’t surrender him to that form of “the other woman.”
To have read Larkin’s Letters and Motion’s biography is to be in on a rather dirty joke that surreptitiously permeates these pages. Larkin may not have been highly sexed in the conventional sense, but he was a heroic consumer of pornography and an amateur composer of sadomasochistic reveries, which he often shared with his worldly friends Robert Conquest and Kingsley Amis. He didn’t much like the capital city, but would never visit London without spending good money, or paying through the nose, as one might say, with the vendors of semi-licit glossies in the Soho quarter. Why Andrew Motion maintains that Larkin didn’t have specialized tastes, I cannot think: he was in constant search of material featuring schoolgirls, flagellation, and sodomy. (In 1958 to Conquest: “I agree Bamboo & Frolic are the tops, or rather bottoms: do pass on any that have ceased to stimulate.”) This celebrated fixation is also thought by some to be “quintessentially English.” At his death, along with many other private papers, the vast library of a hectically devoted masturbator had to be hastily destroyed. (He obviously had not mistaken his calling as an archivist.) Once one knows this, many of the letters to Monica become instantly intelligible. He comments slyly but learnedly on the buggery implications of the D. H. Lawrence novel that was then on trial in the courts. “You and your bottom,” he elsewhere writes fervently.
I lay in bed one morning last week remembering one after-breakfast time when you were looking out of my kitchen window … You were wearing the black nylon panties with the small hole in!
You must look a wonderful sight in fur hat & boots—nothing else? Holding a rawhide whip? (You see how naturally my imagination composes aesthetic montages for you.)
On and on his plaintively suggestive appeals recur, and—this is somehow impressive—she never seems to take the hint. What Larkin wanted was a Nora Barnacle, and what he got was—Margaret Peel. The sole exception seems to prove my rule: in late 1958, he plumbs the depth of abjectness by writing to her in apology for what clearly must have been a bungled episode of anal penetration:
I’m sorry too that our encounter had such unhappy results for you! I really didn’t expect such a thing, though I suppose it might have been predicted. I am sorry. It does rather spoil the incident, even at best, which was very exciting for me anyway. Let’s hope all rights itself soon.
Not since Hemingway so overdid the lapine pillow-talk in For Whom the Bell Tolls has any man referred to a woman as a rabbit with such regularity and intensity. Most of the letters are addressed to either “Bun” or “Bunny,” and not a few are illustrated with drawings of rabbits, references to rabbits in literature, or condemnations of British government policy toward rabbits. The obsession did yield the fine poem “Myxomatosis,” which I mentioned earlier, but Larkin’s attempt to make a Beatrix Potter nursery story out of the standoff is often in jarring contrast to the content. The sad grovel I quoted from above is concluded by the sentence: “You sound as if you want comforting Fat rabbit lovely pretty rabbit,” which is a lot to bear for those of us who respect Larkin for his lack of sentimentality. And rabbits are, above all, philoprogenitive … Incidentally, all resemblances to Orwell break off at this point: the author of Animal Farm had a tough enough time with women but was eager for marriage and anxious for children, preferring to adopt rather than go without.