Larkin with lover number one, the academic Monica Jones
Now previously unpublished letters between Larkin and his mother Eva suggest the reason he chose to play the field rather than marry any of his lovers could be down to the close relationship he had with her.
The pair wrote to each other twice a week for 35 years from 1940, when Larkin went to Oxford to study English, graduating with first class honours.
In many of the letters Eva warns her son of what she saw as the disadvantages of marriage. Until now their correspondence has been held by the library at Hull University where Larkin worked for 30 years but extracts from some of them will feature in a forthcoming book, Writers And Their Mothers, edited by Dale Salwak.
It explores the maternal influence on writers from Shakespeare onwards.
In one letter penned in 1952, Eva, a housewife, told her son: “Marriage would be no certain guarantee as to socks being always mended, or meals ready when they are wanted. Neither would it be wise to marry just for those comforts.
“There are other things just as important.”
A year later came another damning conclusion from Eva, when she quoted from a George Bernard Shaw novel in a letter to Larkin: “I have just finished reading Love Among The Artists in which occurs this passage: ‘No: it is marriage that kills the heart and keeps it dead. Better starve the heart than overfeed it. Better still to feed it only on fine food, like music.’
“In a way, I agree with him. Better to have lived a full life, I think.”
When Eva moved into a nursing home in 1972, Larkin upped the ante, sending her a letter or postcard almost every day until she died in November 1977.
Salwak’s book features an entire chapter on Larkin, who turned down the position of Poet Laureate in 1984. Meanwhile Larkin’s biographer James Booth will also be publishing a selection of the correspondence in another book, Letters Home, in November.
Booth has said: “He couldn’t marry anyone because he was so involved with his mother. Writing to her twice a week, he also visited her every fortnight or so in Loughborough.
Larkin’s secret lover and Hull library colleague Maeve Brennan
“You’ve got this really tangled emotional situation.
“The mother is the key element. People have never been able to see it properly.
“The relationship was more valuable to Larkin than anybody might have thought.”
Although Larkin wrote only four volumes of poetry he came fifth in a 2009 BBC poll to establish the nation’s favourite poet.
It seems he was as popular with the ladies as he remains with fans of his poetry.
So who were these women that his mother would surely have objected to ever becoming Mrs Larkin?
The first – and longest standing – of his lovers was Monica Jones, a brilliant academic Larkin met at Leicester University where he worked as librarian before going to Hull.
She was his mistress from 1947 until his death from cancer in 1985 aged 63.
Next was Maeve Brennan, one of Larkin’s library staff in Hull, who was his lover from 1960 for 18 years.
Last to join the list was Betty Mackereth, his long-time secretary at Hull.
She has said of the night in 1975 when he asked her to invite him in for coffee after dinner: “I was more than 50 at the time and I thought all my liaisons were over and done with. Then this suddenly appeared and it became a new excitement in my life.
“There was no awkwardness between us next morning at work and he told me he had carefully planned it.”
Larkin’s secret lover Betty Mackereth
Together for more than five years, she was, by her own admission, his secret lover and her relationship with Larkin was only revealed in Andrew Motion’s official biography of the poet in 1993, eight years after his death.
Mackereth had known all along of his affairs with Monica and Maeve – even helping Larkin to juggle his liaisons with them in his diary – and described Monica as “Larkin’s soul mate”.
The other two maintained a public silence about one another, which was only broken by Maeve after Monica’s death in 2001 aged 78.
She said of Larkin’s affairs: “I just thought, ‘all fair in love and war’. I had always known about Philip’s relationship with Monica. He was very open about it.
“We kept our distance. I can’t say I admired her or disliked her. I knew full well that Philip wasn’t the marrying sort I was prepared to put up with it.”
And she did – for years. She added: “I worked with him so I saw him pretty well all the time.
She saw him when he went down to Leicester, or she used to come up to Hull.”
Despite their knowledge of one another, Monica and Maeve – who remained friends with Larkin after their relationship ended in 1978 – were only formally introduced at Larkin’s deathbed.
By then it was reported that he had been living with Monica – to whom he left the majority of his estate – for two years at his home in Hull.
One can only speculate what his mother might have made of that.