- Trouble at Willow Gables and Other Fictions by Philip Larkin, edited by James Booth
Faber, 498 pp, £20.00, May 2002, ISBN 0 571 20347 7
Life is too short to read Philip Larkin’s juvenilia. Reading ‘Trouble at Willow Gables’ and ‘Michaelmas Term at St Brides’ is up there with stuffing mushrooms: there is a part of me which, as I read – or stuff – has precognition of the moment of my death and the very last conscious thought, which is the blinding awareness of the precious hours wasted on Larkin’s schoolgirl stories or mushrooms when I might have done something more positive with them such as sleeping or filing my nails. Actually, I’ve never stuffed a mushroom in my life. That much sense I’ve got. I have no idea whether James Booth has ever gone in for fancy cooking. No time probably. He has his hands full of Larkin. He is a Reader in English at Hull University, and after a false start in 1981 (Writers and Politics in Nigeria), he has devoted himself to the cause of Philip Larkin. Philip Larkin: Writer in 1992 was followed by a collection of essays, New Larkins for Old (2000); he is secretary of the Philip Larkin Society and edits its newsletter, About Larkin (it’s a joke, d’you see?). Now he has edited and introduced these mostly unfinished and unpublished fictions that have been lying around in the archive. It’s what some literary academics do for a living, I know, hanging on the every word of their chosen one, but when it comes down to scratching about at the bottom of the barrel of the 21-year-old Larkin’s doodlings during the summer after leaving university, it’s time to head for the kitchen and get the mushroom scraper out.
The trouble with making a career around Larkin is that the output is quite small, and others, Andrew Motion and Anthony Thwaite, have already picked the meat out of the life. What’s left after a couple of books of literary criticism wouldn’t amount to a serious life’s work for a mayfly. Or shouldn’t. There is, however, an unmistakable reverential quality in the scholarly apparatus. The artefacts with which the acolyte is working are so precious as to require the minutest description of their physical reality. They are relics, touched by and touching the life of an exceptional being, like a sliver of the true cross.
A typescript (recto and verso) of 16 sheets, less flimsy and of smaller size (224 x 173mm) than the paper used for ‘Trouble at Willow Gables’ . . . The title and author’s name are underlined using the red typewriter ribbon, the first letter of “WHAT” is typed over in red, and a short red line has been typed below the date. The verso of the title-page is blank; thereafter the pages are numbered in the centre at the bottom –1–, –2– etc. The essay ends at the bottom of p. 29 which is not numbered but has the final ornament ___ooOoo___, with the O and os in red. The verso of the final sheet is blank. The 16 sheets are made into a booklet by two staples a little over a centimetre in from the left edge.
We are not told what width lies between the staples. There must be some priestly secrets or the keepers of the truth would have no function at all.
The above describes the typescript of a spoof essay, ‘What Are We Writing For?’, written by Larkin in 1943 in the guise of Brunette Coleman, a lesbian writer of girls’ school stories. The entire oeuvre of Brunette Coleman (the nominal shadow of a real Blanche Coleman, an ‘all-girl’ bandleader of the day) consists of a finished 120-page novel, ‘Trouble at Willow Gables’, an unfinished sequel, ‘Michaelmas Term at St Brides’, the essay mentioned above on the glories and sorrows of writing girls’ school stories, and seven poems called ‘Sugar and Spice’:
The cloakroom pegs are empty now,
And locked the classroom door . . .
By the end of 1943, Brunette Coleman’s day was done.
And even swimming-groups can fade,
Games-mistresses turn grey.
It was not Brunette who was offered and turned down the laureateship (though some might regret this), nor did she write Jill or A Girl in Winter. She existed mainly, it seems, to keep a few Oxford friends – Bruce Montgomery (Edmund Crispin), Diana Gollancz and the dreadful Kingsley Amis – amused. Brunette’s work was read aloud to Montgomery and Gollancz after evenings at the pub, and its progress discussed in salacious detail in letters designed to persuade Amis that Brunette’s puppet-master was a bit of a lad. Many writers and non-writers have dabbled when young with a bit of porn or pastiches of childhood reading. It’s a kind of youthful arrogance, like playing Bach as 12-bar blues instead of doing five-finger exercises. But James Booth would have us see the Brunette Coleman year as something more. For one thing, he claims, Larkin tried to get ‘Trouble at Willow Gables’ published, or so he surmises from the literary agent’s stamp on the front of the document wallet containing the manuscript. Larkin took his girls’ school stories seriously, it is suggested. This, of course, justifies the archive burrower in his publishing and analysis of the material. But there’s another thing about being young: you are crazy to be published. Anything that gets finished is, you reckon, worth having printed. Later, many of us are relieved not to have published evidence lying around of what we were capable of before we got properly going. Let this be a lesson, at least, to anyone who hasn’t got around to chucking out the crap they wrote in their teens and early twenties. There will – given the hordes of English graduates with a living to make and only limited numbers of jobs available at Accenture – be someone out there ready to publish a great fat volume of the stuff. Get rid of it now. It’s too late for T.H. White, whose illustrated spanking novel is soon to see the light of day, but you’ve still got time.
You will, however, be wanting to know about the pornographic content of these works, because if not that, then what on earth is the point of them? This is an interesting question – or as interesting a question as I can come up with given the material I’m working on. According to Larkin, Coleman represents his ‘lesbian period’. (A side question: is a male-female transsexual who becomes a lesbian woman more cunning than confused?) Booth sees it as a case of transgendering, the outflowing of, as Larkin describes it, ‘the dear passionately-sentimental spinster that lurks within me’. Her presence, for Booth, is confirmed as he remembers that Larkin ‘conducted an interminable fussy-solicitous correspondence with his mother, and relished the works of Barbara Pym and “Miss Read”’. As if reading Barbara Pym were not evidence enough, Booth suggests that Larkin also retreated into the feminine in face of the war (didn’t want to go into the Army) and his father’s Fascism (seems rather to have come to terms with that later). However, psychologically interesting as this may be, Booth insists that Brunette Coleman is, ‘just as importantly, a creative amalgam of diverse literary influences’. Such as? Um, the impact of ‘Yeats’s poems spoken by women (“;A Woman Young and Old”) is audible in such poems as “Wedding-Wind” and “Deep Analysis” and, less directly, in the Brunette works’. Much less directly, I should say. Bruce Montgomery wrote to Larkin 20 years on and wondered if it had occurred to him that ‘quite the best of your earliest poetry is in “Sugar and Spice”.’ This, Booth would like to believe, ‘is not a whimsical judgment’, because according to him those ‘parodic, and self-parodic, elegies are technically among the finest poems Larkin wrote during the decade, with an assured delicacy of tone far beyond anything in The North Ship.’ Just as ‘Larkin, the mature poet, was later to transfigure the clichés of urban folklore and advertising in poems such as “Essential Beauty” or “Sunny Prestatyn”’ so he turns ‘well-worn schoolgirl clichés into moving elegies (“Now the ponies all are dead”)’ and ‘the intimate domestic triviality of the schoolgirl world with its “seniors”, “juniors” and “sewing-classes” stands as a poignant metonymy for Life.’
But enough of poetry, tell us of the pornography, I hear you cry – sorry, the Brunette style is catching. Well, there isn’t much. There is one rampant lesbian senior, Hilary (‘a big girl, with a strongly-moulded body, damp lips, and smouldering, discontented eyes’), who has a crush on Mary, a sporty junior who causes the words ‘strong tawny young lioness’ to roll around in Hilary’s head. Hilary almost has her way with her as Mary nods off over cocoa and biscuits. There is a vigorous punishment scene when an innocent Marie is unjustly caned to within a yard or two of her life by the Headmistress while being held down by two burly prefects (‘Then she began thrashing her unmercifully, her face a mask of ferocity, caring little where the blows fell as long as they found a mark somewhere on Marie’s squirming body’). There is a mixture of the above two incidents when Hilary beats up and then nuzzles Margaret, an in this case guilty junior: (‘Lust had turned into anger, and anger into cruelty, and now cruelty, partly sated and partly still hungry, was turning into lust again. With a smile she stroked Margaret’s cheek where her blows had landed, and felt under her hand a solid body.’) One of the maids gets tittillatingly tied up by Marie as she makes her escape from her locked room, and there is a moment in the second novel, in which the girls have gone up to Oxford, when Mary (the sporty junior, remember?) finally melts willingly into bed with the still damp-lipped Hilary: ‘Mary gave a pleasurable yawn, and rolled over so that her head lay on Hilary’s lap. “I’m so tired,” she murmured. “So terribly tired. Do put me to bed.” For a second her tawny eyelashes lifted over her grey eyes, and she gave a little wriggle, and stretched. “I’m so tired, I shouldn’t notice even if you put me in the wrong bed.”’ But it can hardly be called pornography. All the details (and details, surely, are what matter in pornography) are cloaked in coyness. Not a breast, not a clitoris is seen or mentioned. It’s true that runaway Marie tears her trousers and her naked bum would be visible if she didn’t hold the seat of her pants together, and that Margaret also runs away, barebacked and knickerless on a local horse, making a note to herself that it is quite pleasant, but that is as far as anatomy goes, if you don’t count the short gym skirts that fly up to reveal a lot of leg when chasing healthily after the hockey ball.
It’s pitiful pornography, and feeble erotica, but it does provide something for the voyeuristic gaze to rest on. The words offer little other than pictures for the imagination to take in and manipulate. Once you’ve got Marie under the cane, the observer is free to embellish and impose his or her own private schoolgirl fantasies. Larkin provides the numbers which the reader (and he himself, I suppose) is free to join up into the scene of their dreams. The bare outlines of classical pornography are discernible in the innocent heroine wrongly accused and punished, and the hierarchical structure of the school where each echelon suffers at the hands of those above it and makes suffer those below it. Pauline Réage and the Marquis de Sade would recognise the architecture of these pieces, but where Réage and Sade offered precisely detailed illustrations of the experiences of O and Justine, Larkin sketches a mere outline and then walks away with a snigger. Which is to be judged more obscene depends entirely on the mind which reads them.
Or perhaps it’s just not worth wondering about these efforts at all. Plenty of people who didn’t turn out to be Philip Larkin wrote smutty stories, and thankfully the rest of us are not required to be bothered with them. Surely scholarship has better things to do? There is indeed a strong sense that Booth hasn’t got enough to keep his mind occupied. Otherwise why would he bother with footnotes informing his readers that Hugh Walpole was a ‘popular novelist’, Benny Goodman an ‘American clarinettist and bandleader (1909-86), nicknamed “the King of Swing”’; and that Myfanwy’s comment ‘Ours not to reason why’ is an inaccurate reference to ‘“Theirs not to reason why/Theirs but to do or die . . .” Alfred Tennyson, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”’? Is he trying to educate those readers only interested in pornography, who, he perhaps supposes, have no background information about anything at all, or does he imagine that Larkin’s avid readers are too young to have heard of Benny Goodman? Or is he merely trying to justify the time and fill out the pages of the little he has to work with?
After the output of Brunette Coleman there are some desultory attempts to outline and write a third legitimate novel. According to Larkin, his ambition was to be a novelist ‘in a way I never wanted to “be a poet”’. Nothing happened after he finished A Girl in Winter. ‘I tried very hard to write a third novel for about five years,’ Larkin remarked. ‘The ability to do so had just vanished: I can’t say more than that.’ He suspected that he dried up because novels ‘are about other people and poems are about yourself . . . I didn’t know enough about other people, I didn’t like them enough.’ He worked on ‘No for an Answer’ and ‘A New World Symphony’, both dealing with his relationships with women and his wish not to be engaged to and with them. He had abandoned both by 1953, either, Booth suggests, because he sensed that his ‘superego’ was too much in control, or because he feared the wrath of those he was writing about – would that be his superego not enough in control? Whatever the reason, he abandoned them. They were not finished or published. Now they are, after a fashion. They are fragments, not worked on, not finally drafted, not even worked through. Scholars might pick them over for whatever theories they may have about the relation between the life of the author and his literature, but these poor pieces of unfinished stuff qualify as neither. Booth suggests the present publication of them ‘makes it possible for readers to make their own judgment’. This is all very democratic. But one of the things a writer does as a writer is to make his or her own judgments about what has been produced and whether it should be made available to the judgment of others. An unfinished work is not a work. And readers have enough to read, surely, without having to flog through the half-chewed thoughts of writers trying to decide what they are going to become. There isn’t much that’s flagrantly exploitative about Brunette Coleman’s drivel, but there certainly is about the publication of these sad ramblings.