The girlhood of Philip Larkin

The key to the poet’s early obsession with girls’-school stories may lie with his sister Kitty

James Booth

Larkin’s early “Brunette Coleman” girls’-school stories are generally misunderstood. Andrew Motion finds the stories “disparaging about women”, “frivolous things, done for private pleasure, with very limited aims.” Clive James sees deeper, puzzled that the young writer should have chosen to dedicate such intense creative energy to this disregarded genre. To James, Larkin’s correspondence with his mother came as the revelation which made sense of Brunette for the first time. In a review of Letters Home in Prospect magazine he wrote:

“Considering the immense trouble it must have taken to write Trouble at Willow Gables . . . I myself was inclined to think its author . . . was a nut. It was the way it wasn’t pornographic that staggered me. These infants were in paradise, but from what boiling, twisting psychic ambivalence came all that finely noticed detail about a world without men? Well, now we know: he was channelling his mother.

But James is only partly right. More immediately Larkin was channelling his sister.

The young Larkin constructed his identity by identifying himself with all three members of his family. The style of his earliest letters varies depending on his correspondent. He channels his father in a terse, executive style: “I note the Government have done several drastic things, although I never read the papers. The suppression of the Daily Worker has caused a good deal of annoyance here.” In writing to his mother he falls into an idiom of domestic triviality: “No marmite yet . . . I broke the handle from a tea-cup the other day, unfortunately. This is the first breakage of any sort we have had. We lost the strainer the other day.”

Philip’s early letters to his sister show the same close intimacy. Ten years older than her brother, Kitty had “really brought him up” (she later told her daughter) when their mother could not cope. An early photograph, presumably taken by their father, shows Larkin, aged about 11, photographing Kitty, in her early twenties, as she strikes a Vogue pose in the garden, a broad belt tight round her slim waist. In another photograph he is transfixed as she applies make-up on the beach.

Letters which Philip wrote to Kitty in the early 1940s, while she was training as a teacher of art and design, give a glimpse into their shared world. In November 1941 he told her that, preparing to be “polyfotoed”, “I . . . did my hair (as far as possible) in the Rupert Brooke Coiffure you approved of once.” He encouraged her theatrical projects, analysed the films they had seen, and drew an affectionate caricature of Kitty as a cat teaching “Form and Content” to “a whole secondary school in Art” (“please miss, come an’ draw a cow”; “please miss, yer ’air’s cummin down”). He attempted to counter her self-doubt: “It must be difficult to be ceaselessly adapting your personality to the different subjects and classes. You are very clever to be able to do it.”

He frequently mentions colours in writing to her. In January 1941 he tells her that Jim Sutton’s newly-acquired sports coat “isn’t quite purple — a kind of red, more . . . it looks excellent with an orange sweater.” Three months later he boasts from Oxford that he has bought the only pair of “crimson trousers — dark crimson”, in the university. He thanks her for her “elaborate envelope, and her coloured notepaper”, and suggests sending letters on orange paper in red envelopes or on red paper in orange envelopes. “What is your opinion on this? Actually I suppose orange and green, or orange and yellow would be better, but I want to be bright and sunlike.” In October 1941 he mentions to his mother that Kitty has written to him “on her swagger crested paper in answer to one of my orange telegrams”.

The florid handwriting on some of the envelopes addressed to Kitty imitates her style. Strangely he changes her name from letter to letter, addressing her as “K”, “Kit”, “Kath”, “Kathryn”, “Katherine”, “Katharine” or “Kitty”. The name echoes in his later writing. The vulnerable protagonist of his second novel, A Girl in Winter, is called Katherine, and in “Dublinesque” (1970) the name “Kitty, or Katy” echoes in a dream down the streets of Dublin, as if it “meant once / All love, all beauty.” In a letter to their mother of 1966 he asserts his virtual identity with his sister: “I dreamed about Kitty the other night, but have forgotten what. Fancy her saying we were utterly unlike each other! Only as one red is utterly unlike another red, I shd have thought.”

Difficulties with girls: Larkin as a student at St John’s College, Oxford, in 1941 (PHOTO ©THE ESTATE OF PHILIP LARKIN)

Larkin’s close relations with his unconventional family encouraged a feminisation of his sensibility. Even his father discussed the letters of Katherine Mansfield with him, and praised a novel by the lesbian Radclyffe Hall. However, it still seems astonishing that he should have chosen to devote his literary energies following his graduation in 1943, to a series of girls’-school stories, poems and essays written under a pseudonym. Kitty’s daughter thinks that her mother read The School Friend comic (later Schoolgirl), and an Angela Brazil novel was among her books when she died. But it seems probable that Larkin was following his own literary compulsion in seeking out the eight girls’-school stories which Brunette cites in her essay “What Are We Writing For?”, a sophisticated, aestheticist riposte to George Orwell’s ideological analysis, “Boy’s Weeklies”, published in 1940 in Horizon.

Kingsley Amis’s crudely pornographic explanation of these works is a red herring. From May 1941 to early summer 1942, when Amis was commissioned into the Signals, the two men were fast friends in St John’s College. Larkin had already taken his first steps in poetry before they met, imitating W.H. Auden in erotic poems about his schoolfriends. Now in uneasy short stories he fictionalised his and Amis’s attitudes to “this buggery business”. Philip Brown, with whom he lodged in Oxford in 1942, recalls that Larkin might have had a “crush” on him, though “there wasn’t any serious action. Besides, I was extremely interested in girls. And so was he. He was sexual, you see, but undirected.” Larkin readily fell in with Amis’s lubricious fantasies and matched his friend’s rampantly lesbian “Anna Lucasta” with his own “Brunette Coleman”. But, unlike Anna, Brunette was never the projection of heterosexual voyeurism.

Brunette’s oeuvre was written over a year after Amis had left Oxford, at a time when Larkin had fallen under quite different influences. In his final year he was constantly in the company of the art student Diana Gollancz, whose habit of calling everyone “dear creature” gave him his “creature” persona in the drawings in his letters. But the key influence at this time was the charismatic modern languages student and detective novelist, Bruce Montgomery. Under Montgomery’s influence he adopted a dilettantish pose of insouciant narcissism: “I am preparing to take Finals,” he wrote to Sutton, “and the prospect is an expanding shite. I am also dressed in red trousers, shirt, and white pullover, and look very beautiful.”

Larkin later remembered that “leaving Oxford was like taking a cork out of a bottle . . . Writing flooded out of me.” In three or four months, back at home in his attic room in Warwick, he wrote the camp, pastiche novellas, Trouble at Willow Gables and Michaelmas Term at St Bride’s, and also Brunette’s seven “Sugar and Spice” poems, by far the best poetry he was to write in the decade. As Clive James perceives, he took “immense trouble” over these works. He even sent the carefully typed Trouble at Willow Gables for publication to one of Diana Gollancz’s father’s companies, Rochefort Publications Ltd., though it was rejected. In a letter to Amis he considered sending a copy of “Sugar and Spice” to John Betjeman: “ — wonder what he’d say?”

“It was the way it wasn’t pornographic that staggered me,” writes James. Indeed the main impulse behind the beautifully-crafted Trouble at Willow Gables is an affectionate homage to the girls’-school genre. He studied and creatively absorbed the genre fiction of Dorita Fairlie Bruce, Dorothy Vicary, Nancy Breary and Joy Francis, with the same respect he paid to the classic texts of the English syllabus. When Trouble was published in 2002 Sue Sims, editor of Folly, the magazine for lovers of the girls’-school story, commented that some passages “could have come straight out of Dorita Fairlie Bruce or Elsie J. Oxenham”.

“Bare feet patted the linoleum, pyjamas were thrown limply onto beds, sounds of splashing arose. Heads emerged from blouses, from tunics: stockings were drawn on, garters snapped round thighs, sashes fastened, slides clipped into place. Philippa did up her black skirt, with one eye on a text-book open on her dressing-table: Ursula sucked a lozenge . . .”

The characterisation is assured, and follows the genre prescription, though the lesbian strand is explicit, rather than a suppressed subtext as it is in Vicary and Oxenham. There are the fourth-formers: loveable, impulsive Marie Moore, greedy for second and third helpings at dinner; rebellious, accident-prone, ruefully sardonic Margaret Tattenham, who gambles secretly on the Oaks; and Mary Beech, who fascinates the lesbian Hilary with her “soft, silken skin, ribboned hair, print dresses, socks and sensible shoes, and a serious outlook on a world limited by puppies, horses, a few simple ideas, and changing Mummy’s book at Boots”. Then there are the sixth-formers, Hilary, Ursula and Pam, who play poker and smoke in the privacy of their studies. Hilary, “a big girl, with a strongly-moulded body, damp lips, and smouldering, discontented eyes”, dictates the plot by confiscating the five-pound note Marie’s aunt has sent her, and forcing her attentions on Mary Beech. Philippa, Marie’s elder sister and Head of School, is more psychologically complicated: always in black, her nose in a book, nervously “inserting her hands between her broad leather belt and her soft, jumpered stomach”. Later, in Michaelmas Term at St Bride’s, the characters all become Oxford undergraduates, and Larkin pushes beyond the genre parameters when Marie, newly interested in psychological theory, discovers that Philippa is obsessed with belts:

“Phil, what an incredible lot of belts.”
“What’s incredible about them?”
“I never knew you had so many.”
“Oh, one picks them up, you know,” said Philippa vaguely, holding her dress out on the support of two forearms before diving within it. “They accumulate, you know.”
Marie inspected them more closely. “But you must have at least thirty!”
“Thirty-seven, I think.”

Choosing one made of rhinoceros-hide she “took a deep breath and by a sudden jerk of the wrist managed to secure the buckle on the last hole. Marie noticed with increased disquiet that this last hole was rather ragged round the edges and was obviously home-bored.”

In “What Are We Writing For?” Brunette quotes Dorita Fairlie-Bruce’s poetic epigraph to Dimsie Moves Up Again, “To the Old Girls of Clarence House, Roehampton”:

And if from words of mine you catch
One breath of the old cedars’ scent —
Hear blithe young voices cheer the match,
Across the sunny field, or see
Forgotten faces flushed with glee —
I shall be well-content.

Larkin was moved by the nostalgia of these idylls of girlhood. More importantly he recognised the deep elegiac roots of the genre. In “Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis” he short-circuits from the archetypes of Villon’s celebrated 15th-century poem to those of Willow Gables, substituting for Villon’s fabled women of history — Thais, mistress of Alexander the Great, Eloise, lover of Abelard, Blanche of Castile and Joan of Arc — the tomboy Valerie with her golden-red hair, Julia improvising on the Londonderry Air, brown-legged Jill, and Patricia who played Rosalind in the school play. “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?” asks Villon; Brunette sighs, “So many summer terms away.” But her “Dames du Temps Jadis” are not, like Villon’s, the femmes fatales of masculine ideology, but girls in their own world, without men.

Tell me, into what far lands
They are all gone, whom once I knew
With tennis-racquets in their hands,
And gym-shoes, dabbled with the dew?

The brilliant first-class graduate had learned the lesson of William Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral (1935). Brunette’s world is as “archetypal” as that of Villon or Theocritus. Later, the mature poet transfigures the clichés of shopping and advertising in poems such as “Essential Beauty”, “Sunny Prestatyn” and “The Large Cool Store”. Here, in these poems, he makes the clichés of the schoolgirl world into a poignant metonym for Life:

Now the ponies all are dead,
The summer frocks have been outgrown,
The books are changed, beside the bed,
And all the stitches that were sewn
Have been unpicked.

The key that unlocked the literary floodgates was the adoption of what Larkin called a “lesbian” persona. In a letter to Amis of September 1943 he wrote: “homosexuality has been completely replaced by lesbianism in my character at the moment — I don’t know why.” It was presumably Bruce Montgomery who introduced him to Theodore Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), with its elusive bisexual heroine. Hilary cherishes her copy of the novel, and pursues her dream of beauty with a neo-Platonic idealism like that of Gautier’s protagonist, d’Albert. The most original poem in “Sugar and Spice” is a deliberately British pastiche of Baudelaire’s “Femmes Damnées” (“Lesbians”; 1857). The French poet’s lurid melodrama is elaborated over 26 stanzas and ends with the “lamentables victimes” descending the road to “l’enfer éternel”. Brunette’s imitation extends to a mere six mock-heroic quatrains and her lesbians are middle-class students in a comfortable suburb, milk bottles on the doorstep and the Guardian in the letter-box. Baudelaire’s Delphine becomes Rachel, whose graduation photograph in cap and gown overlooks the scene of seduction. Brunette outdoes Baudelaire in rhetorical malice:

Rachel curls and curves,
Eyelids and lips apart, her glances filled
With satisfied ferocity; she smiles,
As beasts smile on the prey they have just killed.

But the tone is playful, and when we are told that Rachel’s victim, Rosemary, weeps on “Cushions from Harrods . . . smelling of smoke and wine”, the reader suspects that, once she has dried her tears, life will carry on as it does for Mary Beech in Michaelmas Term at St Bride’s, who after her seduction becomes Hilary’s companionable lover.

Late in 1943, before taking up his librarian post in Wellington, Larkin called it a day. He pasted the first typed pages of Michaelmas Term over the matching pages of the unfinished holograph, and inserted a corrected pencil draft of the last, most poignant Brunette poem, “Fourth Former Loquitur”, into the “Sugar and Spice” booklet. He filed Brunette away and made a clean break. He buckled down conscientiously to the duties of a provincial librarian and his letters from Wellington lack the élan and high spirits of Oxford. But his early dream of girlhood continued to dominate his imagination throughout the 1940s.

Soon after his arrival in Wellington his biological gender came into conflict with his dream of girlhood when he became entangled with a real 16-year-old schoolgirl, Ruth Bowman. The relationship descended into guilt and scathing self-criticism. His published novels, Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947), both evoke an innocent female world cruelly shattered by crude masculine sexuality.

In the early 1944 poem “I see a girl dragged by the wrists”, the poet watches a laughing girl “pretending to struggle” as she is dragged across a field of snow in courtship horseplay. Startlingly he is jealous, not of the man’s masterfulness, but of the girl’s breathless surrender:

Nothing so wild, nothing so glad as she
Rears up in me,
And would not, though I watched an hour yet.

“To be that girl!” he exclaims, “ — but that’s impossible.” No doubt in writing this poem Larkin had in mind Ruth, who wanted nothing more than to enjoy a full romantic and sexual relationship with the reluctant young librarian. But it must also be relevant that at this time Larkin’s sister was enjoying an untroubled courtship with Walter Hewett, whom she was to marry in August 1944. A letter of the previous year from Kitty to their mother describes a visit by the couple to Leicester. They browsed in the bookshops and watched a comedy at the theatre, after which they wandered around and then went dancing at the Bell Hotel. “It really was a lovely floor and quite select, not like the usual palais-de-danse. Of course I hadn’t gone intending to dance but didn’t feel out of place in my black dress and snow-white collar.” Brunette and Hilary would have relished Kitty’s pride in her fashionable “black dress and snow-white collar.”

In September 1946, when Ruth reached the age of 18, Larkin attempted to break the impasse through poetry, identifying himself with a newly-married woman in the ecstatic “Wedding-Wind”. The therapy was successful in persuading him into deeper commitment. But, when it seemed that, as a result, Ruth had become pregnant, he revolted. In “At the chiming of light upon sleep” written in early October 1946, he expresses (with wild puns on unprotected sex) a masculinist horror of spending his seed and thus welcoming mortality into his life. “Unsheath/ The life you carry and die, cries the cock/ On the crest of the sun.” He was never to find the way forward, as Dockery (perhaps) did, to a fulfilled life as husband and father. In the words of his late self-epitaph, “Love Again”, “it never worked for me”. “Wedding-Wind” is the last poem in which he adopted the Brunette strategy of writing in the persona of a woman.

But the Brunette works were not a false start. Echoes of his early desire to “be that girl” resound through his mature poetry. The women in his life, his mother, sister, Ruth, Winifred Arnott and Monica Jones, are channelled in poems like “Deceptions”, “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album”, “If, My Darling”, “Maiden Name”, “Love Songs in Age”, “Talking in Bed”.

The implications of the Brunette episode for Larkin’s sensibility were profound. Simone de Beauvoir noted that “Many boys, frightened by the hard independence they are condemned to, wish they were girls.” In her feminist analysis of the girls’-school story genre, The World of Girls (1992), Rosemary Auchmuty argues that such stories offered her “a temporary escape and refuge from the pressures of that profoundly heterosexual society I lived in.” Larkin’s “lesbian” writing shows the same rejection of heterosexual norms.

In a letter to his 15-year-old niece Rosemary in 1962 Larkin wrote:

“One of the nice things about being a girl is that you can wear all the nicest colours & precious stones & smell of the most beautiful flowers — you are much luckier than men who go about in perpetual camouflage smelling of Tweed & Gorse & Old Spice.”

In view of his early desire to “be that girl” we can imagine Larkin’s amusement at the cultural shift which brought Grayson Perry to Hull to deliver the 2017 Larkin Society Annual Guest Lecture, resplendent in white and blue frock and carrying a yellow handbag.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"