PARAGON REVIEW

Issue 6

PHILIP LARKIN AND THE CASE OF THE MISSING MANUSCRIPT

Before departing for her new post at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle, Dr Rebecca Johnson (Assistant Librarian, Manuscripts) completed this thoughtful and provocative essay for the Review. In it she examines the extent to which some authors sometimes seek to manipulate the public's perception of their work - something which can quickly become unstuck after death.

Sadly, no manuscript version of Philip Larkin's first novel Jill has survived. There are clear parallels between a draft novel, 'Michaelmas Term at St Brides' and several short stories which Larkin wrote whilst a student at Oxford, but nothing more substantial. Jill was published by the tiny Fortune Press before being rescued by Faber and Faber and later in America by St Martin's Press and the Overlook Press. After publication, Larkin was ever-attentive to the opportunities for new networks of meaning which Jill's various bibliographic contexts presented. Convinced that the novel was never more than a juvenile 'indiscretion', that the plot was weak and 'immature', his interest in its publication history allowed him to surround it with new and more exciting narratives. Additionally, the requests by publishers for new prefaces allowed Larkin to engage in some early autobiographical self-fashioning.

From the beginning Jill was treated as a literary object rather than an aesthetic work by both author and publisher. Writing to Kingsley Amis on 8 November 1943 Larkin described the physical process of creating a new draft:

'I began reading the second draft through again, meaning to start at page one and read on till I reached page 210 which is where I broke off (the phrase is not accidentally chosen). I got about to page 40. That's right. In consequence I started Draft III in a boiling rage.'

Later in a letter to James Sutton dated 11 April 1945 he admitted to manhandling his novel, bundling it off: 'in a mad mood I parcelled up Jill and sent it to the Fortune Press'. Once at 'the yelping ground for incompetents', the manuscript was sent to the printers without corrections. Consequently, when Larkin finally received the proofs Jill had been mauled by a printer suspicious of anything emanating from this press, which at the time was best known for its pornographic works:

'words like sod & bugger & fuck and shit caused them to faint & one girl nearly had hysterics, and therefore the manager blue pencilled the whole thing down to the last 'my God'. Naturally I objected to this when I got the proofs and am now replacing the milder swearing obstinately . . . I am sick of the Fortune Press. They only publish dirty novels and any printer who does their work is extra suspicious.'

One might expect the writer who had so little respect for his publisher to have taken greater care of the manuscripts for Jill. He certainly took care of the book of poems he published with the Fortune Press. A detailed notebook containing the drafts of those poems which were to appear in The North Ship survived. Indeed, it was this notebook which Larkin later chose to donate to the British Library as part of the Arts Council's initiative in 1963 to keep contemporary literary manuscripts in Britain. However, nothing so detailed remains of Jill. Barry Bloomfield in his Larkin Bibliography even records that the original typescript was later thrown away by the author.

So what can be made of the meticulous librarian's seemingly carefree attitude to his own prose manuscript of Jill? One answer comes from the record of Larkin's involvement with the National Manuscript Collection of Con-temporary Poets Committee. Poetry was clearly viewed as the elite member of the arts, prose the poor relation, even in the 1960s. Announcing the creation of the Committee, The Bookseller rather bitterly observed:

'Poetry, which is the only aspect of the printed word with which the Arts Council is concerned is more prominently featured than usual in this year's report, Ends and Means, because of the announcement that the Council and the British Museum have agreed to collaborate on a joint scheme to set up a national manuscript collection of contemporary poets committee . . .'

Taking his lead from the Arts Council Larkin sent more questionnaires about the sale and preservation of contemporary manuscripts to poets than novelists. Revealingly, in drafts for his published essay on the subject ('A neglected responsibility'), it was the example of poets which he used to explain the attraction of collecting all literary manuscripts:

'we shall misjudge the situation if we ignore the emotional, even irrational element in manuscript collecting, the Shelley plain, Thomas-coloured factor that makes even an ordinary autograph go on glowing radioactively through the decades.'

I suggest that Larkin threw the original manuscript of Jill away because he was both convinced of Jill's 'cradle-15-21 ish' ness and led by his own era's elitist treatment of poetry. It seems that for Larkin the poetry manuscript had a romantic mysticism verging on iconography. In a later draft of 'A Neglected responsibility' he attributed the magic of collecting manuscripts to a 'miraculous' combination of paper and word where poetry manuscripts became 'objects of veneration, a little like holy relics'. Larkin's decision to discard Jill and A Girl in Winter suggests that he thought his prose manuscripts could never adopt such quasi-religious significance.

Instead, the narratives about the production of his text which Larkin retained for posterity keep prose writing rooted in the workings of capitalism. The publication history of Jill conducted in letters between the author, Faber and Faber, The Fortune Press and The Overlook Press show a writer actively interfering in the way his text was marketed, promoted and consumed. Jill was first re-published by Faber and Faber at the same time as The Whitsun Weddings. It was Larkin who set the ball rolling. On 11 March 1963 he wrote to Peter du Sautoy (at Faber's) drawing attention to the extensive treatment which Jill had received in James Gindin's book Post-War British fiction and suggested that Faber move in 'because if it is going to be built into a kind of Ur-text of the genre there is a real danger that the Fortune Press might wake up again and do another unsatisfactory edition . . .'. Once Faber had made positive noises Larkin wrote for advice to his 'trades union', the Society of Authors. On 23 April 1956 Phillippa MacLeish responded vigorously but urged caution.

[Larkin bibliography launch]Larkin and Barry Bloomfield at the launch of the latter's invaluable Philip Larkin: a bibliography, in 1979

In reality, Faber's re-publication of Jill was fraught with difficulties. They were not sure of the precise nature of the contract Larkin had agreed with the Fortune Press. On 19 April 1963 Larkin wrote to Charles Monteith giving a narrative history of Jill and including five 'laconic' letters from the firm to him between 26 September 1945 and 23 May 1947:

'in 1944 the director, [Reginald] Caton, wrote asking whether I would like to submit a collection of poems for publication . . . In 1945 I finished Jill and sent it to him. In July 1945 he wrote saying that he would publish it before the end of the year if I would forego royalties on the first edition. I have not got this letter but this condition is noted in a diary of the period and is also reported in a letter home . . .'

Clearly, before Jill could be re-published Larkin had to go back through his diaries, to rediscover and rewrite his past. In the process he gave out snippets of what was in those diaries (destroyed at his death): 'I was a bit of a menace in those days' he wrote to Monteith on 24 April 1963. 'I find in my first year that I was a college agent for both the English Club and The Cherwell. I have a note that I called on Bruce Montgomery to try to persuade him to join the former and found him 'tractable'.

Once Charles Monteith had heard from his lawyer that there was nothing to stop Faber and Faber going ahead with the publication of Jill (9 July 1963), he asked Larkin to write a preface to the novel. Larkin chose to continue the personal narrative which the novel's publication had unearthed by giving an autobiographical account of what Oxford had been like in the 1940s. Somewhat surprisingly, he paid more attention to this part of the manuscript of Jill than any other. Written in 1964 and revised for the Overlook Press edition of 1976 it was to cause him a degree of headache, since he worried that the Oxford friends mentioned might take offence. He even sent a copy to Amis on 29 November 1963 seeking his approval.

The Faber preface to Jill is a fascinating continuation of the personal narrative which the re-publication of the book had opened up in his correspondence with Charles Monteith. It shows a writer eager to appear serious, 'English' and above all worldly:

'An American critic (James Gindin) recently suggested that Jill contained the first example of that characteristic landmark of the British post-war novel, the displaced working class hero. If this is true (and it sounds fair trend spotters comment) the book may hold sufficient historical interest to justify republication . . . As a matter of fact, the Oxford of that autumn was singularly free from such traditional distinctions. The war (the American readers may yet need reminding) was then in its second year . . .'

Thus Larkin gives the American critic a lesson in British history whilst simultaneously confirming that same American critic's observation that Jill was a historical text. The point was reinforced in the second preface he wrote for the Overlook Press where he added: 'after twelve years . . . I am struck by the [story's] growing claims as a historical text', and the blurb for that edition which read: 'The distinguished poet's eloquent first novel, available for the first time in paperback, is an evocation of Oxford in its golden era . . .'.

At the same time, Larkin went out of his way to deny that his generation of writers experienced the Oxford of Evelyn Waugh ('this was not the Oxford of . . . Charles Ryder and his plover's eggs', he wrote). Instead he created a setting where the great writers of the future were prepared to leave for the front to fight aware of their duty in the world. The story of his first meeting with Kingsley Amis where Amis pretended to fall down and die to the sound of gunshots is followed by a list of those friends who had to leave: 'At the end of every term somebody left. Sometimes it was a false alarm . . . But more often it was permanent. Norman was commissioned in the Artillery . . . Kingsley was commissioned in the Signals.'

[Editions of Jill]Editions of Jill, with the original fortune Press version in the centre

Larkin's preface to Jill served to set the text in an austere and serious 'war' context. It is only when we turn to the posthumously published Selected letters that we realise the true extent of the authorial manipulation which we have been subjected to here. It is for example a little rich for the man who dressed in red pants and posed as Rupert Brooke for a photograph as a student to record shock when seeing an undergraduate 'in sky-blue cloak' during a visit to Oxford in later years. The question of course is why Larkin wanted to replace the 'portrait of a writah' interested in Auden, Isherwood and French poets with a ration dogged 'survivor'. Again the story of Jill's publication history can help us to untangle this seeming contradiction.

When Jill had first been published the dust jacket had advertised homosexual texts such as Climbing Boy, Barbarian Boy and A Diary of the Teens by a Boy. This placed Jill in a troubled world nervous of the law. As Larkin wrote in the Overlook preface to Jill the only time he met Reginald Caton was after the printer had refused to print the obscenities in the text as they stood. Alarmed by this news Caton arranged to meet Larkin to emphasise that 'a charge of obscenity was "no joke"'.

At the time that Jill had been published (1946) the sordid publication company she kept had not bothered him. Indeed, it had fitted well with the Oxford which had stimulated him to write. Whilst at St John's between 1940 and 1943 Larkin had easily adopted the camp tone which befitted those 'undergraduates and dons with pretensions to culture and a taste for the arts', by imitating the styles of Auden, Isherwood and Waugh. In addition he had created the persona of Brunette Coleman, leisured artisan and writer of lesbian schoolgirl novels, thereby pressing himself into an effeminate mould. Such a persona would not have looked out of place in the 1950s and '60s since the notion that literature was effeminate had been current right through the '40s.

However, by the time Larkin was to push for the re-publication of Jill by Fabers the literary climate had changed. The new mood of the literary establishment was neatly summed up in Robert Conquest's introduction to New Lines where he insisted that he and his colleagues had 'a new and healthy general standpoint', writing as they did 'for the whole man'.

From this perspective one can see why Larkin was fascinated with tracking Caton down and re-writing Jill's publishing history. He could be described as a latter day Orpheus rescuing Jill from the underworld, determined to rewrite the past without a backward glance. After all Jill had been totally humiliated in Caton's hands. The text had been mangled and 'unsatisfactory', and when finally marketed, had been spotted by Kingsley Amis in a shop in 'Coventry Street between Naked and Unashamed and High-Heeled Yvonne'.

It is no surprise to learn therefore, that when Caton later sells the Fortune Press to Leonard Holdsworth (The Charles Skilton Publishing Group) it was Larkin who alerted Faber to the fact that the new owners were including his name as one of their novelists in their advertisements. He had had enough of the small publishing firm with their eclectic publications lists and quirky marketing strategies.

Larkin's disinterested attitude to textual style and focus on the context which he and Fabers had created is further underlined when we compare the Faber and Fortune Press editions of Jill. Despite his complaint that the Fortune Press edition was 'unsatisfactory' the Faber text is remarkably similar. The small amendments made have nothing to do with the aesthetic quality of the text and everything to do with the censorship it was subjected to by the Lewes printer. On page 43 the Faber Jill substitutes 'piss' for 'bad'; on page 179 we read 'Bugger the Proctors!' for '------ the Proctors!'; on page 187 we read 'sod' for 'beast'. By re-instating obscenities the verbal surface of the novel had not been altered in any significant way, but Larkin had removed the slur of censorship. The problems which Caton had had with printers suspicious of his type of press did not occur once one had made the Faber list.

The second Faber reprint of Jill was as problem free as the first and elicited little further correspondence. Brought out this time in tandem with High Windows the contrast is again remarkable. Larkin howls with anguish every time he finds a proof or printing error in the production of High Windows, whilst the republication of Jill goes by smoothly without a hitch. In a letter to Charles Monteith dated 16 October 1974 Larkin wrote of the former:

'I really ought to send a weekly corrections bulletin rather than write these isolated letters, but looking at my reprint last night I noticed, not without a certain horror, that in 'Posterity' my phrase 'out of kicks' had been changed to 'out for kicks'

Yet the only corrections he requested for Jill in the paperback reprint were typographical. He pointed out that for the footnote at the bottom of page 16 'The 2003 Claret, should be printed thus, and not in italic without capitals' (To Monteith, 11 October 1974). Three days later he noticed that on page 245 line 18 'Haltingly' should read 'haltingly' (14 October 1974).

If Jill took a while to find its proper ground in Britain there was an uneasy tale of unsuccessful and successful publication played out in America too. First published by the St Martin's Press in 1965 Jill was not successful enough to warrant republication until in 1976 the Overlook Press wrote to Fabers proposing an American paperback edition of A Girl in Winter. This press was run by Peter Mayer in his spare time (he was editorial director of the mass market paperback operation Avon Books). Not usually a fan of the small press or limited edition (Larkin refused all offers to do his poetry) Larkin trusted to Fabers' judgement and allowed them to make the deal. He was pleased with the results, writing in a letter to Peter Mayer: 'such a handsome version of this youthful indiscretion' (28 May 1976) and pointing out two small errors - 'Note an error on the last line but five on page 18 'or' instead of 'to' rendering the whole passage incomprehensible' and 'Christopher Weaver for Christopher Warner'.

With the Overlook Press edition Jill's publication history had come full circle. From small British press with a reputation for printing pornography to a small American press with a reputation for publishing stylish limited editions. The fact that Larkin allowed the Overlook Press project to go ahead suggests that the attraction of publishing outside the mainstream public channels remained with him despite the scars of the Fortune Press. Indeed, the small press publication of Jill maintained its status as Ur-text, exemplar of post-war realist fiction. As the blurb said this book 'is an evocation of Oxford's golden era'. It also showed an unreserved faith in Faber and Faber's judgement. Larkin had finally found a publishing house he could trust.

In conclusion, what survives of Jill is context. The novel's haphazard entry into the 'underworld' of publishing and its writer's subsequent efforts to bring it to the attention of the literary establishment present a curious record. By the time Faber planned to republish Jill Larkin had grown bored with its content and style. Never convinced that it was a great novel, he was nevertheless intrigued by the history of its publication. It was, as we have seen, Larkin who set in motion Faber's republication of the Fortune Press edition and used the opportunity to negotiate personal and publication history on its own terms. In the processs the novel and the writer take on mythical characteristics appropriate for an 'Ur-text' for of course there are no surviving diaries or manuscripts available to compare against the published preface and print. In the final analysis the publication history of Jill also shows the chameleon side to Larkin's 'authority'. Ever ready to accept the fashions of the literary establishment Larkin literally cuts his cloth to fit.

Rebecca Johnson

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Maintained by the Archives and Special Collections Team, Brynmor Jones Library
Created: March 1998