Belfast Telegraph

Women like Philip Larkin's misanthropic mother have gone the way of the dodo

By Mary Kenny

Philip Larkin's most famous poem is a catchy but sour disquisition on the malign influence of parents ("They f*** you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to, but they do"). It now emerges that his reflections were all too autobiographical: he seems to have inherited his gloomy and misanthropic view of family life from his own mother, Eva.

A book to be published later this year about writers and their mothers claims that Larkin's mother repeatedly discouraged him from marrying by presenting matrimony as a limiting, mundane and prosaic station in life. "It is marriage that kills the heart and keeps it dead," she wrote to him, after reading a novel by George Bernard Shaw (who was himself happily, if sexlessly, married).

Larkin, who was born in Coventry, had an early romance with a young woman called Ruth Bowman, and they were at one point engaged. But, although he seems to have loved her, he wriggled out of the commitment.

Lest he contemplate repeating the exercise, his mother warned him against wedlock again, with a depressingly utilitarian vision: "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 home comforts. There are other things just as important."

Larkin (who died in 1985 aged 63) has always struck me as a curmudgeonly blighter whose correspondence with Kingsley Amis was famously scurrilous, full of juvenile mocking of women, foreigners, children, "and several other categories of human being", as one of his biographers put it.

Yet the mother who warns her son against the lures and wiles of women was not an unusual phenomenon in Larkin's time. It's a theme that arises in Irish life too. When the population of the Irish Republic sank below three million in the 1950s, and the marriage (and birth) rates were catastrophically low, "selfish mothers" who "kept their adult sons tied to their apron-strings" were often singled out for blame.

The Abbey playwright Paul Vincent Carroll expressed the view that "it is well-known that the elderly Irish mother is about the most jealous and unreasoning female on the face of the earth. Between her and the 'self-seeking hussy' who aims to 'trap' her son - the son being between 30 and 40 - there is just no compromise this side of the grave".

A traditional Irish ballad, covered by Ruby Murray (and, even more acerbically, by the songstress Delia Murphy) - Let Him Go, Let Him Tarry - has a verse which squarely blames a man's mother for the breakdown of a romance: "Let him go to his old mother now and set her heart at ease/I hear she is a mean old woman, very hard to please/It's slighting me and talking ill is all she's ever done/Because that I was courting her great big ugly son!"

Aren't love, jealousy, possessiveness and family antipathies always repeating themselves in human relationships? Maybe. Yet, I don't know many women these days who would give the mean-spirited advice that Ma Larkin handed out to her son. I encounter rather more mothers who ardently wish that sons in their middle and late 30s would settle down and make a commitment to a partner.

You hear of guys in this phase of adulthood who are earning a good living, have a foot on the housing ladder and seem to have met, lived with and then discarded several promising relationships - to the growing disappointment of their mothers.

Far from being hostile to younger women, I've known mothers build up warm friendships with a son's girlfriend, hoping that this is an investment in a long-term future, only to be crestfallen when the couple split.

Sometimes the man backs away for quite an honourable reason: he's 35 but not ready for fatherhood, she's 35 and wants to start having babies. He feels he's spoiling her chances by maintaining the relationship. But his mother is exasperated by his preferred option of dithering.

I've heard admiring conversations about the informal match-making practices which are considered acceptable in some Jewish communities, especially where these are religious. A Jewish mother may well say to her son: "I know a nice girl who you might like. Why don't you meet her?" It's not regarded as interfering - just a sensible suggestion from a mother who wants her son to be happy. He is free to say yes or no. But parental match-making is not now the norm in wider societies, where everything is predicated on individual choice.

Philip Larkin did eventually form a continuous relationship with a companion, the academic Monica Jones, who was accepted as his partner and to whom he left his estate. She promptly destroyed 30 volumes of his diaries and private papers after his death, a gesture not appreciated by archivists.

Perhaps Monica resented the influence which his dour mother seems to have exercised over him - he went on writing to Eva twice weekly for over 35 years, even though he described his Ma as "an obsessive snivelling pest", and "irritating and boring".

Eva Larkin evidently didn't want to lose her only son to another woman. But I hope I'm right in saying that her sentiments are less commonly found these days.

Belfast Telegraph

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