Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 22 May 2017

Philip Larkin, the Marvell Press and Me by Jean Hartley

This is one of those unexpected week-end reads – a book I’d never heard of before that I picked up on a whim but which was, in all ways, a delight from beginning to end.

Jean Hartley, nee Holland, was born into a working class family in Hull just as the Second World War was brewing. Despite the family’s threadbare, almost hand to mouth existence, Jean developed a love for learning and for reading that came to dominate her life. An enthusiastic autodidact, she owns up to developing an unbearable snobbery and sense of superiority as a precocious teenager – a period in her life that came to a crashing halt when she became pregnant having been seduced by a young man quoting D.H.Lawrence.

Hartley writes honestly and without a trace of self-pity about these early years and a sense of humour and self-mockery is never far beneath the surface. She’s also pretty matter-of-fact about her circumstances and her own failings which means she’s never lingering too long on looking for explanations or scapegoats – something that keeps the autobiography moving along at a decent pace.

When she gets pregnant again and marries George Hartley, a new phase of her life begins – which several years later would also end acrimoniously. However, in  these early years of the relationship the two newly-weds go out on a limb to publish their own literary/poetry magazine called Listen which drains them of any spare income and puts them in a permanent state of running debt. Canvassing for contributions for the magazine, they approach Philip Larkin, then working in Belfast but, as fate would have it about to take up his new job as Head Librarian at Hull University. A bond was quickly established between the rather neurotic and formal Larkin and the shambolic Hartleys which resulted in the latter’s decision to go into the publishing world under the name ‘The Marvell Press’ – partly a tribute to Andrew Marvell who was a local poet and partly to reflect the fact that a successful publishing enterprise would be a marvel.

As a result their first big venture was to publish The Less Deceived which would go on to be a major event in the poetry world. As is often the case in these rather haphazard ventures, contract decisions were  less than brilliantly thought-through and keeping the whole venture afloat alongside Listen was very hard work. They ventured out, successfully, into voice recordings and had less success with other poetry collections by lesser lights. But throughout the relationship with Larkin continued to bloom – especially for Jean who developed a close bond with the poet that would last until his death.

In the end The Marvell Press was torpedoed by the Hartley’s marriage break-up which was intense and unpleasant. Jean went on to further and higher education, lived with her two daughters until they too developed professional identities of their own. All the time Larkin was a part of Jean’s life – even providing financial support to her while she was in university.

In this final third of the book which details some of the social events she attended that were arranged by Larkin or that he attended too are, on occasions, laugh-out-loud funny – check out the story involving Stevie Smith, her young daughters and a bottle of whisky or the time John Wain came to do a reading and unpacked his groceries on the rostrum.

Hartley seems to have found it hard to sustain her most intimate relationships with men but the friendship with Larkin seemed to come easily and was always rewarding for her – socially and intellectually. After Larkin’s death in 1985, Jean was responsible for setting up the Philip Larkin Society and this wonderful little memoir was published in 1989 by Carcanet.  Jean died in 2011 and I guess the danger is that she’ll be remembered only for her links with Larkin but that would be a pity. Her dedication to literature, overcoming the vicissitudes of a life of poverty, her co-creation of Listen and the Marvell Press all suggest that she should be afforded respect in her own right. The fact that, to judge by this memoir, she’s also a first class writer simply adds to her reputation as far as I’m concerned.


Terry Potter

May 2017