Literary Criticism

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Philip Larkin

Subversive Writer

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Critics have tended to label Larkin’s poetry as sexist, racist and reactionary. However, this volume demonstrates that Larkin’s artistic impulse throughout his career was to challenge orthodox models of social and sexual politics. Focusing on the Brunette Coleman novellas and the unfinished novels, a structural blueprint is identified as prefiguring the later poems’ commentary on sexual and social conduct. Further unpublished material includes correspondence, workbook drafts, dream records, and a playscript, depicting, alternately, hostility to wartime heroics, revulsion from capitalism, unease with traditional gender roles and an interest in psychoanalysis.

This study makes available to scholars paintings by Larkin’s friend, James Sutton, which illuminate the writer’s concern with social oppression, especially the predicament of women in the 1940s. Philip Larkin: Subversive Writer is a fresh and revealing study on Larkin’s artistic subversion; stylistic and thematic, it reveals the underlying themes of Larkin’s entire oeuvre.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-000-2
Hardback Price: £45.00 / $65.00
Release Date: September 2004
Page Extent / Format: 200 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: Four-page colour plate section


List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations


1 Jill and the Coleman Novellas
‘Feminising’ the Male and Empowering Femininity

2 A Girl in Winter and the Unfinished Novels
A Critique of National and Sexual Politics

3 Auden, MacNeice and James Sutton
The Construction of a Subversive Aesthetic in the 1940s Poems

4 Sexuality, Utopias and the Later Poems



Stephen Cooper’s book sets a new standard in Larkin criticism. A comprehensive study of all of Larkin’s writings, including juvenilia, fiction, poetry, drama and letters, it is also the most challenging and provocative account of his fiction to date. With impressive subtlety and skill, Cooper overturns the commonly held view of Larkin as a jaundiced conservative and reveals how his writing often emerges from surprisingly progressive and unorthodox views on gender, nation and social class. The book is full of unusual insights and thoughtful reflections on post-war British culture. Larkin’s poetry and fiction are given a new and lasting significance in the light of this radical reappraisal.
Stephen Regan, Professor of English, University of Durham

Larkin’s worldview, as revealed in Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, 1940–1985, ed. by Anthony Thwaite (1992), became increasingly sexist, racist, and socially conservative over time. This contrasts sharply with the wry, sometimes jaundiced, usually humane persona revealed in Larkin’s poems. Presently, much Larkin criticism focuses on the darker aspects of his thought as revealed in the letters, consequently neglecting the excellences of his work. Cooper redresses this trend by considering the poet’s neglected juvenilia and early fiction alongside the widely appreciated later poetry and nonfiction. In the early works, Cooper locates the germs of dominant themes in Larkin’s canon – for example, gender, class, and identity – and he provides excellent close, parallel readings of these texts and later poems to show how these themes changed and grew over time. Cooper cites unpublished correspondence (letters to and reminiscences from friends and colleagues) that under-scores the idea that Larkin was more artistically experimental and subversive than the current critical portrait of him suggests, especially regarding the social reinforcement of gender roles. Highly recommended.

Overturning many of the established perspectives on Larkin’s poetry and prose, Cooper’s book presents new evidence from a range of previously unpublished sources, and is the first full-length critical work to analyse Larkin’s early fiction, as well as advancing new readings of The Less Deceived, The Whitsun Weddings and High Windows.
... Philip Larkin: Subversive Writer can be seen as probably the first systematic analysis of Larkin’s formerly unpublished fiction and other prose pieces, but the author offers more than that: the texts are analyzed in the context of still unpublished letters and fragments in the workbooks. Cooper’s interpretations are also rich in references and allusions to sources inspiring Larkin; many scholars and fans of the poet will be pleased to find some pictures by James Sutton in the book. Sutton has been better known as Larkin’s friend and pen pal so far; now we can also read about the impact his paintings had on the young poet.
... Discussing the juvenilia of a major writer is an important field of literary studies. Apart from shedding light on the inner logic of the life work, exploring the roots of the major works can also help us view the writer in a wide context. Larkin’s texts as well as his personality provoked fierce debates in his lifetime, particularly after the publication of New Lines (the programmatic anthology of the Movement) in the second half of the 1950s. These debates were renewed after his death, especially following the publication of Andrew Motion’s authorized biography (1993) and Larkin’s Selected Letters (edited by Anthony Thwaite, 1992). Since it is not only the artistic value of Larkin’s poetry that was questioned but also his political correctness, each publication of his formerly unpublished texts raises the possibility of a new interpretation of the whole oeuvre. This is what Cooper does in his book, and this accounts for the strong emphasis on the early texts as well as for the new perspective that he uses to re-read the major poems of the Larkin canon.
Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies

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