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Friday, 11 November 2011

Philip Larkin: Deceptions


The Little Red Glove: James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), 1895-1902 (Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)

Of course I was drugged, and so heavily I did not regain
consciousness until the next morning. I was horrified to

discover that I had been ruined, and for some days I was inconsolable,
and cried like a child to be killed or sent back to my aunt.

-- Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor

Even so distant, I can taste the grief,
Bitter and sharp with stalks, he made you gulp.

The sun's occasional print, the brisk brief
Worry of wheels along the street outside
Where bridal London bows the other way,

And light, unanswerable and tall and wide,
Forbids the scar to heal, and drives

Shame out of hiding. All the unhurried day,

Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.

Slums, years, have buried you. I would not dare
Console you if I could. What can be said,

Except that suffering is exact, but where
Desire takes charge, readings will grow erratic?

For you would hardly care
That you were less deceived, out on that bed,

Than he was, stumbling up the breathless stair
To burst into fulfilment's desolate attic.

Philip Larkin: Deceptions (original title: The Less Deceived), 20 February 1950, from XX Poems, April 1951

Your anecdote reminds me of a brief exchange I once had with Mrs. T[hatcher], who told me that she liked my wonderful poem about a girl. My face must have expressed incomprehension. 'You know', she said. 'Her mind was full of knives.' I took that as a great compliment -- I thought if it weren't spontaneous she'd have got it right -- but I am a child in these things. I also thought that she might think a mind full of knives rather along her own lines, not that I don't kiss the ground she treads.

Philip Larkin to Julian Barnes, 27 September 1985

Chelsea Shops: James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), c. 1880 (Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)

Nocturne: Dance-House: James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), 1889 (British Museum)

Nocturne: Palaces: James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), 1878 (British Museum)

Several showily-dressed, if not actually well-attired women, who are to be found walking about the Haymarket, live in St. Giles's and about Drury Lane. But the lowest class of women, who prostitute themselves for a shilling or less, are the most curious and remarkable class in this part. We have spoken of them before as growing grey in the exercise of their profession. One of them, a woman over forty, shabbily dressed, and with a disreputable, unprepossessing appearance, volunteered the following statement for a consideration of a spirituous nature.

Times is altered, sir, since I come on the town. I can remember when all the swells used to come down here-away, instead of going to the Market; but those times is past, they is, worse luck, but, like myself, nothing lasts for ever, although I've stood my share of wear and tear, I have. Years ago Fleet Street and the Strand, and Catherine Street, and all round there was famous for women and houses. Ah! those were the times. Wish they might come again, but wishing's no use, it ain't. It only makes one miserable a thinking of it. I come up from the country when I was quite a gal, not above sixteen I dessay. I come from Dorsetshire, near Lyme Regis, to see a aunt of mine. Father was a farmer in Dorset, but only in a small way-tenant farmer, as you would say. I was mighty pleased, you may swear, with London, and liked being out at night when I could get the chance. One night I went up the area and stood looking through the railing, when a man passed by, but seeing me he returned and spoke to me something about the weather. I, like a child, answered him unsuspectingly enough, and he went on talking about town and country, asking me, among other things, if I had long been in London, or if I was born there. I not thinking told him all about myself; and he went away apparently very much pleased with me, saying before he went that he was very glad to have made such an agreeable acquaintance, and if I would say nothing about it he would call for me about the same time, or a little earlier, if I liked, the next night, and take me out for a walk. I was, as you may well suppose, delighted, and never said a word. The next evening I met him as he appointed, and two or three times subsequently. One night we walked longer than usual, and I pressed him to return, as I feared my aunt would find me out; but he said he was so fatigued with walking so far, he would like to rest a little before he went back again; but if I was very anxious he would put me in a cab. Frightened about him, for I thought he might be ill, I preferred risking being found out; and when he proposed that we should go into some house and sit down I agreed. He said all at once, as if he had just remembered something, that a very old friend of his lived near there, and we couldn't go to a better place, for she would give us everything we could wish. We found the door half open when we arrived. 'How careless,' said my friend, 'to leave the street-door open, any one might get in.' We entered without knocking, and seeing a door in the passage standing ajar we went in. My friend shook hands with an old lady who was talking to several girls dispersed over different parts of the room, who, she said, were her daughters. At this announcement some of them laughed, when she got very angry and ordered them out of the room. Somehow I didn't like the place, and not feeling all right I asked to be put in a cab and sent home. My friend made no objection and a cab was sent for. He, however, pressed me to have something to drink before I started. I refused to touch any wine, so I asked for some coffee, which I drank. It made me feel very sleepy, so sleepy indeed that I begged to be allowed to sit down on the sofa. They accordingly placed me on the sofa, and advised me to rest a little while, promising, in order to allay my anxiety, to send a messenger to my aunt. Of course I was drugged, and so heavily I did not regain my consciousness till the next morning. I was horrified to discover that I had been ruined, and for some days I was inconsolable, and cried like a child to be killed or sent back to my aunt.

When I became quiet I received a visit from my seducer, in whom I had placed so much silly confidence. He talked very kindly to me, but I would not listen to him for some time. He came several times to see me, and at last said he would take me away if I liked, and give me a house of my own. Finally, finding how hopeless all was I agreed to his proposal, and he allowed me four pounds a week. This went on for some months, till he was tired of me, when he threw me over for someone else. There is always as good fish in the sea as ever came out of it, and this I soon discovered.

Then for some years, ten years, till I was six-and-twenty, I went through all the changes of a gay lady's life, and they're not a few, I can tell you. I don't leave off this sort of life because I'm in a manner used to it, and what could I do if I did? I've no character; I've never been used to do anything, and I don't see what employment I stand a chance of getting. Then if I had to sit hours and hours all day long, and part of the night too, sewing or anything like that, I should get tired. It would worrit me so; never having been accustomed, you see, I couldn't stand it. I lodge in Charles Street, Drury Lane, now. I did live in Nottingham Court once, and Earls Street. But, Lord, I've lived in a many places you wouldn't think, and I don't imagine you'd believe one half. I'm always a-chopping and a-changing like the wind as you may say. I pay half-a-crown a week for my bed-room; it's clean and comfortable, good enough for such as me. I don't think much of my way of life. You folks as has honour, and character, and feelings, and such, can't understand how all that's been beaten out of people like me. I don't feel. I'm used to it. I did once, more especial when mother died. I heard on it through a friend of mine, who told me her last words was of me. I did cry and go on then ever so, but Lor', where's the good of fretting? I arn't happy either. It isn't happiness, but I get enough money to keep me in victuals and drink, and it's the drink mostly that keeps me going. You've no idea how I look forward to my drop of gin. It's everything to me. I don't suppose I'll live much longer, and that's another thing that pleases me. I don't want to live, and yet I don't care enough about dying to make away with myself. I arn't got that amount af feeling that some has, and that's where it is I'm kinder 'fraid of it.

This woman's tale is a condensation of the philosophy of sinning. The troubles she had gone through, and her experience of the world, had made her oblivious of the finer attributes of human nature, and she had become brutal.

from Henry Mayhew: London Labour and the London Poor
, 1862

Illustrations from Henry Mayhew: London Labour and the London Poor, 1862


Ed Baker said...

Neat ! I spent about 3 weeks (on the way bcd to the States 1969/70 living on top floor of The Royal Inns of Court Boys Club on Drury Lane...

was looking for them Victorians meanwhile while I was there the BBC (or some tv company) was filming

some Charles Dickens story a serial I think it was Pickwick
all the Victorian costumes like I
"died and went to Heaven"

down the street at the other end of Drury Lane was (is) The Royal Opera House there I saw a performance of There Two Pigeons the night that I was there the Queen Mother attended.

more "good 'stuff'" from UHAUL, Tee See... as you get to the next

take it

keep it up !

Delia Psyche said...

I wonder if Thatcher confused Larkin's line with a similar one by Herbert: “My thoughts are all a case of knives...." Or with Macbeth's mind full of scorpions. Conflate the two lines and you get a mind full of knives.

I read somewhere that the Iron Lady's favorite poem is "Elegy in a Country Churchyard."



"did not regain consciousness until the next morning"


light coming into clouds above shadowed
ridge, motion of black leaves on branch
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

is thought here in position,
“subject” “experience”

could be, what we are shown,
the look of some blue

silver of sunlight reflected in channel,
white cloud in pale blue sky on horizon

TC said...

The pictures of Victorian street women in Mayhew were made from photographs.

The degree of verisimilitude in his transcription is of course open to question.

What's not open to question is the fact that Larkin read this passage from Mayhew, and was thus affected.

Anonymous said...

I do hope Mayhew gave his informant the drop of gin she earned.

Not sure of the connection to Whistler's girl with red glove as her thoughtfulness seems connected to a different world of experience.

TC said...


A sharp eye you do have.

Let us assume Mayhew did render to the woman that well-deserved drop, still his confiding to us that that was part of the bargain might be considered a bit cruel, as likewise his concluding judgment as to "the philosophy of sinning"; and for that matter her transcribed testimony seems to waver between the quite believable tones of the (Dickensian) London street, and the perhaps somewhat imposed tones of the shocked social reformer.

On the other hand, Mayhew was at least willing to take on this survey of a very complicated, deprived and (therefore, naturally) sometimes depraved underworld, of which few at the time dared (or cared) to speak.

And I'm glad you've brought up the Whistler.

In some respects the post was intended to open up rather than close-off questions regarding the complicated angles and directions of deceptions that one might find involved here.

It would be nice to be able to say that there has been a historical shift, even advance (asking a lot!) in the attitudes and preconceptions of men regarding women. Especially considering it's the men who have for so long had the license to be attempting to write, draw, and feel the history.

The weird twist of identification in the poem, whereby, as it moves toward a close, the point of view seems to shift away from the deceived woman, to the deceived man -- that is, the rapist -- does give pause.

In another poem, "Absences", written six months after "Deceptions" (or "The Less Deceived," as he originally called this one), Larkin puts before us an angry sea, and above it a clouded sky that

Riddled by wind, trails lit-up galleries:
They shift to giant ribbing, sift away.

Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!

Philip Larkin: Absences

Read together, the two poems do create a curious sense of question as to just whose imagination it was, that had to be cleared out of that attic.

Which comes back to your legitimate doubts about the Whistler. I had those too, in constructing the post.

Obviously the Whistler painting and engravings below were meant for period ambiance, which probably isn't a bad fit.

But the girl with the red glove at the top, yes, she's plainly descended here from some class-location several miles above that inhabited by the Mayhew streetwalker. Maybe that's what the street girl looked like, for a moment at least, in someone's mind (perpetrator, or poet)... but "in reality" -- ?

Still as there's so much questionable imaginative projection, and possible self-deception, at work all through these various pieces of the composition (and in the sum of the parts, even more), I thought perhaps to be suggesting that that girl might be able to bear the weight of all these collective memories, judgments, phantasies in much the same way the "ruined" girl of the poem bore the experience imposed by the perpetrator.

That is, by remaining, in some way, apart from it all.

ACravan said...

The post and the thoughtful and detailed responses (and re-responses) floor me. I'm still sort of drinking it all in. Reviewing and re-reviewing the Larkin and the Whistlers is a dark pleasure. The Mayhew material is another avenue to walk down. It's great to see a blogger not observing 11-11-11 (unless you were). Curtis

TC said...

Curtis, I don't believe in magic numbers. We're all just another number any more, nothing magical in the new digital New Math. Seven billion mouths to feed, heading for twelve.

By the way, Mayhew's documentary work is tremendously moving, in total. His observation of many thousands of London workers, in London Labour and the London Poor and in his Morning Chronicle articles -- taken together with the work of Dickens -- tells us more than any other source about the emerging shape of the modern metropolis, viewed from its dark underside. It was a vantage from which nobody else wanted to look. The accounts of his conversations with street denizens reflect a remarkable vitality, to go with all that undeniable suffering. He took care, and saw the meaning of money and work in the lurid naked lights of the new kind of social organisation, or perhaps disorganisation would be the word, in which the mass of the people were consigned to miserably impoverished lives, while the few prospered, oblivious, profiting in all those large and small ways this new kind of urban landscape continually offered. To read his extremely convincing reports now is to understand that the great empire of capital was not built in a day; nor, in its highly evolved present state of complication, is it likely to be unbuilt in a day.

(Though it's not easy to expel from the mind these nights that haunting lyric of some forty years ago, "The Harder They Fall...")

Ed Baker said...

well Tee See

I for one
am chomping-at-the-bit

me-thinks "clean-coal" will get us back to that idealic place where
How Green was My Valley ?

the queen at one end of the Lane & old Lobbs 'tother:

"What do you want here?" roared Lobbs, "I suppose you have come after my daughter, now?"


will Nate Pipkin and his skinny legs get Maria ?

I can't tell you... maybe they all died happy under a pile of coal dust or coughed out all of the blood in their lungs ...
from then to now? not much has changed .... significantly


let us go down into The Prado and see Goya's war reportage ;