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Trouble at Willow Gables and Other Fiction…

"Trouble at Willow Gables" and Other Fiction 1943-1953

by Philip Larkin

Other authors: James Booth (Editor)

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My review here deals mainly with a single aspect of the stories. I do not feel competent to assess any work of this master writer in any other way. My interest is in erotic writing, and in particular the common fantasy in which spanking a partner's buttocks leads to arousal, often to both parties. It needs to be said that use of the descriptor 'sado-masochism' for this practice is misleading, as is use of the two components of the compound, and the non-judgemental term 'erotic flagellation' seems to approach most closely, while still being largely inadequate.

This substantial book is a collection of Larkin’s miscellaneous novelistic writings, notably those which he created under the pen name Brunette Coleman. The use of pseudonyms here probably relates to the author's anticipation of overt public disapproval of erotic works, even though such content is minimal here. Whether Larkin is also uncomfortable with his fantasy of chastising the bottoms of nubile young women is a matter for those with greater understanding of his complex sexual life.

It is evident that Larkin enjoyed the use of a female persona, and Willow Gables is written with a keen sense of lesbian eroticism, while largely avoiding what (at the time) would have been widely considered as pornography. He seems to relish details such of what the schoolgirls were wearing, including their underclothes, and also minor intimacies between them.

There is a slight undercurrent of erotic flagellation in (the completed) Willow Gables and this becomes stronger in Michaelmas Term at St Brides, an unfinished ‘sequel’. There are a few references in WG to punitive action undertaken on the rear of one of the girls, Marie, by her older sister Philippa, with a silver-backed hair-brush. And then caning appears, introduced first as a distant threat (p.34):

‘Marie’s cornflower eyes began to fill with tears again, and her gaze wandered in an ecstasy of apprehension to a long cupboard set in the wall, where Miss Holden was reputed to keep a fabulous assortment of canes, only used on rare and legendary occasions.’

Marie is later caned (p.43):
‘As Pam finally pulled Marie’s tunic down over her black-stockinged legs, Miss Holden, pausing only to snatch a cane from the cupboard in the wall, gripped Marie by the hair, and, with a strength lent by anger, forced down her head till she was bent nearly double. Then she began thrashing her unmercifully, her face a mask of ferocity, caring little where the blows fell as long as they found a mark somewhere on Marie’s squirming body. Ursula and Pam, their part in the proceedings suddenly terminated, stood at the side of the room by the door, straightening themselves breathlessly. Marie was at first stubbornly silent under the rain of lashes, but at last a cry was wrung from her bloodless lips, and she collapsed onto the floor, twisting in agony, her face hidden by a flood of amber hair. Miss Holden released her, and stepped back, breathing hard. Throwing the cane on to the table, she said curtly: “Search her.”’

St Brides is rather more developed in its treatment of lesbian tendencies, and although what exists of the work is a bit incomplete on the circumstances (perhaps through Larkin’s avoidance of pornography), it is suggested that the older protagonist in WG finally gets it together with Marie at their Oxford College, even if this is in a fairly light-hearted way.

Erotic flagellation in St Brides really centres on Marie’s sister Philippa, who has an evident fetish about belts. Eventually, towards the fragmentary ending of the sketches for the novel, Larkin becomes quite explicit about Philippa’s predilection.

The belts are first introduced as follows (p.184):
‘They were certainly an unusual sight. Coiled neatly, sometimes three within each other, they lay, in all shapes and sizes. There were very thin leather thongs, with single businesslike buckles; there were summery ones of canvas, in gay green and yellow; there were black ones with diamanté clasps, and shiny patent leather ones with tricky fastenings. There were curious ones of string, and foreign-looking ones of chain-mail. Finally, at the back of the drawer, were a selection of Philippa’s favourite kind: ponderous thick leather ones, three inches or more broad, heavily inlaid with ornamental metal figures, strong enough to stand any imaginable strain.
‘”Thirty-seven!”, repeated Marie, awestruck. “It’s fantastic.” She uncoiled one, as if expecting it to give a sudden wriggle in her hands.
“That’s made of rhinoceros hide,” said Philippa casually, smoothing her dress down. “The buckle is solid horn. Hand it over, will you? I think I’ll wear it.”’

The mention of rhinoceros hide here rings faint flagellation bells in itself . However, it is not this particular belt that is brought into play when Philippa gives the hapless Marie’s bottom a thrashing for a practical joke; that one is ‘a belt of oriental design’.

‘At this point she grabbed Marie. With a flurry of golden hair and black velveteen, the younger girl twisted to escape, but Philippa had learnt how to deal with Marie from long experience. In a very short time she was lying face downwards on Philippa’s silken knees, with her velvet skirt folded neatly round her waist. The belt had a curious metal buckle, which Philippa rightly judged would add an awful sting to the lashes. Oblivious of Marie’s piteous tears, cries and struggles, she thrashed her till her forearm ached. Towards the end she even began to enjoy it.’

It’s perhaps of interest that in both books it’s a rather chubby girl called Marie who gets chastised.

The final word provided by Larkin in this unfinished work relates to Marie’s attempts to ‘correct’ Philippa’s predilection for belts. Marie suggests her principal ‘cure’ of getting Philippa drunk, with the following result (p.224):
‘”Is there no other way?” protested Philippa, eyeing Marie’s own belt hungrily.
“Well, Margaret did suggest I hit you with a belt until you never wanted to see one again,” Marie said lamely.
Philippa’s eyelids lowered momentarily, her nostrils quivered slightly, and her breast heaved. “I can’t think,” she said after a pause, “of anything else that would delight me more.”
“Oh!” Marie coughed, and straightened her cuffs. “Then we won’t say anything more about that. I’m afraid it will have to be drink, Phil dear. There’s nothing else for it.”

On the basis of such evidence, it seems quite clear that part of Larkin’s erotic fantasies involved erotic flagellation, with females as submissives. ( )
  CliffordDorset | Jul 31, 2009 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Philip Larkinprimary authorall editionscalculated
Booth, JamesEditorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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Book description
Philip Larkin's two published novels, Jill and A Girl in Winter tell only part of the story of his thwarted ambition as a novelist. Drawing on the papers deposited after his death in the Brynmore Jones Library, Hull, this volume collects together virtually all his remaining unpublished fiction.
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