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Ruth Siverns obituary


Young fiancee of Philip Larkin and inspiration for some of his early poetry

Ruth Siverns, who has died aged 85, was engaged to the poet Philip Larkin from 1948 until 1950 and inspired some of his most significant early poems. When he took up the post of librarian in Wellington, Shropshire, in 1943, Larkin was 21 and Ruth Bowman, as she then was, was a schoolgirl of 16. She recalled that, with his nervous stammer and the glamour of an Oxford degree, he dazzled her. They roamed the town and Ercall wood, reciting poetry to each other. The relationship was cemented when she stole a copy of Yeats's poems from her school for him.

At Oxford, Larkin had run the imaginative gamut of sex and gender: from DH Lawrence to Théophile Gautier; from WH Auden to Dorita Fairlie Bruce. In the months before his move to Wellington, he had written a girls' school story, Trouble at Willow Gables, under a "lesbian" pseudonym. Now, still a virgin, he found himself entangled with a real, serious-minded schoolgirl, whose vulnerability was accentuated by a slight limp. For all his complexities, ingenuous empathy was fundamental to his character, and he became deeply involved.

Their first sexual encounter was prompted two years later, in 1945, by Ruth's imminent departure to read English at King's College London. But the example of his own parents made Larkin reluctant to marry. The following year, after accepting a deputy librarianship in University College, Leicester, he attempted to persuade himself into commitment through poetry.

Wedding-Wind, a dramatic monologue in the voice of an ecstatic farmer's wife on her wedding morning, is a key poem in his oeuvre, and one of the earliest-written of the works that would be published in his first mature collection, The Less Deceived (1955). As therapy, however, it failed. Ruth feared she had become pregnant, and he retreated into stubborn misogamy. Following his father's death in 1948, Larkin made a bid for maturity by proposing marriage. But he was unable to abandon the "glittering loneliness" which he needed in order to write. The final break came after much anguish in 1950 when he moved to a post at the library in Queen's University Belfast.

In Belfast, he wrote the poignantly regretful No Road. Leaves drift unswept, grass creeps unmown, but the road still stands clear: "... so little overgrown. / Walking that way tonight would not seem strange, / And still would be allowed." The pain of the failed relationship can still be heard in 1962, in the sulky self-recrimination of Wild Oats: "... I was too selfish, withdrawn, / And easily bored to love. / Well, useful to get that learnt."

Ruth's grandfather persuaded her to destroy the letters Larkin wrote to her – there were more than 400 of them. Today we hear the voice of the young lover only refracted in letters to his male friends: ribald comments concerning "Misruth" or "the school captain" to Kingsley Amis and scathing self-criticism to James Sutton.

With the engagement ended, Ruth's life still lay ahead of her. She married John Siverns, only to be widowed before her son, also John, was born. She converted to Catholicism and never remarried, spending many years as a teacher in Wolverhampton.

Her spirit was resilient and creative. Her book for children, Barlow Dale's Casebook (1981), featuring a Blue Persian cat detective, is delightfully ebullient. In later years she re-established contact with Larkin, who helped pay for the hip operation that technology had by then made possible. Her final years were spent in Romsey, Hampshire, where she became friends with Winifred Dawson (nee Arnott), Larkin's colleague in the library at Belfast, who was immortalised in his Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album in 1953.

Ruth is survived by her son.

• Ruth Siverns, teacher and writer, born 15 May 1927; died 31 December 2012

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