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Philip Larkin’s favourite novel? That might be an exaggeration but it is one that not only exercised a lasting fascination for him but was also an influence on his own novel writing. Larkin famously wrote about it in a 1982 Spectator article (republished in Required Writing) under the wonderfully apt title ‘The Traffic in the Distance’. Despite Larkin’s enthusiasm The Senior Commoner, until now, has never been reissued, and although reprinted once, second-hand copies have been fabulously rare.
The Senior Commoner was first published in 1934. It is set in Eton College (dubbed Ayrton in the novel) but is not remotely in the tradition of the English School story. To quote Larkin, ‘There is no story, or hardly any: the book is a huge structure of tiny episodes, designed to portray a complex institution at all levels.’
Whilst, interestingly, there might stylistic similarities with Henry Green and the early novels of Anthony Powell (all three authors were at Eton at the same time, though Julian Hall was two years junior to the other two) this novel very much has its own voice, indeed, Larkin found it unique. He was attracted to its ‘brittle plangency of style’ and its ‘studied circumstantial irrelevancy’ and concluded, ‘Nor have I ever read another book in the least like it.’