A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin
One of the things that always surprises me when we do these weeks of reading from a particular year is the incredible variety of the books. It would be easy to assume that all the works produced in the same year would have strong similarities, but you certainly couldn’t get two more different books than those I’ve read so far – “The Plague” and “The Labours of Hercules”. And today’s book is yet another type of read, an evocative little novel by a man better known for his poetry – “A Girl in Winter” by Philip Larkin.
The book opens with a lyrical description of the English countryside in winter, then whisks us away to an unnamed town where we meet the girl of the title – Katherine Lind, working in a provincial library and suffering the cold and privations of wartime England. Divided into three parts, the first and last all take place on one day in winter where Katherine goes through a number of changes. A colleague is taken ill with toothache and Katherine accompanies her to the dentist and then home; she has a run in with her dreadful boss, Mr. Anstey, and then by a curious set of circumstances discovers things about his private life; and a friend from the past threatens to make a reappearance, disturbing the delicate balance she’s managed to construct to maintain her own life.
The central section is a flashback to a pre-war visit a teenage Katherine made to England to spend some weeks in the summer with the family of her penpal, Robin Fennel. For as we read, it becomes clear that Katherine is a refugee from an unnamed European country, and her presence in England is as a result of her fleeing the war. Katherine, of course, has a crush on Robin, but finds it impossible to completely understand the English and their way of life. Robin’s sister Jane is awkward and abrasive and hard to read, and Katherine spends most of the visit struggling to relate to her. And she thinks she has misjudged Robin’s feelings towards her too, until close to the end of the visit…
In the final section of the book, back in wartime winter, Katherine reaches a kind of crisis point with her job, her relationships with her co-workers and also with the Fennel family. The book ends on a note of ambiguity with Katherine unsure of her future – as were, no doubt, many of those stuck in the middle of World War 2.
The first thing that sprang to mind for me was that Larkin really could write beautiful prose – which I suppose for a poet is not entirely surprising. I’m surprised that he didn’t write more novels because this one is not only wonderfully written, it’s very evocative too. Larkin brilliantly brings out the stark contrast between the bleakness of a wartime British winter and the pre-war British summer, and the difference between the two is striking. The fog, the cold, the damp and the privation would probably seem alien to a young, modern reader but I’m old enough to remember pre-central heating days and what that was like. Larkin is just brilliant at capturing the atmosphere of his setting, whether the heat and stillness of an English country day by the Thames, or the nastiness of a city winter with its fogs and dirty snow.
The sections in the library are as good as you would expect from someone who worked in one for much of his life, but the strongest element for me was the sense of loneliness and alienation captured by the novel. We have no clear idea of where Katherine Lind comes from, but it’s obvious from some of the elliptical references that her past life has been completely wiped away and so it’s reasonable to assume that it might be somewhere very much affected by German invasion. In fact, I looked up the surname and it’s often a South German Jewish name which would certainly add another element to her story. Whatever happened to her, Katherine’s past life of home, school and school friends, and university life has been lost forever and she’s only survived by cutting herself off from it completely. When Robin reappears in her life, she has matured but it seems that he has not, and the gulf between them seems unbridgeable. Similarly, Katherine’s co-workers, from the troublesome Anstey through the other library ladies, Jane Fennel and Anstey’s lady friend, all seem stuck in isolation, trying to battle with their loneliness but not always succeeding. Whether this is a symptom of the War or not, Larkin seems to be saying that however much we try to reach out to other human beings, we are essentially alone in the world and it’s only those with inner strength who can deal with this.
So, “A Girl in Winter” was a surprisingly thought-provoking novel and I’m astonished not only that it’s not more widely known and read, but also that Larkin didn’t write more as this one is *so* good. Luckily, I do still have his first novel “Jill” waiting for me, as well as the collection of his slightly risqué girls’ school stories! But this book was a wonderful read; understated and not showy or shocking, but commenting discreetly on the effects of the War and loneliness – another highlight of the 1947 Club! 🙂
(Jacqui has already done a lovely review of the book here)