A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin

Best known for his poetry, Philip Larkin wrote two loosely connected novels during his lifetime. The second of these, A Girl in Winter, concerns itself with the confusing mix of emotions which characterise a critical period in a young girl’s life: her coming of age. It also captures the deep sense of loneliness and isolation that marks its central character, a woman named Katherine Lind.

First published in 1947, A Girl in Winter represents my contribution to Karen and Simon’s 1947 Club which is running next week (my post is a little early as I’ll be offline during the event itself). It’s a quiet, contemplative novel, one that explores the difficulties we face in understanding and interpreting the behaviour of others, especially when we are young and inexperienced and eager to be loved. I hope to find a place for it in my end-of-year highlights.

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Girl is composed of three sections, the first and third of which take place on the same Saturday in winter – the setting is an English town in the midst of WW2. (The second part takes the form of an extended flashback which I’ll return to a little later.)

The novel focuses on Katherine Lind, a twenty-two-year-old girl who is working as a temporary assistant in the town’s library. As the story unfolds, we start to form a picture of this somewhat fragile figure. While she is sensitive and intelligent, Katherine finds herself working in a role which is beneath her capabilities, a position only made worse by the small-minded bullying of her boss, the obnoxious Mr Anstey. It soon becomes clear that Katherine – a European by birth – has come to England having been displaced by the war, and as such she is permanently conscious of her status as an outsider.

She had been appointed temporary assistant, which marked her off from the permanent staff: she was neither a junior a year or so out of school who was learning the profession, nor a senior preparing to take the intermediate or final examination. It meant that she could safely be called upon to do anything, from sorting old dust-laden stock in a storeroom to standing on a table in the Reading Room to fit a new bulb in one of the lights, while old men stared aqueously at her legs. Behind all this she sensed the influence of Mr. Anstey. There was a curious professional furtiveness about him, as if he were a guardian of traditional secrets; he seemed unwilling to let her pick up any more about the work than was unavoidable. Therefore any odd job that was really nobody’s duty fell to her, for Miss Feather, who was a pale ghost of his wishes, had caught the habit from him. It annoyed her, not because she gave two pins for library practice, but because it stressed what was already sufficiently marked: that she was foreign and had no proper status there. (p. 25)

While Larkin never explicitly states Katherine’s nationality, there are several hints to suggest she is German, possibly a refugee of Jewish descent. From an early stage in the novel, it is also clear that she is desperately lonely. Katherine has made no friends since her arrival in England some two years earlier, preferring instead to avoid any social contact with others in favour of a solitary existence. There is a sense that she is living day by day, suppressing every reference to her former life while also disconnecting herself from any possible thoughts of what the future may bring. As Katherine’s story reveals itself, there is a strong suggestion that her family may have suffered at the hand of the Nazis. Once again this is never explicitly confirmed, only implied by the portrait Larkin creates. What we do know is that Katherine has experienced significant trauma in her life.

Returning to the first section of the novel, two things happen which serve to challenge the relative stasis of Katherine’s existence. The first and most significant of these events is the re-establishment of contact between Katherine and the Fennels, an English family whom she visited for a holiday some six years earlier. When Katherine learns of an imminent visit from her former pen pal and teenage crush, Robin Fennel, she is torn between the excitement of seeing him again and the uncertainty of where such a meeting might lead. The second is precipitated by an incident at the library which culminates in Katherine being tasked with the job of escorting home a petulant young colleague (Miss Green) who is suffering from severe toothache. At first sight, this particular development may seem of little significance, but it is during this journey to her colleague’s home that Katherine comes to a realisation. All of a sudden, it dawns on her that she is responsible for Miss Green; Katherine’s emotions have been suppressed for so long that she has almost forgotten what it feels like to care for another human being. In a sudden rush of sympathy, her emotions are reawakened.

Till then she had seen only her ugliness, her petulance, her young pretentions. Now this faded to unimportance and she grasped for the first time that she really needed care, that she was frail and in a remote way beautiful. It was so long since she had felt this about anyone that it came with unexpected force: its urgency made her own affairs, concerned with what might or might not happen, bloodless and fanciful. This was what she had not had for ages, a person dependent on her: (pp. 34-35)

In the third section of the novel, we continue to follow Katherine on this Saturday in winter to discover whether or not she finally reconnects with Robin Fennel. I don’t want to say anything else about this as it might spoil the story. Instead, I’ll consider part two of the book which goes back to the summer Katherine spent with the Fennels at their home in Oxfordshire some six years earlier, a beautifully-written section full of days spent playing tennis, taking trips to the local villages and the odd spot of punting on the river. Taken in its entirety, it helps to flesh out Katherine’s character while also casting light on her relationship with the country which is now her adopted home.

Winding back to the summer in question, sixteen-year-old Katherine comes to England in two minds. On the one hand, she feels apprehensive at the thought of spending three weeks in a strange land with people she barely knows; on the other, she is somewhat intrigued by the prospect of meeting her pen pal for the first time. Once Katherine arrives at the Fennels, Robin is very attentive and polite, treating his guest like royalty, someone he is trying to impress as opposed to a friend and potential playmate. Rather frustratingly for Katherine, Robin’s older sister, Jane – a rather irritable and moody girl, at least at first – seems intent on accompanying the pair everywhere, almost as though she has been tasked with the role of chaperone for the duration of the trip. Katherine, for her part, is dying to get Robin on her own, when she hopes his real personality will finally start to emerge.

He treated her as he might a boy of his own age whom he wanted to impress. Her assent was asked for everything they did: he never left her alone without making sure she had something nominally to amuse her. And this began to exasperate her. She was used to striking a quick response from people, to jumping from track to track of intimacy until either she tired of it or they reached a stable relationship. With him she simply could not get going. And this annoyed her, because he was attractive. If he had—well, if he had only laughed and paid her openly-insincere compliments, which was the lightest kind of flirtation she knew, that would have satisfied her. It would have shown he was human… (p. 127)

During the course of this section, Larkin shows us the difficulties Katherine experiences in reading and interpreting the behaviour of others, especially given the cultural differences and language barriers at play. At various points during the holiday, Katherine is mystified as to why Robin has invited her to stay. Nevertheless, after much uncertainty, the reason for the invitation finally becomes clear. This second part of the novel ends on a note of confusion for Katherine, something that explains much of her restlessness at the prospect of seeing Robin again after so many years.

I really loved A Girl in Winter. Technically speaking, it’s not perfect; the middle section is arguably too long, and there is a sense of the whole novel falling just slightly short of the sum of all the individual parts. Nevertheless, I was captivated by this nuanced portrait of Katherine, a character study that reminded me a little of Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek.

As one might expect, Larkin’s prose is glorious, equally impressive in its portrayal of the nostalgic atmosphere of a bucolic English summer and its evocation of the bitterness of an unforgiving winter. Larkin is particularly strong when it comes to capturing life in an English town during wartime, an environment where people find themselves in rather diminished circumstances. In this respect, Girl calls to mind Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude, another 1947 novel which I absolutely adored. I’ll finish with a passage which conveys something of this atmosphere.

It was easier to forget about it in the city, however. For one thing it was Saturday afternoon, and by one o’clock most people were free to go home. They could turn their backs on the window, and the slabs of garden, and read the newspaper by the fire till teatime. Or if they had no real home, they could pay to sit in the large cinemas, where it seemed warmer because it was dark. The cafeterias filled up early, and the shoppers lingered over their teas, dropping cigarette-ends into their empty cups, unwilling to face the journey back to where they lived. Everywhere people indoors were loth to move. Men stayed in their clubs, in billiard saloons, in public bars till closing time. Soldiers layer discontentedly in Y.M.C.A. rest rooms, writing letters or turning over magazines several weeks old. (p. 177)

A Girl in Winter is published by Faber and Faber.

 

54 thoughts on “A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin

  1. roughghosts

    I also loved this novel. I don’t remember the faults, not that I thought it was perfect perhaps, but the remarkable restraint and a quiet compassion linger in my mind years after I read it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      They’re just small points really, little imperfections as opposed to anything too drastic. I’m completely with you on the remarkable sense of restraint, such a beautifully understated portrait of a woman isolated in her own existence.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. I can imagine how this might have resonated with you at the time, especially in light of your own experiences of travelling to an unfamiliar land. There is a real sense of displacement in this novel, almost as though Katherine has closed down a whole section of her life in an attempt to get by. I think it will stay with me for quite a while too.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, interesting — although I can understand how Girl would have struck a chord with you. I have a copy of Jill — maybe I’ll keep it for a while to put a bit of space between the two.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, no worries at all Karen. I won’t be around next week (hence my reason for posting this today), but I look forward to catching up with your review once I’m back. Hopefully we’ll have a chance to compare perspectives then. :)

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    This sounds good.

    I tend to like books that have unconventional structures.

    I also like the passages that you quoted. They have a sense of detachment to them yet they seem to convey a lot of meaning.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d like this one, Brian. It’s an excellent character study. Quiet and contemplative in style, it gives a real sense of this woman’s interior life. The structure is interesting too — perhaps a little out of balance in the middle section, but that might just be my view.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Glad to be of service, Lady F. I only realised this myself when I saw the book in Waterstones earlier this year. As far as I can tell, Larkin had originally set out to write a loosely connected trilogy, but the third novel in the sequence never materialised. This makes me all the more curious to read the first book (Jill) to see how it compares.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. It was a beautiful book to read, especially in the dying days of summer. I’m glad my post revived a few memories for you.

      Reply
  3. FictionFan

    I also didn’t know he’d written novels – must look out for this. I love when poets write prose – they use words so economically but to great effect. Andrew Motion’s books are full of beautiful descriptions that stay in the mind long after the story has faded.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s definitely worth considering, especially if you like the sound of it. I’ve tried to select passages that are fairly representative of the novel, so they should give you a good feel for his prose style. I know what you mean about a poet’s use of language. It reminds me a little of another writer with the ability to turn his hand to poetry and fiction, the Scottish writer John Burnside. I loved his novel ‘A Summer of Drowning’ when I read it a few years ago. Like A Girl in Winter, it was beautifully written – not in a flowery or over-elaborate way; just quietly haunting and contemplative.

      Reply
  4. Naomi

    The three sections of the novel appeal to me – I like books that aren’t just linear (although I like linear stories, too). And I love the cover of your copy of the book.
    Looking forward to seeing more books from 1947 show up over the next couple of weeks!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I liked the non-linear structure too, even if the middle section did seem a little too drawn out. It gave a different insight into Katherine’s character, offering glimpses from the past that helped to shed some light on her situation six years down the line.

      Isn’t it just the most gorgeous cover, perfectly suited to the mood of the book too. The fact that the girl’s face is turned away from the camera is very significant, I feel.

      The 1947 Club is shaping up to be a very popular event indeed. I’ll be taking a break from the blogging community next week, so I shall have to catch up once I’m back. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It was a recent discovery for me as well. In fact, I had no idea he’d written a couple of novels until I saw this book on one of those tempting display tables in Waterstones earlier this year – one of those lucky finds we all stumble across every now again. I feel sure you would love this one, Madame bibi – it’s right up your street.

      Reply
  5. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    What a lovely preview of all the 1947 reviews that are sure to come in next week. I love the quote about how Katherine’s sense of responsibility awakens. Sometimes, being responsible for someone else can be a burden, but this gives a little sense of the reward that same feeling can bring.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m glad you like the quote about Katherine’s reawakening, At first, I wondered where Larkin was going with the Miss Green element of the story, but then it became a little clearer at that point. Sometimes it takes another person’s suffering to jolt us out of our own world, putting our own preoccupations and troubles into perspective as a result.

      I’m sure the 1947 Club will be a great hit next week. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out that I’ve reviewed quite a few books from that year: The Slaves of Solitude, Of Love and Hunger and Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place. The Hughes was a huge hit with my book group last month, one of our best successes to date!

      Reply
  6. Emma

    Lovely review. I’d never heard of this book but it sounds great despite its flaws. I’m curious about the second part and Katherine’s stay in England.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I really, really loved this one – and in some ways, those little niggles made it all the more intriguing, certainly the sense of overall novel falling slightly short of the sum of its individual parts. It’s almost as though there’s another layer just waiting to be discovered. The wartime atmosphere is beautifully evoked too; there’s a great sense of time and place here.

      Reply
  7. Vishy

    Wonderful review, Jacqui! I didn’t know that Philip Larkin wrote novels too! I can’t wait to read this! Thanks for this wonderful review!

    Reply
  8. bookbii

    Excellent review Jacqui. I didn’t know Larkin had written novels too! This sounds like a lovely read, a little bit sad but also a story of redemption (which I’m a total sucker for), coupled with beautifully wrought atmospherics. One to keep an eye out for I think.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. I wasn’t aware that he’d written a couple of novels until I stumbled across this one earlier this year. It’s the kind of contemplative, internally-driven story that I love. It’s a beautiful book, one that deserves to be more widely known.

      Reply
  9. heavenali

    Goodness this sounds utterly brilliant. I am definitely going to be looking out for this. I can’t believe that I hadn’t even heard of it. I love the sound of the structure, and the fact that Katherine is a librarian sold me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      So glad you like the sound of this, Ali. It’s totally up your street, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. The library setting is an added bonus. :)

      Reply
  10. Pingback: The 1947 Club: A Girl in Winter / Philip Larkin | Somewhere Boy

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great. I think you’ll like it, Gemma. The characterisation is superb, certainly in relation to Katherine. (Apologies for the late response – I’ve been taking a little break from the blog this week.)

      Reply
  11. 1streading

    I knew Larkin had written two novels but had never had much inclination to read them. the structure sounds interesting, though it seems you feel it doesn’t entirely work. I recognise the ‘diminished circumstances’ having just re-read A View of the Harbour – though now reading Hans Fallada’s Nightmare in Berlin, they don’t seem quite so diminished!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The structure was interesting; it’s just that the middle section felt a little too drawn out to me, almost as though the novel as a whole was slightly out of balance. That said, I really loved the story and Larkin has created a wonderful character in Katherine. It’s such a subtle portrait of a girl trapped in her own loneliness and isolation, the type of internally-driven character study I really enjoy.

      And you’ve been reading A View of the Harbour – lovely. As you know, I’m very interested in Elizabeth Taylor, and I have a copy of this book on my shelves at home (it’s one of my Classics Club titles too). I’ve been taking a break from blogging this week while the London Film Festival is on, so it might take me a little while to catch up with some of your reviews once I’m back in circulation again. It sounds like you’re motoring through those 1947 titles!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It was a lucky find, Guy – a book I spotted on the ‘1940s’ table at Waterstones earlier this year. (They have a table for novels from each of the decades in the 20th century, which is a great way of collating the books on display.) I think you’d really like this novel – it’s a good one for when you’re in the mood for something quiet and contemplative.

      Apologies for the late response. I’ve been taking break from blogging this week while the London Film Festival is on, so it might take me a while to catch up with some of your reviews once I’m back in circulation (probably next week). One of the films I saw was Goldstone, Ivan Sen’s follow-up to his earlier film, Mystery Road, featuring the same lead character: Aaron Pedersen as the detective, Joe Swan. It’s another excellent slow-burn noir, very thoughtful and socially/politically aware. I loved the pared back style, and the cinematography was really stunning too. I think you’ll like it as great deal. Sen was there for a Q&A after the screening. He’s hoping to make a third film with Pedersen, maybe a TV series too. There’s plenty of potential to take this character into new and interesting situations.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Isn’t it just? I’ve discovered so many great books there, particularly on the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s tables. And they have a whole table devoted to NYRB Classics too. It’s one of my favourite places for browsing.

          Yes, Mystery Road was great, I think we must have had a brief discussion about it at some point as I knew you’d enjoyed it. If anything, I think Goldstone is even better, perhaps a little more ambitious in terms of its themes. There’s a decent review of it here:

          https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/jun/09/goldstone-review-a-masterpiece-of-outback-noir-that-packs-a-political-punch

          Reply
  12. Pingback: The #1947Club is here! – Stuck in a Book

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  14. buriedinprint

    And she works in a library?! I’m a sucker for library-stories. Even if they’re not especially bookish. Thanks for adding another to my TBR!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re welcome. Yes, me too. It’s a role that suits Katherine as she’s a real loner. In some ways, I suspect she prefers the company of books to being around other people.

      Reply
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  17. Caroline

    I started this at the beginning of the year but didn’t get along with part two. I then put it aside. I’m grateful for your summary as it will make it easier to get back to the book.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, interesting. I can understand why you might have stumbled over the middle section as it almost feels like a completely different book – the tone and feel are so different. At one point I even wondered whether they had started out as two different ideas or stories only to be fused together in the same novel.

      Reply
  18. Pingback: My books of the year 2016 – favourites from a year of reading | JacquiWine's Journal

  19. Vivian Griffiths

    I am a latecomer to your insightful review of A Girl in Winter which I very much appreciated as the book has become a companion over the years and now it is January and we can celebrate its 70th Birthday brought out by Faber in the bitter cold winter of 1947!
    I have been reading what has been said about this second novel and offer the thought that I detect a change of mood in reviews over the years towards a much more positive appreciation of refugee Katherine’s character and her outlook on the world. So for example Clive James in the1970s describes her as a vapourous character picking up on her disappointments in the English holiday as a sixteen year old guest of pen friend Robin Fennel in the middle section of the book and mindful of Larkin’s own pessimism, he is not sympathetic even though she has suffered the trauma of exile and enforced separation from her Jewish family who are most likely perished in a concentration camp although not specifically related by the author. This is shown again in her self imposed loneliness as the library assistant several years later in a snow clad and war weary midlands provincial town and it is met with frustration by the reviewer. All in all he is not picking up I think on the change of mood that is introduced by Larkin when the heroine takes Miss Green from the library to the dentist and the realisation in the care she gives that something has begun thaw out in Katherine’s ice layered soul. This is perhaps where the confusion arises when Robin announces he is coming, does she want him to come or not,arising from her recent contact with the Fennel family, she thought she didn’t really care for the holiday in England when actually she liked it very much on reflection, something to do with this thaw brought on by Miss Green.
    Andrew Motion, Larkin’s first biographer, gives a beautiful description of the book and marks a turning point when he says “A Girl in Winter is a beautifully constructed, funny and profoundly sad book.” How I agree..
    In 2011 in The Guardian Winter Reads, Carol Rumens expresses a positive when she finds “.. glimmers of a real life romance in Larkin’s mysterious tale of an exiled woman in wartime Britain.” A breakthrough because she is acknowledging more openly the romance that existed between Robin and Katherine and this is highlighted two years later in a radio play created when Richard Stevens and Fiona McAlpine’s Allegra Production for BBC Radio 4 in 2013 gave special space to the relationship and its intimacy at the end of the book.
    Then we have the review in The 1947 Club from last October which highlights on the last scene where Katherine and Robin share a bed together and the most intimate conversation they have had so far in their lives. Dare one say a happy ending? I think probably not knowing Larkin, yet on balance there is so much that just might be possible for the future in the situation that closes the narrative. Is Larkin such a bleak poet, I am not sure from this his second novel.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you for such a fascinating and detailed comment about the history of the book’s reception and reviews over the years. It’s so interesting to read about the changes in perceptions as time has passed. I really felt the significance of that scene in which Katherine escorts the young library assistant home – the sudden reawakening of her repressed feelings was clearly discernible. I couldn’t help but feel compassion for this young woman given everything she has been through. As you say, Larkin never elaborates of her backstory in explicit detail, but the hints are there for the reader to gather…

      Reply

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