Best known for his poetry, Philip Larkin wrote two loosely connected novels during his lifetime. The second of these, A Girl in Winter, focuses on 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). This quiet, contemplative novel 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.
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.