In September, Simon (stuckinabook) and Karen (Kaggsysbookishramblings) hosted the 1947 club. It was wholly because of that, that I came to hear about A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin. Until then I had, had no idea that Larkin had written anything other than poetry. A Girl in Winter was reviewed by a couple of other bloggers around this time, and it wasn’t long before I had bought a copy for myself.
A Girl in Winter is a real pleasure to read, from the opening page the prose sings, and the reader knows they are in the hands of a poet, and as the novel progresses, a skilled and subtle storyteller. It is a novel of summer and winter, of war and exile, exploring the difficulties we sometimes encounter trying to fully understand the people in our lives. Larkin’s sense of place is exquisite, the landscape of an English winter, snow lying across countryside, village and town, while a war rumbles on.
“It lay in ditches and in hollows in the fields, where only birds walked. In some lanes the wind had swept it up faultlessly to the very tops of the hedges. Villages were cut off until gangs of men could clear a passage on the roads; the labourers could not go out to work, and on the aerodromes near these villages all flying remained cancelled. People who lay ill in bed could see the shine off the ceilings of their rooms, and a puppy confronted with it for the first time howled and crept under the water-butt. The outhouses were roughly powdered down the windward side, the fences were half submerged like breakwaters; the whole landscape was so white and still it might have been a formal painting. People were unwilling to get up. To look at the snow too long had a hypnotic effect, drawing away all power of concentration, and the cold seemed to cramp the bones, making work harder and unpleasant. Nevertheless, the candles had to be lit, and the ice in the jugs smashed, and the milk unfrozen; the men had to be given their breakfasts and got off to work into the yards. Life had to be carried on, in no matter what circumscribed way; even though one went no further than the window-seat, there was plenty to be done indoors, saved for such time as this.”
The novel is told in three parts, with the first and final third ‘present day’ story taking place on one winter Saturday during the war, framing the middle, longer section which takes place six years earlier. We’re introduced to Katherine Lind a young woman, displaced by the war, now working as an assistant in the town library. Her boss is an inadequate bully, and Katherine has formed no lasting friendships among her work colleagues. After work, Katherine lives alone in a rented room, her life; one of unremarkable routine. On the day the novel opens Katherine is reminded of the Fennels, the family she stayed with for three weeks, six years earlier. As a girl, while still living in her own country (we’re never told which) Katherine had corresponded with Robin Fennel. She had laughed with her friends over his letters, astonished when an invitation to stay had come. Now Katherine awaits a reply to a letter she has written to Robin, informing him that she is back in England. While we’re never explicitly told where Katherine is from, and what might have happened to her family, there are suggestions that she has suffered some trauma. There is a sense of listless, resignation about Katherine, all those young hopes, she had once, have gone, she is lonely, and rather hopeless.
“But did she really care what she did in England? There would be other things for her to do, and whatever it was she would do it unwillingly, obstinately, as if she were working in a field; what she did would be emptied away like a painfully-filled basket, and her time would be spilled away with it. There would be sleep, simply to freshen her again for work; there would be other Miss Greens, Miss Parburys, Mr Ansteys; all of this was inescapable, and it did not matter if she accepted it or not. It accepted her.”
While at work that day, a colleague is taken ill and Katherine offers to accompany her home, it will give her a chance to call into her flat to see if a letter from Robin has arrived.
Six years earlier Katherine arrived in England for a three week stay with Robin’s family, she only knew him from his letters, which told her surprisingly little. Robin is reserved, difficult for Katherine to get a handle on, she is made very welcome by his family, although Robin’s elder sister Jane is a constant, not always welcome presence. As Katherine settles into her English holiday, she is constantly puzzled by Robin and irritated by Jane. She considers how the story of her holiday might sound, when she is back among her friends.
“Yet had it been terrible? On the evidence, yes. On her own feelings? She was not so sure.
For not all the holiday had depended on how Robin had behaved, or what he had said, or how Jane had acted. There were moments when she was alone that compensated for them. There was a time when she could not sleep, so she had leant out of her window to look at the moonlight, and the smell of the stocks and wallflowers had made her dizzy.”
This is summer and the days are long and warm, Katherine and Robin are still young, the world is full of possibilities. War, though anticipated has not yet cast its long and terrible shadow over Europe and the world. There is tennis, river punting and trips around Oxfordshire, and Katherine enjoys her quiet little holiday, which will be over far too soon. Katherine is developing a bit of a crush on her pen-pal, though Jane doesn’t give them chance to be alone.
As we re-join Katherine on that wartime, winter Saturday – she faces the prospect of reconnecting with Robin. She has yet another run in with her horrible boss, and suspects the girl she helped earlier has just come back and gossiped about her. Katherine is the outsider, and she feels it, despite the block she seems to have put on her emotions.
A Girl in Winter is a lovely novel, an emotionally astute, though slightly sad book, I loved it of course.