Wednesday, November 12, 2003
A Girl In Winter by Philip Larkin
This, the second and last of Larkin's novels, was published in 1947 and is a largely-forgotten gem of post-war fiction. Despite the author's subsequent doubts "i cannot open it without a profuse and thoroughgoing embarrassment." it is an admirably coherent and well-realised book. In fairness Larkin was often no more enamoured of his own poetry ("my thin trickle of cindery shit") so perhaps the self criticism should be taken with a smile, if not a saline drip.
A Girl in Winter is, of course, typically downbeat, typically... well, Larkinesque. It shares many common themes with his poetry- the delusional aspirations, the quotidian repression, life as an assimilation of cumulative disappointments. Despite this it is at heart a tender novel, free of (or lacking, depending on how one likes one's jollies) the corrosiveness, indeed the ranting abject bitterness, of his later work.
The centrepiece of the novel is an account of an English (oh so very English) pre-war summer (oh so very summery) holiday taken by Katherine, a 16 year old Swedish student, with the Fennels, the family of her English penpal Robin. Bookending this is the story of a single day in the life of Katherine some six years later, back in an England beset by war (tellingly now in winter - can we all see what the author's doing here, boys and girls?) and about to be reunited with Robin.
Katherine is the focus of the novel- Robin's schoolboy letters are clumsy and inane, Katherine repeatedly attempts to goad juicier responses but to no avail. She is surprised to receive an invitation to England and begins to cultivate romantic fantasies. Robin proves to be as bland as his correspondence and the pair are seldom without his waspish elder sister Jane. All the tropes of romantic fiction and the halcyon summer are in evidence nevertheless - long country walks, boating on the river, tennis in the midday sun. We learn that Jane, out of loneliness and isolation, instigated Katherine's invitation- sensing a kindred spirit having read her letters and that Robin is dutifully entertaining a guest, no more than that. However Jane and Katherine do not get on, the latter having assumed the former to be an unwelcome chaperone. The entire trip is infused with irritability and dissatisfaction, Katherine is relieved to return home having accepted her brief infatuation with Robin was a nonsense- on her final night Robin incongruously, ridiculously, kisses her.
Six years on Katherine is working in a provincial library (as of course was Larkin) being berated by her boss over a mis-filed book on Uganda and, perhaps a little unreasonably, for "not having the common horse-sense she was born with". She takes a junior colleague to the dentist as Larkin evokes a different England, one of rain, overcoats, concrete and canned food. She has contacted Robin's family (this time it's Katherine who feels lonely and isolated) and is told to expect a visit from Robin himself, now a serving officer stationed somewhere close to home. To end Katherine's wavering anticipation the visit occurs, Robin is boorish, drunk and wants sex, Katherine initially rejects him then rationalises it as 'an unimportant kindness'. Thus ends Larkin's subversion of the love story.
What i love about this is that, in using the smoke and mirrors of the romantic genre, the pre- and during war settings and the sun/winter contrast, Larkin is scratching away at life's illusions. We know that Katherine's summer in England was an unhappy one- because we have just read about it- but for Katherine herself, due to the passing years and her worsened circumstances (exacerbated by war and winter) it has become, by default, the halcyon summer it never was. Something to yearn for, to rekindle.
Larkin, ever thrifty with the happy dust, does however maintain an empathy of sorts with his characters - this is not a novel of blind nihilism. Katherine, in one of the few sub-plots, discovers her boss is engaged in a discreet, if drab, relationship with an 'ordinary' woman tied to an invalid mother. The consolation we all seek. "looking at her (Katherine) glimpsed the undertow of people's relations, two thirds of which is without face, with only begging and lonely hands..."