Monday 20 November 2023

'The rest was poetry'

 The latest issue of the literary quarterly Slightly Foxed marks its twentieth anniversary – surely a cause for celebration – and I was happy to find a piece I'd written on A Girl inWinter in it, along with many other goodies, including a lovely appreciation of J.L. Carr by Ursula Buchan, William Palmer on The Best of Myles, and Jonathan Law on Christopher Neve's Unquiet Landscape – a piece that actually inspired me to buy the book (this often happens with Slightly Foxed). Here is me on A Girl in Winter – but do buy the magazine; it's well worth it...

I had been reading Philip Larkin’s poetry for years before, quite recently, I decided to have a look at his novels. I knew he had published a couple in his early years: Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947). I knew too that, in their Oxford days and for some while after, Larkin saw himself as primarily a novelist, while his friend Kingsley Amis regarded himself as primarily a poet (how wrong they were). What I did not know was that, of Larkin’s novels, the second, A Girl in Winter, far from being an early misfire, is, well, a bit of a masterpiece.
 It was a good thing I read the second first, because if I had started with Jill I might not have bothered to pursue Larkin the novelist any further. He himself all but disowned Jill, regarding it as a piece of juvenilia, best forgotten, though he acknowledged that it offers an evocative portrait of wartime life in Oxford and is a kind of prototype for many a later tale of a working-class lad’s misadventures at university. It is also worth reading for its vivid descriptions of a bombed industrial town (clearly drawing on Larkin’s hometown of Coventry). However, as a novel, Jill is unconvincing, and certainly gives no hint of what was to come with A Girl in Winter, a work that is not only quite unlike its predecessor but unlike anything else in English fiction. 
 A Girl in Winter doesn’t read as if it was written by a man, and certainly not by a man as plain-spoken, curmudgeonly, misanthropic, sexist, and all the rest of it, as the Philip Larkin of popular imagination. Reading A Girl in Winter ‘blind’, with no knowledge of its authorship, I doubt if more than one in ten would identify its writer as male, and I doubt if one in a hundred would guess the name of Larkin. It’s a work of great emotional sensitivity and powerful empathy, written entirely from the perspective of the young woman at its heart. That young woman is Katherine Lind, whom we first meet as a wartime refugee working as a library assistant in a provincial northern, or midland, town: the town is not specified (it could well be Coventry), nor is Katherine’s country of origin. Small internal clues suggest that it is Germany, and that she is probably Jewish, though that too is never stated. 
 A Girl In Winter is simply constructed, in three parts. The outer two, set in the town where Katherine is living and working, form a stretch of 12 hours or so on a cold, foggy Saturday in wartime, while the middle section takes us back six years to an English summer in rural Oxfordshire. The wartime Saturday is, for Katherine, a working day, and she is clearly unhappy in her work under a peculiarly unpleasant and officious librarian, Mr Anstey, portrayed with real venom by Larkin, who had no doubt come across an Anstey or two in his library career (I was a librarian once, and I recognise the type). 
 This particular morning, Katherine is detailed to escort home a dislikeable girl, Miss Green (those were formal times), who has a raging toothache. Part one of the novel simply follows their journey across town, in the course of which Miss Green's condition worsens, while Katherine comes into focus as someone whose emotions are, like the townscape, frozen. Why this is so remains, throughout the novel, a story that is never quite told, though the war has obviously forced her to leave her home country and the life she had there. Whatever the source of the winter in Katherine's soul, the turning point of the first part of the novel is a memorable scene in a municipal park when, suddenly, she sees the tiresome Miss Green as a human being rather than a burden, and compassion becomes a possibility: 
‘Till then she had seen only her ugliness, her petulance, her young pretensions. 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.’ 
 We also learn in part one that Katherine has been in touch with an English family with whom she stayed six years earlier, before the war. There is a note at her dismal 'digs' from the son, Robin, who says he is visiting that day, an encounter that Katherine is now keen to avoid. Why? The back story to that makes up part two of the novel, set in the sunshine and rain of an English summer, in the course of which Katherine falls in love with the reserved and very 'English' Robin, then out of love with him. Katherine finds the experience of meeting and living with his family – and working out what his strange, unhappy elder sister is up to – confusing and unsettling. Larkin traces the movements of Katherine’s emotions with great sensitivity, until finally, standing by the river on her last evening in England, she finds some resolution:
 ‘The water was the colour of pewter, for the afterglow had faded rapidly and left a quality of light that resembled early dawn. It had drawn off the brightness from the meadows and stubble-fields, that were now tarnished silver and pale yellow, and the shadows were slowly mixing with the mist. In this way the edges of her emotions had blurred, and they now overlaid each other like planes of water running over wet sand, the last expenditure of succeeding waves. There was no discord in them: she felt at peace.’ 
As that passage suggests, there is much fine descriptive writing in A Girl in Winter, a novel in which weather, landscape and townscape are always to the fore, from its beginning – describing a day of lying snow with more expected – to its end, when the snow is finally falling (as at the end of James Joyce’s The Dead – did Larkin have that in mind?). 
 From prewar summer it's back to wartime winter for the final third of the book. Here the threads of plot from the first part – Robin’s impending visit, an inadvertent handbag swap – are resolved (the latter, slight and unpromising as it might seem, leading Katherine to a quite unexpected and deeply sad discovery). There’s not a lot of plot in A Girl in Winter: its essence lies in the creation of atmosphere and the tracing of nuances of emotion, especially in exploring Katherine's alienation, the way her feelings, and the world around her, move in and out of focus. For all its fine descriptive passages, this is not a typical 'poet's novel', introspective, showily written and dripping with ‘sensibility’; it’s too firmly grounded in the kind of grim provincial reality that was the seedbed of Larkin’s genius, and the author keeps himself firmly out of it. 
 Where did A Girl in Winter come from? What could have inspired such an atypical work? Possibly its origins lie in an unhappy visit Larkin made to prewar Germany with his father, an admirer of Hitler. They stayed in the resort of Königswinter, and Larkin’s original title for the novel was The Kingdom of Winter. Could Katherine’s numb desolation in wartime England be a version of the young Larkin’s misery in that German resort? Even if that is the case, we still don’t know who, if anyone, was the model for Katherine Lind. Larkin, typically, left no clues. 
 A Girl in Winter has been described as ‘the most underrated work in the Larkin canon’ and ‘a harbinger of greatness’. Andrew Motion, Larkin’s biographer, characterised it as ‘a beautifully constructed, funny and profoundly sad book’. It’s hard to see where he found the ‘funny’, but profoundly sad it certainly is. However, the shimmer and music of Larkin’s descriptive prose tell another story, of life and possibility and hard-won hope. It’s a shame this novel is not better known; if it has been buried under the great edifice of Larkin’s poetry, it should be brought up from the basement and read again as one of his most interesting pieces of work. 
 Why did he write no more novels? It seems he did have at least one other in mind, the third part of a very loosely conceived trilogy, in which Jill represented innocence, A Girl in Winter the loss of innocence, and the one that remained unwritten marking a return to life. However, he gave up on ever writing that third work, or any other fiction. Perhaps he simply lacked material for sustained fiction, or, more likely, he was by then realising where his true vocation lay. Either way, there were to be no more novels: after A Girl in Winter, the rest was poetry.

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