Set in wintry wartime England, A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin is a reflective tale of lost innocence and disappointment. The titular girl is twenty-something librarian, Katherine Lind, a refugee living in an unnamed provincial town, where the harsh winter is threatening to become a state of mind. Memories of her first visit to England, a girlhood interlude with her penpal, Robin Fennel, contrast bitterly with her current lonely situation, but when fate causes Robin to resurface, memory and expectation play their usual sly tricks.
First released in 1947 and the second of the poet’s two published novels, A Girl in Winter employs Larkin’s familiar focus on lives of muted desperation. In some wonderfully evocative scenes he introduces us to Katherine at her workplace. Not quite the calibre of library she may have chosen, there are no leather-bound volumes or whispering academics here. Instead this is a place of ‘…string bags, trembling old men, tramps reading newspapers through magnifying glasses,’ all eyes on Katherine’s legs as she stands on a table to fit a new lightbulb.
Indifferent to her colleagues, contemptuous of her power-tripping boss, and heavy-hearted every time she returns to her dreary rented room, the only thing buoying her spirits is the thought of meeting Robin again. Having taken the plunge and written to the Fennels, she anticipates his surprised response, taking the reader back in time to the revelatory summer she once spent with him and his family in Oxfordshire.
Curiously, we’re never told which country Katherine is from, although there are hints that she may be German Jewish. Wherever she hails from, it’s clear that her youthful preconceptions of England derive from ‘having once laboriously read half a novel by Jane Austen,’ and rumours of incessant rain and bad cooking.
Although it turns out that the rain and food are manageable, her penpal is unfathomable. At an age where he’s positively fizzing with testosterone, he doesn’t even flirt with her. Instead, Robin courteously escorts her on day trips, as stilted and formal as a middle-aged butler.
And then there’s his sister, Jane. Drab, sulky, and several years their senior, she appears to have no friends or occupation, her only purpose being to trail around with them both, a listless ever-present chaperone. Their apparent indifference causes Katherine to question why she was ever invited. There must be something behind this she thinks, and she’s right.
As the story unfurls towards her anticipated reunion with Robin, Larkin poignantly captures Katherine’s sense of otherness in this 1940’s England of glazed brick taverns, chips in newspaper, and chilly black-out-curtained bedsits.
There are some aching contrasts too, between summer and winter, peacetime and war, and inevitably, youth and experience. The word bleak is often used in conjunction with Larkin’s writing, a sense that human existence is a tussle between what one wants and what life inexorably delivers unbidden. That’s certainly the case for more than one character here.
A quiet, sad and often beautiful read for Larkin completists.
A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin is published by Faber & Faber, 256 pages.