‘A Girl in Winter’ is a short novel in three sections. The main protagonist is a young woman, Katherine Lind, who’s German, or from a German-speaking country. The first and third sections are set during the Second World War in a nondescript and un-named English town in the bleakest of winters, where Katherine is in exile. Philip Larkin never tells us directly why Katherine has left her country, but we assume she’s Jewish, and consequently she’s lost her home and her family. As a result she seems at times as emotionally frozen as the winter she endures.
The middle section is set in Oxfordshire in June six years previously, where Katherine, as a sixteen year old, spent three weeks with her pen-friend, Robin Fennel. Katherine’s youthful heart-searching is so minutely and authentically described, that this section could be mistaken for a ‘coming of age’ novel by a female author.
It’s hard to define the theme of the novel; the disruptive influence of war; the closing down of the heart as a result of profound grief, and at the same time the way the heart can unexpectedly respond with compassion towards others; love and disillusion; profound loneliness; indifference. Subtle, under-stated and nuanced, in its weaker sections it’s as clumsy and over-written as a first draft. Yet it’s almost brilliant too – a quiet, strangely haunting read, musical both in form and in the poetry of its language. It’s full of the introspective musings of a young girl, but, despite its flaws, so beautifully written that it seeps into the imagination, leaving a shadow, or essence, as dreams sometime do.
Some years ago, I wrote a short story about a German girl living in similarly lonely and melancholy circumstances in post-war London. I never wrote more than three drafts and it remains more like a fragment of a longer work than a short story. Only now, reading ‘A Girl in Winter’ – a novel I thought I’d forgotten – I recognise Larkin’s quiet but profound influence, and realise it’s been with me since first reading, almost thirty years ago.