Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Larkin wrote only two novels, Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter. After these, he devoted all of his attention to poetry. A Girl in Winter has much in common with the earlier novel. Both deal with isolation and the building up and breaking down of illusions. Like Katherine Lind, John Kemp, the hero of Jill, is a stranger in the society in which he finds himself, the upper-class undergraduate world at Oxford which will not accept him. He also has to cope with radical discontinuity in his life, and he, too, indulges in a fantasy world, although to a far greater extent than does Katherine. When his illusions fail to stand up in the light of the real world, he reflects “how little anything matters.... See how appallingly little life is,” phrases that are strikingly similar to the conclusions reached, respectively, by Robin and Katherine.

Larkin held a low opinion of his own novels, but critic John Bayley has described A Girl in Winter as “one of the finest and best sustained prose poems in the language,” a view which is not difficult to justify. It is valuable, among other things, for its conciseness, its concern for detail, and its convincing exploration of the feelings of a woman of delicate sensibility. It also looks forward to many of the concerns expressed in Larkin’s poetry: the need for honesty and for realistic self-knowledge, the difficulty of obtaining intimacy in relationships, the oppressive nature of time (in the novel Robin cannot stand the ticking of Katherine’s watch), and the cheerlessness of life.