I read Philip Larkin’s only other published novel, A Girl in Winter, some time ago, and very much enjoyed it. I was therefore rather excited to pick up his debut, Jill, which was first published in 1946. The novel was written over the course of a year when Larkin was just twenty-one, and a student at Oxford. It presents, says its blurb, ‘a subtle and moving picture of a young English undergraduate from the provinces’, and is also now regarded ‘as a classic of its kind.’
Jill is set during the autumn term of 1940, known as the Michaelmas Term at Oxford. The novel opens with a description of the quite awkward journey made by train from Lancashire to Oxford, by our eighteen-year-old protagonist, John Kemp. As he reaches the city limits, Larkin notes: ‘He got to his feet and stared at the approaching city across allotments, back-gardens and piles of coal covered with fallen leaves. Red brick walls glowed with a dull warmth that he would have admired at another time. Now he was too nervous.’ He is about to start at the University, knowing nobody at his college, and scarcely able to imagine what might await him.
John is a ‘poor student’, and has won a scholarship to attend the University. Upon his arrival, he finds that he has to share a room with fellow English Literature student Christopher Warner. His first impressions are of bewilderment: ‘Even with the big fire and uncomfortable furniture, though, it was not a cosy room. John thought of himself reading a volume of essays in front of the hearth with snow falling outside, but in reality the windows were large and draughty and the room never became properly heated.’ He feels such unease, particularly upon meeting Christopher and his friends: ‘His impulse to run away was neutralized by the fact there was nowhere to run to. This was home for him, now.’ He is immediately aware of the loss of his old life, which he had barely considered up until this point in time. Larkin writes: ‘He did not want to go any further with this new life. Already he was fearing what would come next: he feared being formally called, he feared breakfast, he feared all that still lay before him, measuring it against the trifle he had already experienced. How much pleasanter it would be to go back, though the past was even by this time unemphatic and twilit.’
Jill is a campus novel, set almost entirely around the Oxford college which our protagonist attends. There is a brief interlude in which he travels back to his home in Lancashire, somewhere which has been rendered almost unrecognisable by a bombing raid. This contrasts sharply with the ancient splendour of Oxford, which remains unmoving throughout John’s first term.
The volume which I read, published decades ago by Faber and Faber, also contains an introduction written by Larkin. Larkin opens this by writing: ‘An American critic recently suggested that Jill contained the first example of that characteristic landmark of the British post-war novel, the displaced working-class hero… if it is true, I feel bound to say that it was unintentional. In 1940 our impulse was still to minimize social differences rather than exaggerate them. My hero’s background, through an integral part of the story, was not what the story was about.’ He then goes on to discuss what Oxford was like during wartime, and how this differed from what came before; the suspension of ‘college activities’, the lack of varied food, the clothes rationing which made it ‘difficult to dress stylishly’. Such concerns are rather well-to-do ones, certainly, and epitomise the things which our protagonist sees as vital in order to fit in with his largely publicly-educated and well-off peers.
Through John, Larkin perfectly captures the uncertainty and anxiety which many first-time students feel when thrust into the entirely new environment of University. In this manner particularly, Jill is an insightful character study, which does offer up some surprises. A full picture of John is slowly built, including his creation of an imaginary sister named Jill, and his fixation on the younger cousin of one of Christopher’s friends. It feels as though Larkin fully understands John, and what such a life change does to him and his behaviour. Almost everything for John is a learning curve. The relationships which are forged between him, Christopher, and Christopher’s friends, are not friendships as such; it seems as though, from the first, they are using John for the little money which he has, and for his essay notes. The rather naive John is completely oblivious to their ulterior motives.
Jill is an incredibly descriptive novel, as one would expect from a writer who worked primarily as a poet. When John arrives at his college, for instance, Larkin envisions: ‘The quadrangle was gravelled and surrounded by sets of rooms on three sides, with the Chapel and Hall on the fourth side. The windows were dark and hollow: archways, with arms and scrolled stone, led off into other parts of the college, and one or two pigeons flew down from high ledges from among the rich crimson ivy.’ One of the real strengths of the novel is in the richly evoked sense of place.
Having enjoyed Jill and A Girl in Winter so much, I am fully of the opinion that I prefer Larkin’s novels to his poetry. As the New Statesman writes, ‘The qualities one has learned to value in his poetry are there. Control of emotion and language, keen observation, and in particular the very precise expression of half-success, anticipated failure or sadness.’ There is far more of a depth to his novels, however, as I’m sure one might expect given their relative length in comparison to a poem.
I was entranced whilst reading Jill, basking in its use of language, and admiring its strong and believable character development. Like A Girl in Winter, Jill is a quiet yet beautiful novel, peppered with haunting moments. It is a touching read, in which one comes to feel such sympathy for the beleaguered John, and understands every single one of his motives.