‘Jill’ by Philip Larkin ****

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.’ 20895330

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 WinterJill 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.

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The 1944 Club: ‘The Case of the Gilded Fly’ by Edmund Crispin ****

Hurrah!  I have finally been organised enough to be able to participate in one of the wonderful yearly clubs run by Simon and Karen.  The year which they have chosen for bloggers to read books from this week is 1944, and I was so pleased that I could read and review the first book in the Gervase Fen series, The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin, for the occasion.

9780099542131The Guardian praise Edmund Crispin’s series of crime novels as ‘a ludicrous literary farce’, and The Times call the author ‘one of the last exponents of the classical English detective story… elegant, literate, and funny.’  In this, the first novel in the series, a ‘pretty but spiteful young actress’ named Yseut Haskell, who has a ‘talent for destroying men’s lives’, is discovered dead in a University room ‘just metres from unconventional Oxford don Gervase Fen’s office.’  In rather an amusing aside, the blurb says: ‘Anyone who knew her would have shot her, but can Fen discover who could have shot her?’

The Case of the Gilded Fly begins in early 1940, in a typically British manner: ‘To the unwary traveller, Didcot signifies the imminence of his arrival at Oxford; to the more experienced, another half-hour at least of frustration.’  On such a railway journey is where we first meet English Language and Literature Professor Fen – ‘And as his only distraction was one of his own books, on the minor satirists of the eighteenth century, which he was conscientiously re-reading in order to recall what were his opinions of these persons, he became in the later stages of the journey quite profoundly unhappy’ – as well as the other protagonists.  This cast of characters is rather a diverse one.  After brief sketches of their personalities and professions, Crispin discusses them for the first time as a group: ‘By Thursday, 11 October, they were all in Oxford.  And within the week that followed three of those eleven died by violence.’

Crispin controls his writing and characters wonderfully.  The opening description of Yseut gives her character a complexity, and sets the reader – like her acquaintances – against her rather quickly.  Crispin writes: ‘To a considerable extent we are all of necessity preoccupied with ourselves, but with her the preoccupation was exclusive, and largely of a sexual nature into the bargain.  She was still young – twenty-five or so – with full breasts and hips a little crudely emphasized by the clothes she wore, and a head of magnificent and much cared-for red hair.  There, however – at least as far as the majority of people were concerned – her claims to attractiveness ended.  Her features, pretty enough in a conventional way, bore little hints of the character within – a trifle of selfishness, a trifle of conceit; her conversation was intellectually pretentious and empty; her attitude to the other sex was too outspokenly come-hither to please more than a very few of them, and her attitude to her own malicious and spiteful.’

The Case of the Gilded Fly is both intelligently written and highly immersive.  Whilst not my favourite in the Gervase Fen series – that accolade has to be given to the magnificent The Moving Toyshop – The Case of the Gilded Fly, whilst stylistically different in some ways, serves as a marvellous introduction to the series.  Crispin sets it up so that everyone has a grievance against Yseut, and the reader is consequently left guessing who could have perpetrated the crime, when all have a motive.

The sense of place here has been well captured, too, as well as the early Second World War time period in which it is set.  Crispin notes that the college admissions at Oxford University have been greatly affected, with many students going off to fight.  The blackout conditions are also in place when Yseut is murdered, which does not help matters; her death is first ruled as a suicide, until Fen and an Inspector from the local police force probe more deeply and discover several clues.  The novel does not throw up as many red herrings as I had come to expect from the later books in the series; it is more of a measured and meditative novel.  I did correctly guess one of the elements, but found it incredibly well pieced together nonetheless.

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