‘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.

Purchase from The Book Depository


Flash Reviews (Boxing Day Edition)

Happy Boxing Day, everyone!  I hope your Christmas Day was a beautiful one.  (As with all of my Christmas posts, this was written a couple of weeks before the big day, so my excitement is building greatly at present.)  Below, I shall be writing about one of Philip Larkin’s novels, another of Carol Ann Duffy’s gorgeous poetry books, another in the A Series of Unfortunate Events series, and a most interesting piece of non-fiction about women who lived in Paris between 1900 and 1940.

‘A Girl in Winter’ by Philip Larkin (Faber & Faber)

A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin ****
My sister purchased this beautiful book for me for my birthday (I have a different cover to the one pictured, with a beautiful painting upon it), but I patiently waited until winter came around to read it.  I must confess that I have read very little of Larkin’s poetry, which is awful of me, particularly as he was born and grew up in the city in which I went to University.  I was most looking forward to reading his two novels, and was overjoyed when A Girl in Winter was given to me.

The novel begins in the most beautiful of ways.  Larkin is so in control of the language which he uses, and he weaves some truly stunning sentences.  In A Girl in Winter, he tells the story of Katherine, a young girl who comes from somewhere abroad to spend a holiday with the Fennel family in Oxfordshire.  Part of the novel deals with her teenage self, and another with her early adulthood, in which she is living in a dreary town and working as a librarian.  We never find out where it is that Katherine hails from, but I quite enjoyed the ambiguity.  As a character, she was fully formed and such information, whilst it would have been mildly interesting to know, may have been rather superfluous to the plot and her experiences.  In A Girl in Winter, Larkin has written a great novel, in which the character arcs work marvellously, and everything is so very believable.

One of the beautiful illustrations from Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Wenceslas’

Wenceslas by Carol Ann Duffy *****
I purchased this gorgeous little book from Waterstone’s just after the New Year, but felt that it was too seasonal to read immediately.  It has languished on my to-read shelf ever since, and I am so pleased that I have been able to read it at last.  As with all of her Christmas books, it goes without saying that Wenceslas is absolutely beautiful.  Stuart Kolakovic’s illustrations are sublime, and I could look at them for hours.  The marriage of prose and picture is perfect.

In Wenceslas, Duffy treats us to a medieval feast.  She has written a reimagining of the Christmas carol, which ‘celebrates what is truly important at this special time of year; the simple acts of kindness that each of us can show another’.  Duffy has made me long to back to beautiful Prague, where Wenceslas, of course, is set.  The rhyme scheme is lovely, and like The Christmas Truce, this is a book which I shall enjoy each and every year.  It is a delight from start to finish.

The Austere Academy by Lemony Snicket ***
April very kindly sent me the missing fifth book in the A Series of Unfortunate Events, so that I could slot it into my reading of Snicket’s books.  The Austere Academy, whilst interesting, is definitely my least favourite of the series so far, merely because it does not seem to be as original as those which precede it.  Whilst I liked the Quagmires, friends of the Baudelaire children, I felt as though the tale was a little too predictable, and I guessed a lot of it far before it happened, which was a real shame.

‘Women of the Left Bank’ by Shari Benstock

Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940 by Shari Benstock ***
I spotted this book in a tiny little Cambridge bookshop whilst I was in the process of hunting for Viragos, and even though it was not part of the Modern Classics list which I am working my way through, I just had to read it.  Some of the authors which Benstock touches upon here rank amongst my favourites (the marvellous Colette and Anais Nin), one amongst my least favourites (Edith Wharton, with the exception of her marvellous novella, Ethan Frome), and a couple of them, I had not even heard of.  Within the book, Benstock covers many different elements: homosexuality, thoughts of feminist critics, why the authors chose to move to Paris in the first instance, the notion of art and artists, modernism, experimentalism, and so on.  The entirety is split into sections which seem to be made up of essay-length works, all of which consider one of the elements or authors in question.

The prose style in Women of the Left Bank tends to veer towards academic, and it is therefore not the easiest of non-fiction books to immerse yourself into.  Whilst it is very interesting, it does feel a little heavy going at times, possibly due to the plethora of quotes which have been placed at every possible juncture.  It is probably more enjoyable to dip in and out of, rather than to read it all in one go as I did.  Overall, it was a little too much of the ‘let’s all go and burn our bras’ strain of feminism for my liking, but it was most interesting nonetheless.


Sunday Snapshot: Five Poets

Edna St Vincent Millay

1. Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950)
And you did so profane me when you crept
Unto the threshold of this room to-night
That I must never more behold your face.
This now is yours. I seek another place.
(From ‘Bluebeard’)

2. Philip Larkin (1922-1985)
Books; china; a life
Reprehensibly perfect.
(From ‘Poetry of Departures’)

3. Christina Rossetti (1830-1892)
Once in a dream (for once I dreamed of you)
We stood together in an open field;
Above our heads two swift-winged pigeons wheeled,
Sporting at ease and courting full in view.
When loftier still a broadening darkness flew,
Down-swooping, and a ravenous hawk revealed;
Too weak to fight, too fond to fly, they yield;
So farewell life and love and pleasures new.
Then as their plumes fell fluttering to the ground,
Their snow-white plumage flecked with crimson drops,
I wept, and thought I turned towards you to weep:
But you were gone; while rustling hedgerow tops
Bent in a wind which bore to me a sound
Of far-off piteous bleat of lambs and sheep.
(‘A Dream’)

4. H.D. (1886-1961)

Christina Rossetti

Christina Rossetti (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I first tasted under Apollo’s lips,
love and love sweetness,
I, Evadne;
my hair is made of crisp violets
or hyacinth which the wind combs back
across some rock shelf;
I, Evadne,
was made of the god of light.
(From ‘Evadne’)

5. Robert Frost (1874-1963)

Don’t discount our powers;
We have made a pass
At the infinite.
(From ‘Kitty Hawk’)