Witness to a world in chaos
BIOGRAPHY:Olivia Manning, the British author of ‘The Balkan Trilogy’ and many other works, has long been underrated as a writer, but this absorbing biography should help change that
Olivia Manning: A Woman at War, By Deirdre David, Oxford University Press, 405pp, £25
In 1948 Elizabeth Bowen noted that the war had given Olivia Manning a powerful theme, outside the “traditional” preoccupations of women novelists: “Her artistic sensitiveness has adapted itself, without a quaver, to violent movement and spectacular change.”
This was true of Bowen too, but whereas her place as a major writer is assured, Manning has remained underrated since her death, in 1980. This may be about to change. Last year Eve Patten published a penetrating study of Manning’s novels about war, Imperial Refugee, published by Cork University Press, and Deirdre David’s new biography now integrates the work and the life in a study that is subtle, deeply researched and utterly absorbing.
Both critics accept that the life and the work are interwoven, and Manning herself made no secret of it. The six novels that make up The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy follow the fortunes of an uneasily married couple, Guy and Harriet Pringle, observing first hand the descent of Romania and Greece into chaos before ending up in Egypt. This was exactly the experience of the just-married Olivia Manning and Reggie Smith, setting off in August 1939 by train to Bucharest, to work with the British Council.
She had already published short stories and a well-received novel, The Wind Changes, set in Ireland during the Troubles. The couple’s subsequent time in Palestine in the mid 1940s supplied material for novels she wrote after their return to London, such as Artist Among the Missing and School for Love. But all she had seen in the Balkans simmered away, and in 1960 The Great Fortune returned to the early years of the war, striking a new and distinctive note.
The novels that followed – The Spoiled City, Friends and Heroes, The Danger Tree, The Battle Lost and Won, The Sum of Things (published posthumously) – stand with the war trilogies of Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, and arguably display a greater range and depth. The surface often suggests a comedy of manners: rarely have the English abroad been skewered so deftly, and she had a mordant eye for the grotesque. But as the world darkens we sense the atmosphere of cities as they crack apart, the way inadequate people behave under pressure, the survival of the seedy and self-seeking, the little details of hard-won food and shelter, the insecurity, uncertainty and occasional heroism of humanity at war. “You are watching a country die,” Harriet is told by a Romanian friend.
These themes form the background to a marriage that somehow endures despite the Marxist Guy’s essentially selfish universal camaraderie and the sceptical Harriet’s neurotically discriminating approach to life. Psychological insights and close political observation are matched by a style that is astringent, elliptical, lyrical in a disciplined way, and uncompromisingly true.
Patten’s study placed these marvellous books, with their ambiguous political viewpoint, as quintessential fictions charting imperial collapse, emphasising Manning’s part-Irish background. (Her mother was from Northern Ireland.) David’s biography bears out these themes but casts a much wider net, tracing the grim determination with which Manning wrote herself out of a petit-bourgeois Portsmouth background into the London literary world, a process reflected in her 1964 novel The Doves of Venus. Attractive in a gamine way, very stylish and brilliantly funny when she wanted to be, she made her own way, and often covered her tracks with a fair amount of fabulism.