Make use of me

Jeremy Treglown

‘A great many novels nowadays are just travel books,’ Ivy Compton-Burnett grumbled to Barbara Pym in 1960. ‘Olivia has just published one about Bulgaria.’ She hadn’t noticed that the setting of The Great Fortune is in fact Romania. But she had a point. Journeys, voluntary and enforced, are big in Olivia Manning’s work, as they had been in the first forty years of her life, and the painter manqué in her always made the most of topographical detail. An element in the success of Fortunes of War, the 1987 TV version of her two trilogies set in the Second World War (Anthony Burgess, a fan, called them a hexateuch), was the visual sumptuousness: the arrival in Bucharest of the train carrying the young British Council teacher and his new wife; the Athens settings of the wife’s romance with one British officer and her scrambles up the pyramids with another; the North African desert; Alexandria, Luxor, Damascus. The series, combined with some well-timed Virago reissues, was crucial in bringing Manning’s work a wider readership. A quarter of a century after her death, Neville and June Braybrooke’s Olivia Manning: A Life provides an opportunity to look at what her reputation is based on.

Vicarious tourism is certainly part of it: Manning always glamorised place. She described herself as Anglo-Irish, as if she had been brought up in a crumbling West Cork mansion rather than 134 Laburnum Grove, North End, Portsmouth. It’s true that as a child she spent part of World War One in Ireland while her father, Oliver (everyone in her immediate family was either Oliver or Olivia), was on active service. She later kept quiet about this part of her life, both because it revealed her age – she preferred people to think that she was born around 1918, rather than ten years earlier – and because it didn’t amount to much. But she could make a little go a long way, and Ireland is important to her work, both as the setting of some early fiction and a travel book, and because it encouraged her to try out what was to make her unusual among women novelists of her time: writing about men at war.

Virginia Woolf had more or less said that this was impossible, as well as undesirable. A Room of One’s Own assumes that war is a male subject, and that its fictional dominance contributed to the crushing of female literary talent, the proper concerns of which lay elsewhere. Woolf was a heroine of Manning’s teens. The Braybrookes tell us that ‘she used to have dreams in which Vanessa Bell and her sister Virginia came floating towards her like beautiful swans.’ An assiduous user of the public library, the young Olivia took out Jacob’s Room almost as soon as it arrived there. But her tastes were catholic: Rider Haggard’s Zulu Trilogy excited her so much that her mother thought she was running a fever and sent her to bed. Olivia would have liked to have been a man. The writing she did in the late 1920s, after she left Portsmouth School of Art, was sent out under the name Jacob Morrow: romantic thrillers with titles like Rose of Rubies (serialised in the Portsmouth News), Here Is Murder, The Black Scarab. In December 1929, Jacob Morrow won fourth prize in a short-story competition run by the Hampshire Telegraph. Soon afterwards, she began to sign her work O.M. Manning, but it was as Olivia Manning that in 1937 she published The Wind Changes with Jonathan Cape.

In being acquired by Cape, Manning made an acquisition of her own. More striking than beautiful, with down-turned dark eyes and very slender legs, she was extremely interested in sex, and the more of it she experienced the more fashionably forthright she became. Her editor, the dashing Hamish Miles, soon became her lover. But she was unlucky in her early choices. Miles, who was married with a young family, died of a brain tumour in 1937. Manning’s husband from 1939, R.D. (Reggie) Smith, a British Council teacher and later an academic and BBC radio producer, drank a lot and was a compulsive, if helpfully complaisant, philanderer. Among other men she was attracted to, the novelist William Gerhardie proved to have sadistic tendencies which she didn’t enjoy, while the theatre and film director Tony Richardson was so nervous of her that when lodging with the Smiths in St John’s Wood he hardly dared to take a bath.

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