Olivia Manning: A Life 
by Neville Braybrooke and June Braybrooke.
Chatto, 301 pp., £20, November 2004, 0 7011 7749 7
Show More
Show More

‘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.

Manning’s generally direct and sophisticated treatment of sexual behaviour is one of the strengths of her fiction. In The Wind Changes, an Irish novel, her central character, Elizabeth, instigates most of the amatory episodes, unexpectedly kissing a Republican leader ‘hardly [sic], spitefully and with anger’. Soon afterwards she’s having sex with the married Arion, who may be a spy working for the British against the Republicans. What she wants most, though, is a role in the conflict going on around her. At one point she throws herself onto the ground in front of a Republican activist shouting: ‘Oh God, make use of me or I shall go mad.’

Elizabeth Bowen remarked that Manning had ‘an almost masculine outfit in the way of experience’. This was the result of sympathy: she disliked her mother and identified strongly with her father (his naval career, his pride in his country). But first-hand experience was also involved, of kinds that few English women authors of the time had had. She always worked for her living. From the mid-1940s until her death in 1980 she was exclusively a writer: one not too proud to do scripts for Mrs Dale’s Diary on the BBC. In earlier days, having run away from the domestic constrictions of Portsmouth, she had worked as a clerk at Peter Jones, then in the firm’s furniture-painting studio, then as a secretary at the Medici Society, then for MGM as a reader.

She used this period, the mid-1930s, as material for the best of her novels outside the trilogies, The Doves of Venus (1955). ‘Stevie Smith-ish’ was among my notes on the book, before I learned from the Braybrookes that, at the time, the two women were both rivals and friends. From the detachment of her late forties, Manning sharply delineates young Ellie Parsons, up from the southern provinces, with her newness to London and her desiccated lover, Quintin Bellot, a predatory bore with a suicidal ex-wife. The book describes Ellie’s guilt at escaping her background – a common theme in 1950s writing but more often in fiction by and about men – as well as the disparity between her feelings for Quintin and his, such as they are, for her. Setting and mood work economically together, and the novel treats with feeling irony other aspects of the life of a single woman – having to spend a lot of time sitting around in pubs with despairing men, for example. The imaginative power-supply is intermittent, however, and when it fails Manning turns to a mix of needless flashbacks and outbreaks of wordy sensationalism. (Quintin’s ex-wife meets a former drug addict: ‘His ghostly paper-mask of a face had still the imprint of his once remarkable good looks, but his body jerked about with the angular indecision of a ventriloquist’s doll.’) Stevie Smith, reviewing the book in the Observer, accused it of ‘moral naivety’ and of lacking ‘balance of thought’. This put an end to their friendship.

There were, as the Braybrookes show, personal as well as professional rivalries between them, but Manning could forgive almost anything more easily than criticism of her work. Indeed, she was unusually vociferous about it: not only about what was said in reviews but about how short they were, about the lack of solo pieces devoted to her, and about the precise position in which she was noticed in any batch. She was obsessed with the enmities and cabals that she believed were responsible for keeping prizes out of her grasp, and took a corresponding relish in the failures of others. She could be unkind: she told Angus Wilson at a vulnerable moment that his publishers had gone bankrupt when they hadn’t. People now tend to assume that the war novels, which Manning began immediately after The Doves of Venus, were immediately and unanimously hailed as masterpieces, but they had a mixed reception, especially among male reviewers, and the TV series wasn’t made until seven years after she died.

In World War Two, Manning’s ‘masculine outfit in the way of experience’ was a consequence of her husband’s lack of it. Reggie Smith’s poor eyesight kept him out of the armed services and in the British Council, so Olivia was with him in Bucharest when Romania began to side with Nazi Germany. Along with other expatriates, the couple escaped to Athens and, when Greece fell, moved on to Egypt and then Palestine. They both worked throughout the war, he at his teaching, she in various jobs, including as a press attaché to the American Embassy in Cairo and on the literary pages of the Jerusalem Post. All this supplied material not only for the trilogies but also for two earlier books, Artist among the Missing (1949) and School for Love (1951). The first of these traces the disintegration of a hypersensitive British officer in wartime Jerusalem; in the second, which was also set in Jerusalem, the hero’s father, a colonial servant in Iraq, has been killed in an uprising encouraged by the Germans. Both novels anticipate the trilogies in taking a strong line against colonialism.

In the Levant Trilogy, written in the late 1970s, Manning’s views are sometimes too explicit. When Harriet asks Simon what Britain has done for Egypt, he answers dutifully: ‘We’ve brought them justice and prosperity. We’ve shown them how people ought to live.’ Harriet, however, is ready with her own verdict: ‘What have we done here, except make money? I suppose a few rich Egyptians have got richer by supporting us, but the real people of the country, the peasants and the backstreet poor, are just as diseased, underfed and wretched as they ever were.’ This may sound like revisionism, but Manning’s novels of the late 1940s and early 1950s show a sharp eye for expatriate complacency and prejudice as well as other political realities, not least about Jewish-Arab relations in colonial Palestine. School for Love in particular is vividly populated by the flotsam and jetsam of empire and war.

It’s for the 1500 pages of Fortunes of War, however, that Manning is now best known. Rider Haggard apart, she had two models in mind. One was Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, the second volume of which had just appeared when she began The Great Fortune in 1956; the other, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, which had reached its third volume in 1955. Powell was then literary editor of Punch and Manning often wrote reviews for him. According to the Braybrookes, she bought all the volumes of Dance as they appeared and got Powell to sign them. Meanwhile, she nudged him about Punch’s coverage of her own work. ‘Do you think I will ever reach the exalted status of being reviewed separately, like Iris or Muriel?’ she asked. ‘Or am I just not good enough?’ It’s on the wartime sequence that any answer to this last question has to be based.

The two trilogies differ in one major respect. The Balkan Trilogy is seen entirely from the vantage point of its main character, Harriet, an intelligent, independent but vulnerable young Englishwoman married to an amiable, gregarious socialist, Guy Pringle. Closely caught up by the war in much the same ways as Manning and her husband had been, they are essentially observers, though she invents an active role for them in sheltering the son of a rich Jewish family. Harriet lets slip the fact of the boy’s presence to their unreliable, chronically broke and sponging White Russian friend, Prince Yakimov, who betrays him. The Levant Trilogy continues the Pringles’ story but alternates between their experiences and those of a young British officer just arrived in North Africa, Simon Boulderstone, who is trying to track down his brother Hugo. Hugo is killed just before Simon catches up with him. (Olivia Manning’s own brother, Oliver, her only sibling, was killed when his plane went into the sea off the Dorset coast in 1941.) Simon in turn is badly wounded, and at this point his story meshes with Guy’s. Harriet, who has been ill and is supposed to have embarked for England on a boat full of refugees, has on impulse let herself be carried off to Damascus by a woman friend. Meanwhile, the boat is sunk, and Harriet is presumed dead. Simon’s slow convalescence and Guy’s mourning intertwine.

Manning has some of Waugh’s sense of history. When we’re told that a Bucharest businessman called Hadjimoscos is ‘a last descendant of one of the Greek Phanariot families that had ruled and exploited Romania under the Turks’, a whole perspective is opened up. Guy’s little power struggles in ‘the Organisation’ – which occupy rather too much of the narrative – and Harriet’s more absorbing efforts to deal with her marginalisation in his life and in the world at large, are set against a complex international background, which extends beyond wartime immediacies, effectively though these are portrayed. The steady rise of Nazism in Romania, the destructive impact of Dunkirk on foreign confidence in the British, the antagonists’ rapidly changing fortunes in Greece, North Africa and the Middle East, stream after stream of refugees: no other novelist has described these crucial arenas of the war with such scope and immediacy.

In terms of characterisation, though, the trilogies’ success is more touch and go. Guy is for the most part convincingly and affectionately diagnosed, with his promiscuous charm, his workaholism, his unshakeable belief that putting on a production of Troilus and Cressida in Bucharest as the Iron Guard take over, or teaching Finnegans Wake to his last two remaining students in Alexandria, are important activities. Harriet is still more persuasive, despite Manning’s weakness for fine speeches. (‘Save yourself, Clarence,’ Harriet tells a critic of Guy’s politics. ‘You said that Guy is a fool. There may be ways in which that sort of fool is superior to you. You show your wisdom by believing in nothing. The truth is, you have nothing to offer but a wilderness.’) Harriet is never in the wrong.

Yet something is missing which this book helps to explain. Do Harriet and Guy have any sex life? The neglected Harriet is attractive to (and attracted by) other men, and at one point comes very close to having an affair. But as far as the Pringles are concerned, the sequence is much more reticent about such matters than Manning’s previous books had been. Marital discretion may have been an element in this. But there seems to be a clue to something more when, in the third volume of the Balkan Trilogy, Harriet becomes distraught over the death of a pet kitten and Guy says: ‘You couldn’t have made more fuss if it’d been a baby.’ The Braybrookes reveal that in 1944, five years into her marriage, Manning became pregnant: ‘by Reggie’, they say, which makes one wonder. The foetus died at seven months but she was obliged to carry it to term. The only occasion when she put this trauma into fiction was in The Rain Forest (1974), but it seems to be obliquely reflected in some areas of blankness in the trilogies.

Harriet and Guy apart, few of the characters have much depth, and the brisk caricatural approach Manning generally adopts, though usually adequate to a single volume, is less so over the whole saga. Readers may differ as to how well Prince Yakimov sustains their interest but no one could find Dubedat – a treacherously opportunistic, dirty-fingernailed, underqualified Scouse would-be teacher – anything but a too easy target for Manning at her most snobbish. As often as not, a portrayal depends on a single, often repeated tic: Yakimov’s wearyingly reiterated obsession with food and drink; the diplomat David Boyd’s snigger-cum-snuffle.

The high-budget TV version brought the best out of the books. Alan Plater’s adroit screenplay, though it runs for six hours, removed almost all repetitions and longueurs. More, it gave interpretative shape to what, though not absent from the books, is often left unpointed in them: in particular how the holiday which Harriet (played by Emma Thompson) takes from her marriage and the impact of her supposed death on Guy (Kenneth Branagh did these scenes with a thrilling rawness) both bring a shift in the balance not so much of power as of need between the partners.

James Cellan Jones’s direction made the most of the battle scenes too. Manning herself hadn’t seen front-line military action, but she knew people who had, and came closer to it than a lot of men who actually served. Besides, war is as much a subject for the imagination as anything else, and ever more so as the events recede into the past. She tends, admittedly, to over-romanticise Simon Boulderstone. For a young officer in his first battle to kill a German with his first shot while crying, ‘Damn you. Damn the lot of you,’ and then to pick up his wounded batman and carry him behind the lines to safety, may not be too good to be true but is certainly too good for fiction. Still, to my unmilitary eye Manning for the most part handles these parts of her story with restraint and conviction:

The smudge, pale and indefinite at first, deepened in colour and expanded . . . until, less than a mile away, it revealed itself as a sand cloud, rising so thickly into the heat fuzz of the upper air that the sun was almost occluded. Inside the cloud, the dark shapes of vehicles were visible. The first of them was a supply truck, lurching, top-heavy with mess equipment. The procession that followed stretched away to the horizon. Like the convoy, it moved slowly, creaking and clanking amid the stench of its own exhausts and petrol fumes. As they reached and passed it, Simon felt the heat from the vehicles.

Fine passages of description and a well realised pair of central characters don’t add up to a great novel, though, let alone a sequence of six. Compton-Burnett seems to have put her finger on one of the main problems. If the style and characterisation flag, so too does the action, and at these points Manning lets travel writing take over.

The Braybrookes were close friends of their subject. June Braybrooke, who wrote fiction as Isobel English and wrote the introduction to Virago’s reissue of The Doves of Venus, died in 1994. Her husband, with whom she had been working on the book, struggled before resuming it. After he died too, another of Manning’s friends, the novelist Francis King, pulled it into its still fairly rudimentary final shape. It seems pointless to itemise the needless mistakes that remain – wrongly spelled names, obvious misreadings – or to speculate whether, had they lived, the Braybrookes would have offered more by way of psychological interpretation or a critical claim for the books. Olivia Manning: A Life is usefully informative about the novelist’s early years. It identifies real-life models of some fictional characters and situations, though without adding much in the process. We also learn that Manning had a long and well-managed affair with her married GP, Jerry Slattery, from as early as 1949 until his death in 1977. Slattery, the Braybrookes say, was ‘like a ringmaster, immensely successful at keeping his two fillies bucking and prancing until the final curtain’: one could have wished for something more sophisticated. As for R.D. Smith, it’s clear both that this genial and popular cultural impresario put up with a lot at home, and that he in turn was given generous scope for his drinking and flirting and his not entirely unaccountable disappearances. He is said to have ardently supported his wife’s writing, which he read and commented on before she showed it to anyone else. Perhaps it was her unassuageable need for praise and detestation of criticism that led him and her publishers to overlook so much which careful editing could have helped make good.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences