The novelist Olivia Manning married R.D. “Reggie” Smith in August 1939, just weeks before the Second World War began with the Nazi invasion of Poland. She had no way of knowing, then, that the fortunes of her marriage would be inextricably linked to the greatest devastation of the 20th century. Smith’s job as a lecturer for the British Council in Bucharest took them to Eastern Europe, but the war pushed them onward, as they fled the Germans to Athens, then to Cairo. When Smith got a job at the Palestine Broadcasting Corporation, they moved on to Jerusalem, where they stayed until 1945.
In the 1,600 pages and six novels that comprise her best-known works, The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy—together known as Fortunes of War and adapted in 1987 by the BBC into a television series starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh—Manning fictionalizes her wartime experiences, braiding together the tragedies of the war with her marital woes. (Guy Pringle, the fictional Reggie Smith, is an absent husband who “loves everyone,” not just his wife, and philandered before his marriage as well as after. But then, so did she.) It is for this reason that in Olivia Manning: A Woman at War, a new biography of Manning, Deirdre David, professor emeritus of English literature at Temple University, casts Manning as “a woman at war on a number of fronts.” David describes a writer metaphorically at war with her lower-middle-class background, with her husband, and even with her own body: when her 7-month-old fetus died inside of her, she had to carry it to term, per Middle Eastern medical wisdom of the time. Finally, in peacetime, David sees Manning as a writer at war with a literary establishment that, she felt, never fully appreciated her.
Manning is often described as one of those underread, underappreciated 20th-century British authors; when anyone knows anything about her, they usually remember that she wrote massive novels and that she was rumored to be “difficult”: among a certain set in literary London she was known as “Olivia Moaning.” Eve Patten (who recently published a scholarly study of Manning's work called Imperial Refugee: Olivia Manning's Fictions of War) notes that Manning's bad reputation “often threatens to obscure her reputation as a writer. Few 20th-century novelists can have inspired such consistent dislike.” David recognizes that the two Mannings are linked, and that the reception of one influences the reception of the other.
Being a witness to history was both a boon and a burden to Manning.
Raised by a neglectful mother and a penniless naval officer father on a street nicknamed “Lavatory Lane” in Portsmouth, Manning would always be embarrassed by her background; it's a long way from Lavatory Lane to her eventual home in London's genteel St John's Wood. Always just barely scraping by, she left school at 16 to become a typist, which allowed her to pay for classes at the Portsmouth Municipal School of Art (Manning’s first love was painting). While in art school Manning began to write sensational serial fiction about things like Parisian jewel heists for the Portsmouth Evening News. David speculates that Manning must have spent quite a bit of time poring over maps of Paris, for her descriptions of chase scenes around obscure street corners are extremely detailed, an early indication of her talent for evoking faraway places in prose, as well as of her autodidacticism. (Her lack of a proper education would haunt her well into old age.) All told, she was able to save enough money to move to London in 1935, at age 27. There she took up with Hamish Miles, a dashing editor at The Times Literary Supplement, who introduced Manning to the glamorous Bloomsbury literary life she longed for: she once dreamt that Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf came to her in the guise of two white swans, and nuzzled her with their beaks. She was 31 when she married Smith and traveled eastward with him to Romania.
Although Manning was a woman in wartime, David’s use of the “woman at war” metaphor is imprecise (and, by the conclusion, tired out; I stopped counting how many times the phrase appeared), and misrepresents Manning's actual wartime activities. Manning and her husband may have been shunted from city to city as the war raged on, but—without meaning to underplay the importance of writing as testimony—she played a less direct role than many of her contemporaries: Martha Gellhorn, who was the first female reporter on the beaches on D-Day, or Storm Jameson, who worked with refugee writers through PEN, or Rose Macauley, who drove an ambulance in war-torn London, or Elizabeth Bowen, who worked as an air-raid warden and spied on her native Ireland for the Ministry of Information. In the trilogies, the metaphorical war between the sexes is amplified by the nonmetaphorical war raging all around Harriet and Guy. But read against the detailed historical background David provides, her insistence that Manning was at “war” with herself, and with the London literary world, seems petty.
It was Manning's ability to paint the complex relationship between gender and power with wit and sensitivity in her wartime novels that makes her an important 20th-century writer. The novelist Francis King, a close friend of Manning’s, once praised her “acid portraits” of desperate men and women. But writing about the war took its toll, and the glimpse she got of (male, British) human nature left Manning feeling powerless and angry. This may well account for her cantankerous behavior and perennial feeling of exclusion: spend six years left out of history because of your gender and you too might feel a little belligerent. David doesn't go nearly far enough in putting together this aspect of Manning the writer and Manning the woman, which might have nuanced our sense of what it is to be a “woman at war.” She argues that Manning’s “psychological frailty” (a nice term for Manning’s ill-temper) may have driven her to write, but doesn’t make the connection with the kind of writing that “frailty” produced. A later chapter, on the “booksey boys” back in London paints a far more compelling portrait of Manning outmanned.
Being a witness to history was both a boon and a burden to Manning. Her novels sometimes suffer from a sense of restriction, as if they are weighted down by what actually happened or could happen to her. When she wanted to invent, she had to use male characters, like the absurd Prince Yakimov in The Balkan Trilogy, or Simon Boulderstone in The Levant Trilogy. These characters would allow Manning to escape Harriet's narrowly circumscribed experience of the war and for the novels to begin to signify on a larger geopolitical scale. Combined with Manning's gift for capturing the heat and rush of places in words, these passages are the best argument for reading Manning. As she writes in the opening of The Danger Tree, the first novel in The Levant Trilogy:
Waiting for a taxi, he breathed in the spicy, flaccid atmosphere of the city and felt the strangeness of things around him. The street lamps were painted blue. Figures in white robes, like night-shirts, flickered through the blue gloom, slippers flapping from heels. The women, bundled in black, were scarcely visible. The district looked seedy and was probably dirty but the barracks, he thought, would be familiar territory. He hoped Major Perry would be there to welcome him. When we was dropped at the main gate, he found he was just another young officer, another problem, adding to the overcrowded confusion of the place (...) And where was Major Perry? The clerk did not know. The major could be at Helwan or he could be at Heliopolis.
Although she frames this view of Cairo through the (exoticizing) perspective of young Simon Boulderstone, a junior British officer newly arrived in the desert, Manning's skepticism and cunning allowed her to imagine the disarray of the war effort, the British Army, and the British imperial project from inside the barracks; the reference to the “flaccid” air of the city is a knowing nod to the British desperation at the possibility of losing their holdings in Egypt, and with them the Suez Canal and passage to India.
Manning told her friend (and later biographer, of Olivia Manning: A Life) June Braybrooke that she was happiest when she wrote “out of experience,” and that when she wasn’t writing, everything seemed “‘difficult, a source of fear and anxiety.’” Reggie Smith, David reports, was delighted to be fictionalized, and urged Manning to write about what they had witnessed during the war. Somehow, like Guy and Harriet, they weathered the storms of history and settled together in London. When Manning died of a stroke in 1980, Smith couldn't bring himself to enter their flat for six weeks, and traveled around England staying with friends. In her will, Manning left most of her money to animal charities, confirming, David writes, something her friends “had always suspected about [her]—that she put human beings second to animals.”
David is convinced that Manning is due for a comeback. The New York Review of Books Classics recently rereleased The Balkan Trilogy and School for Love. And with the current fad for all things mid-20th century, perhaps a major feature film should be in the works; the 1987 BBC adaptation is looking a bit dated. David is right: Manning is due for a comeback. Although the bombast of war and imperialism may have changed shapes since the middle of the last century, we still need our skeptics to respond, acidly, to what they see, even if we reserve the right to dislike them for it.