For many readers of 20th-century British fiction, Olivia Manning’s name will at least conjure a vague recollection. She is mostly known for two novel trilogies, the Balkan and the Levant, collectively referred to as Fortunes of War, based on her extraordinary experience of wartime expatriation to outposts of British cultural influence and fascination: Romania, Athens, Cairo. The six novels stretch across what are easily the most dramatic years of Manning’s life: as a newly married woman at the start of the Second World War, she found herself in increasingly foreign (and mostly hostile) historical moments, including the arrival of the Nazis in Bucharest in 1940 (about which Manning’s biographer, Deirdre David, can’t tell us enough). Harriet and Guy Pringle are fictionalised stand-ins for Olivia and Reggie Smith, her British Council lecturer husband. Their marital discontent amid a burgeoning war is amplified by the sense that civilisation itself is being lost, or perhaps elided, by the very human motive of self-preservation. And yet the novels are troubled by Manning’s characteristic “acid portraits”, in particular her dreadful caricatures of race. In a letter to her parents, which David quotes here, she is derisive about the Egyptians she meets in Cairo, who are “diseased” and lack any real drive other than greed. It isn’t until we contrast this with her valorising sketch of the brave Irish (so unlike the “whining self-pity and bullying rudeness…of oppressed peoples”) that we begin to understand that David presents a woman who has pity only for herself: Manning, like so many others, glamorised and exaggerated her “Anglo-Irish” heritage in order to alleviate her class embarrassment at being an ill-fated girl from Portsmouth.
What David’s biography confirms is the discomforting sense one has of Manning’s personality - she was famously referred to as “Olivia Moaning”, seems to have begrudged her writer friends’ successes and was presciently paranoid about being ignored by critics. But literary scholar Adam Piette’s suggestion that Manning trivialised the suffering of others with her self-pity is strongly rejected by David, who purposefully subtitles her study A Woman at War in order to play up her subject’s suffering and survival. And suffer she did, albeit briefly, as she made one quick escape after another from the spread of Nazi troops. David takes pains to structure her biography around Manning’s experience of historical war and the “war” against herself, her past, and an uphill battle for literary prominence and admiration that begins when she flees from Portsmouth to Bloomsbury and into the waiting arms of the editor Hamish Miles. Manning’s depictions of mid-century Europe, we are told, are a fusing of private and public history meant to provide “witness” to what actually happened by figuring a real “self” as a kind of literary character.
As the first scholarly biography of Manning benefiting from increased access to the author’s papers as well as hitherto unknown sources, this is certainly an improvement on the only previous study, begun by Manning’s friends Neville and June Braybrooke and finished by a writer friend, Francis King, in 2004. David offers a critical evaluation of Manning’s novels that the former biography lacks and attempts to provide a psychological picture that more or less detaches itself from Manning’s obsessive moulding of “fact” into “fiction”, as well as the presupposition that one is easily distinguishable from another in the mêlée of an author’s notes, diaries or letters. Hampered occasionally by Manning’s spinning of selfhood and the “truth”, as well as by needless recurrences of detail (we are reminded several times, for instance, that Louis MacNeice was Reggie’s Classics tutor at the University of Birmingham), David’s study is confident, well researched and engaging.
Olivia Manning: A Woman At War
By Deirdre David
Oxford University Press, 424pp, £25.00
Published 10 January 2013