The struggles of Olivia Manning

Olivia Manning: a Woman at War - review.

Gillian Freeman, Eva Figes, Olivia Manning and Margaret Drabble
Film writer Gillian Freeman, feminist writer Eva Figes, novelist Olivia Manning and British poet and novelist Margaret Drabble in 1972. Photograph: Getty Images

Olivia Manning: a Woman at War
Deirdre David
Oxford University Press, 424pp, £25

For a writer who always saw herself as underrated and overlooked, it is ironic that Olivia Manning’s greatest successes came only after her death, with the TV serialisation in the late 1980s of The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy and the reprinting of much of her fiction. The subtitle of Deirdre David’s biography, A Woman at War, nicely captures the confluence of personal and political battles in Manning’s life, as if conflict, inner and outer, was somehow what she sought and needed to keep her going. Born in 1908 to unaffluent middle-class parents in Portsmouth, she felt displaced by the birth of a brother. She left grammar school at 16 to earn her living, and for the rest of her life she resented having been deprived of higher education (at a time when very few people, women especially, had any).

In her mid-twenties, determined to be a writer, Manning made her way to London. She straight away acquired a literary lover, Hamish Miles, who died soon afterwards in 1937, six weeks after becoming editor of the TLS. Grief-stricken but undaunted, Manning then met and instantly married a British Council lecturer, several years younger, and a friend and former student of the poet and classicist Louis MacNeice. Marriage to Reggie Smith gave Manning an admiring editorial reader for the rest of her life and an entrée into further cultural milieus.

Living with Reggie also led to the sort of cosmopolitan experience that Virginia Woolf, in her interwar long essay A Room of One’s Own, complained was available to male writers only: Tolstoy could travel the world, but Austen had had to make do with the drawing room. After their whirlwind romance in the summer of 1939, Olivia and Reggie immediately set off for Bucharest, moving on to Athens when the Nazis arrived, and from Athens to Cairo and later Jerusalem, until they returned to England in 1945.

Had Manning planned it, there could have been no better formation for someone who sought to be a modern working writer, with a verbal output dependent on taking the world primarily as a source of something to say. She also wanted to outman the men in presenting scenes beyond the standard feminine spheres of the settled and the domestic. If Manning had been a character in a novel, she could not have been named with more heavy-handed aptness. In a sense, that is exactly what she was: throughout her subsequent writing life she drew on the aspiring Miss Manning’s escape from provincial Portsmouth and on her time in southern Europe and the Middle East.

Even though it was the wholly exceptional historical experience of her war years that give her writing achievements a headstart, she was also, surely, unusual in landing so swiftly in superior literary circles, as an unconnected hopeful, when she first came to London. The equally ambitious heroine of The Doves of Venus (1955) in fact does less well than her author, so that Manning’s own life is implicitly cast as the fantasy that the realistic narrative rejects. This novel is also a subtle exploration of female fears of ageing, as well as an update, in quasi-feminist terms, of the classic Bildungsromanin which a young man gets himself out of a drab little place to forge a life in the city.

David remarks that one novel, though based on Manning’s experience, “transcends a mere autobiographical record”. This raises many questions about the relationship and value of different stories in and of a writer’s life, all the more when that writer described what she produced as “fictionalised history”. In that context, David sets herself the complex task of retelling the stories of Manning’s books as well as those of her life. With the first presented largely as repeats of the second, you sometimes have to remind yourself whether you are reading a précis of one of the books or a part of Olivia’s life. Such blurring is pro - bably inevitable, though it is reinforced by David’s naturalisation of Manning-like negativities: the British Museum Reading Room, for example, has to be seen as “so much more appealing than the damp confines of the Portsmouth public library”.

Nonetheless, David is an accomplished practitioner of the particular type of biographical recording she develops for her appreciation of Manning’s life and works. Like her subject, she is good at the difficult arts of historical and narrative reconstruction. This book, drawing together Manning’s many struggles, is a compelling account of a remarkable woman and her 20th-century stories.