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Book review: Olivia Manning: A Woman At War by Deirdre David

  • by CLAIRE HARMAN
 

IT’S RARE to come across a biographical subject who has benefited from being forgotten, but Olivia Manning might be one. While she was alive, she didn’t inspire much affection; her enemies thought her carping and vindictive, narrow-minded and spiteful, and even her chums called her “Olivia Moaning” behind her back.

Olivia Manning: A Woman At War by Deirdre David

OUP, 424pp, £25

When her closest friends Neville and June Braybrooke wrote the first biography in 2004, they had a tough time staying loyal to her memory, but now, with the thinning-out of people who knew her, there is less need to tiptoe round her personality and more chance to be objective about her work.

Some of that work was pedestrian, but the best – her two Balkan and Levant trilogies (written in the 1960s and 1970s and dramatised on television as Fortunes of War in the 1980s) – haven’t yet been praised enough. Deirdre David makes a strong and deeply admiring case for Manning as an artist who broke the mould of the women’s novel by writing about war from a new perspective, capturing its dislocation and fragmentariness through the portrait of a marriage; domesticating it, but not in comforting ways.

She traces Manning’s life from its unglamorous roots in pre-war Portsmouth, through exile with her charismatic husband Reggie Smith, to the later years as a minor London literary lion, complaining, quarrelling and regularly propositioning the lodgers. There’s less gossip and more lit-crit than in the Braybrookes’ version of events, but more to admire in this timely reassessment of Manning’s status.

There’s a quirk though in Manning that poses a challenge to any biographer: she kept so closely to the material of her own life that it’s difficult to resist reading the stories as almost literal transcriptions of the author’s experience.

David falls headlong into this trap, calling the novels fictionalised history and constantly inviting us to note the parallels, saying “(Alan Watson in real life)”, for instance, after mentioning the character Dobson in The Great Fortune. Guy Pringle is indisputably based on Reggie, so David feels free to mine the fictional character for impressions of its model.

The excavation almost always pays off in terms of uncovering correspondences, she says, but it would, wouldn’t it? Manning did what so many novelists do, strenuously playing down the relevance of real-life connections. Disingenuously or not (who’s to tell?) she professed herself puzzled by charges of tastelessness when she included a character in The Danger Tree who seemed an exact copy of her friend Amy Smart. The real woman and the imaginary character bear no resemblance to each other, Manning claimed, when threatened with legal action. No resemblance, that is, except in the details of their homes, marriages, occupations, lovers and a young son’s bizarre and tragic death. But in Manning’s view, what she had added to the truth was more important than what she had used.

Manning craved much more critical attention and money than she got, but she was clearly a hard person to please or praise. The saddest parts of this biography are where friends struggle to convey her qualities: tales of kindness and sympathy tend to get outnumbered by tales of her recurrent gloom. It’s a terrible fate to be pretty much always unhappy, and to feel as jealous of everyone as Manning did, but perhaps she needed that stimulus, however miserable it made her. The books remain as a vindication.

 

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