Feminize Your Canon: Olivia Manning


Feminize Your Canon

Our new monthly column, Feminize Your Canon, explores the lives of underrated and underread female authors.



The British novelist Olivia Manning spent her dogged, embittered career longing, largely in vain, for literary glory and a secure place in the English canon. Reassurances from friends that talented writers were often rewarded by posterity cut no ice. “I don’t want fame when I’m dead,” she’d retort. “I want it now.” Yet even the modest ambition of a solo review in a Sunday newspaper proved elusive, a snub that especially chafed whenever her archnemesis, Iris Murdoch, released a new novel to lavish coverage in the broadsheets. Manning was baffled by the praise heaped on the younger writer, whose novels she derided as “intellectual exercises.” Her own drew directly from real events and aimed to be “pieces of life,” which she saw as the proper purpose of literature.

Given the strength of her “hungering and thirsting after fame,” to quote one exasperated friend, it’s possible that no amount of recognition would have satisfied the woman known as Olivia Moaning. The nickname was not unjustified, as secondhand book dealers knew. Once, at a charity sale, Manning came across her novel School for Love priced at twenty pence. “You’re giving that book away!” she complained. “It’s a first edition. It’s worth far more.” Another time, a signed copy of The Spoilt City, the second volume of her Balkan Trilogy, was for sale in a secondhand bookshop for fifty pence. Buying it herself, Manning remarked, “I bet Iris Murdoch’s first editions fetch more than that.” The bookseller replied, “Well, Iris Murdoch’s a famous author, isn’t she?” 

And so she remained, while Manning’s reputation unfairly languished in obscurity. Manning may have bristled at the notion that she was artistically ahead of her time; what use was that when she had bills to pay? But her spare, unsentimental, and sometimes highly original fiction, with its “unlikable” characters and documentarian’s realism, is more aligned with current tastes than Murdoch’s eccentric flights of fancy. In postwar Britain, it was only the “angry young men” such as Kingsley Amis and John Osborne who were celebrated for their irreverence. The title of Amis’s debut, Lucky Jim, was, to Manning’s mind apropos. Her “difficult” personality was deemed a liability, but her legitimate anger and sharp candor might have been career assets in 2018.

In 1974, vindication hovered into view. Manning’s tenth novel, The Rain Forest, was “called in” by the Booker Prize judges. She was then sixty-six; her serious-writer credentials had been established in the previous decade by The Balkan Trilogy, based on her experiences living in wartime Bucharest and Athens. But the mostly good reviews she’d received gave only fleeting satisfaction. Inclusion on the Booker short list seemed long overdue. In the end, however, The Rain Forest failed to make the cut. One of the judges, A. S. Byatt, said on the radio that she found the novel slow. “I wouldn’t call La Byatt exactly a sprinter,” Manning quipped. To compound her annoyance, Amis’s Ending Up was short-listed even though his wife, Elizabeth Jane Howard, was on the judging panel. (SOMETHING AMIS, ran the Guardian’s headline.) In Manning’s perception, it was business as usual: the snobby Oxbridge-dominated publishing elite had closed ranks against her.

Manning’s humble background and lack of a university education always made her feel at a disadvantage. Born in the seaside town of Portsmouth to a genial, womanizing naval officer and his younger wife, a domineering publican’s daughter from the north of Ireland, Manning was steeped in dysfunction from an early age (like so many brilliant writers). She and her younger brother were witness and referee to their parents’ frequent fights, and she was routinely belittled by her mother. “I won’t say she was unbalanced,” Manning said in an interview, “but there was something acutely psychologically wrong with her … I can remember being very surprised to find that other people were happy at home, to find that other girls confided in their mothers and were fond of them.”

At age sixteen, Manning left school and became a typist. As she toiled in offices (and handed most of her slender wages to her mother), she plotted her escape from Portsmouth, a place she later characterized as “the outer rim of provincial ignorance.” Her 1969 novel, The Play Room (published in the U.S. as The Camperlea Girls), offers a poignant portrait of the author’s youthful hankering after the boundless opportunities of London. In dreary, run-down North Camperlea—a fictional version of North End, where the Mannings lived—fifteen-year-old Laura Fletcher, an aspiring playwright, pores over the local library’s copies of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, compiles lists of Chelsea boutiques that might employ her, and looks forward to “all the art galleries and museums and coffee bars and cinemas and theatres and dance clubs and fabulous men!”

Manning herself was twenty-six when she moved to London in 1934 (though she always shaved a few years off her age), having found a job as a delivery typist at Peter Jones, the genteel Chelsea department store. But the long, emotionally isolated Portsmouth years were not wasted. Displaying the force of will that saw her through many challenges and disappointments (a character trait more valuable and admirable, had she only known it, than any university degree), Manning wrote prolifically, read widely, and did her best to forge useful connections from scratch. Nothing if not dauntless, she contacted Shakespeare and Company, the Paris publisher of Ulysses, to offer them her novel in progress. As her biographer Deirdre David marvels, the sheer initiative was extraordinary. “No one advised her, few encouraged her, yet after typing all day in a solicitor’s office, she managed to write an enormously long novel [and] made it her business to discover the name of Joyce’s Paris publisher.”

The dedication paid off: her submission of two short stories to the Curtis Brown literary agency led to publication in New Stories, a journal whose contributors included Dylan Thomas and Stephen Spender. (“I live amongst people who have no interest in literature,” she’d explained in her letter, “and who would only make fun of anything I write. I have, therefore, only my untrained judgement on which to rely.”) And while Jonathan Cape rejected two novel manuscripts, an editor there, Hamish Miles, sent encouraging words and subsequently became Manning’s friend, lover, and impeccably connected entrée to the Bloomsbury milieu of her long-cherished dreams.

Oxford-educated, charming, and urbane, Miles was also forty and married. Still, their relationship changed Manning’s life. He nurtured her talent, took her to Paris (where he bought her a white leather-bound copy of Ulysses from Shakespeare and Company), and introduced her to the poet Stevie Smith, a kindred spirit who became a lifelong friend. Crucially, he was instrumental in the publication of Manning’s well-received debut novel, The Wind Changes, which came out from Jonathan Cape in April 1937.

In late 1937, Miles started acting distant on the phone and became generally hard to pin down. Manning had no idea what was wrong. As it turned out, the headaches he’d been getting were symptoms of an advanced brain tumor. Since their affair was secret, she wasn’t informed of the diagnosis until a mutual acquaintance eventually told her. Nor could she visit Miles in the hospital in Edinburgh. (She saved up the fare, only to be told over the phone by his father that “poor Hamish does not recognize anyone now.”) When he died at the end of December, she found out from the Times’s obituary column. “I would give all the fifty years before me,” she wrote, poleaxed by grief, “to live again the last one of my knowing him.”

And yet Manning remained fundamentally resilient. Unable to publicly mourn, living hand to mouth, often hungry and always tired, she survived, albeit sometimes barely. Soon after Miles became ill, she fainted in the street; her meager diet of tea and toast had gone unsupplemented by their usual dinners in Soho restaurants. An oblivious doctor chastised her for dieting: “You modern girls are all the same.” Around this time, she wrote a poem about London, recalling her arrival to “your adolescent samarkand / Here, savage, homeless and determined … This is the city to which you laboured / Rapacious, innocent and passionate.”

The atmosphere of yearning and deprivation that distinguishes, in particular, her lesser-known novels fits with this period of her life. Claire Tomalin, in her Observer review of The Play Room (grouped with two other books, alas), identified “a theme that runs through almost all of Olivia Manning’s work: it is that of the child or young woman who seeks for and needs love and is never given quite enough.” Her young characters need not only love but acceptance and respect, food and clothes, comfort and warmth. In later life, Manning had ascended, at least, to reasonable middle-class affluence. But the ferocity of her desire for greater literary renown, her perpetual gnawing dissatisfaction, was transmuted into such characters as Laura Fletcher, a being built of pure adolescent craving.

Dangerously infatuated with a richer and more beautiful classmate, as indolent as she herself is striving, Laura cannot rest for wanting: she wants blonde, languid Vicky (who despite Laura’s idolizing is unexceptional, a big fish in a small pond, as we realize via authorial sleight of hand); she wants the paradise of London; she wants to be sexy and fashionable, to be a famous dramatist. The saddest line of this singular and disturbing coming-of-age tale occurs when Laura remembers her old plan to turn a disused navy hangar into a theater with her brother. They had described the project in enthusiastic detail to their father, who “let them talk, knowing that time would defeat their designs just as it had defeated his own.”

The father character in The Play Room is closely based on Manning’s own father, who was kind, generous, irresponsible, and philandering in equal measure. As a child, she adored him, and she would eventually marry a man cut from the same cloth. In 1939, eighteen months after the death of Miles, Manning met Reggie Smith. A working-class grammar-school boy from Birmingham, he was tall and handsome, hard-drinking and gregarious. In less than two months, they got married. Manning gave the registrar a date of birth that made her twenty-eight; she was in fact thirty-one. Smith was twenty-five. The marriage was a success overall, despite his cheerful promiscuity. “Are you interested in extramarital fun?” was his indiscriminate gambit at parties. But his faith in Manning’s talent was unwavering, as was his patience with her self-obsessed grumbling. And she, too, had affairs.

Meeting Smith was fateful in more ways than one: because of his job, Manning gathered the material for her best-known and most autobiographical novels, the Balkan Trilogy and its Egypt-and-Palestine-set sequel, the Levant Trilogy. Smith, a lecturer for the British Council—a government organization founded in 1934 to promote British education and anti-fascist values overseas—was on leave from a post in Romania when he and Manning got together. After the wedding, they took the Orient Express back to Bucharest, arriving the day Britain and France declared war on Germany. They soon fled the encroaching Nazi armies, first to Athens, then the following year to Cairo. In 1942, Smith was offered a job at the Palestine Broadcasting Service, and the couple decamped to Jerusalem, where they saw out the rest of the war. Manning wrote book reviews for the Palestine Post and, encouraged as always by Smith, kept careful notes of everything that might be of use in a future novel. Like much of the dialogue in the trilogies, this description of Palestine from an English army major in The Sum of Things, the final volume of the Levant Trilogy, has the ring of a verbatim quote:

Ideal climate this, never too hot, but awful place, everyone hating everyone else. The Polish Jews hate the German Jews, and the Russians hate the Polish and the German … The sophisticated Western Jews hate the Old City types with their fur hats and caftans and bugger-grips … Then all the Jews combine in hating the Arabs and the Arabs and Jews combine in hating the British police, and the police hate the government officials who look down on them and won’t let them join the Club. What a place! God knows who’ll get it in the end but whoever it is, I don’t envy them.

Manning chose Jerusalem for the setting of her most underappreciated novel, School for Love, published in 1951. This slim tragicomic masterpiece tells the coming-of-age of sixteen-year-old Felix Latimer, an English orphan transplanted from Iraq to Palestine during World War II. But the real protagonist is the monstrous Ethel Bohun, Felix’s temporary guardian and the landlady of a makeshift guesthouse by Herod’s Gate. An evangelical Christian who leads a sect named “The Ever Ready Group of Wise Virgins,” she maintains a large empty front room expressly for the imminent second coming of the Lord—or “the Day.” Meanwhile, Felix and the other residents pay through the nose for cramped, chilly quarters and miserable meals like “bean mash” and battered aubergine, which Miss Bohun airily insists is just as good as fried fish. “I believe firmly in vegetables,” she says. “The Indian sages eat nothing else.”

Lonely, hungry, and fast losing his innocence thanks to the machinations of the various thwarted and deracinated adults around him, Felix has a single solace: the little cat he dotes on, Faro. “He did not believe any human being could be wholly as beautiful; he did not believe he could love anyone or anything as much.” The sentiment is Manning’s. After the traumatic loss of a child when she was thirty-six and living in Jerusalem (the baby died in utero at seven months, and she had to carry it to term), she became the devoted parent to a series of cats. On her deathbed, her main preoccupation was the diet of her Burmese, Miou. “Nothing out of a tin,” she stipulated. “You never know what goes into those tins.”

The warm and respectful reviews of School for Love marked a milestone in the then forty-three-year-old Manning’s career. The Times Literary Supplement lauded it as “a story distinctly out of the ordinary,” with “remarkable qualities of force and originality.” In the Sunday Times, the novelist and scientist C. P. Snow praised the novel as “deep, sharp, and narrow … remarkable.” Nevertheless, no prize committees took notice, and Manning, feeling neglected by her publisher, Heinemann, asked them if her sales were “so terrible that Heinemann’s have lost all faith in me.”

Both School for Love and The Play Room were optioned for film, though neither book has yet made it to the screen. “Miss Bohun remains a star role waiting to be filled,” observe Neville and June Braybrooke, Manning’s first biographers, “a dry stick ready to be kindled for life.” For The Play Room, Manning wrote several scripts, actors were cast, and shooting began. Then, during filming, the director fell out with his financial backer, and the project was abandoned. True to form, Manning did not take it well. “I will have to get over this sense of failure before I can do anything else,” she told June Braybrooke, adding melodramatically, “but perhaps, being so old, I will never get over it.”

Manning’s friends were right about posterity, in a way. Seven years after her death in 1980 at age seventy-two, the BBC aired Fortunes of War, a faithful seven-part adaptation of the Balkan Trilogy and the Levant Trilogy. Starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh and featuring multiple international locations, the series had the highest budget in BBC history. Masterpiece Theatre’s broadcast of the show in the U.S. prompted the New York Times to call Manning “the only English woman novelist to have painted a broad, compassionate and witty canvas of men and women at war that invites comparison with Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh.”

Manning would have been gratified to finally hear it—and then disappointed anew. Today those who have read Manning’s novels (usually only the trilogies, as most of the others are out of print) tend to admire them. But her place in the pantheon of important twentieth-century British novelists, even of rediscovered women authors such as Elizabeth Taylor and Rosamond Lehmann, is marginal and precarious. The scholar and critic Rohan Maitzen, when writing about Manning, found “that her name was wholly unfamiliar to two of my academic colleagues who are specialists in early 20th-century literature.” None of Manning’s work is available on Kindle.

“Not all writers of genius take the public by storm,” she writes in her introduction to a 1968 edition of Northanger Abbey. “Jane Austen in her lifetime was successful without being a sensation.” The self-consolation is touchingly evident. But had Manning taken the world by storm, had she achieved the stardom she considered her due, would her work have retained its gifts? One cannot imagine a contented person portraying, with such captivating skill, the appalling venality of a Miss Bohun or the reckless hunger of a Laura Fletcher. Given the choice, Manning may well have taken that trade-off for the Booker or the Whitbread. Her final years did bring some validation: The Danger Tree, the first Levant Trilogy volume, was named the Yorkshire Post’s Best Novel of 1977. The award was worth two hundred fifty pounds—a hundred pounds less than for nonfiction, she groused to the long-suffering Smith. “Still,” she sighed, resigned to martyrdom, “one’s got to be grateful for small mercies, I suppose.”


Emma Garman has written about books and culture for Lapham’s Quarterly Roundtable, Longreads, Newsweek, The Daily Beast, Salon, The Awl, Words Without Borders, and other publications.