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?” Read More