Olivia Manning: a life, by Neville & June Braybrooke

Bringing a reputation in from the cold
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Time has been unkind to Olivia Manning. Not until 1987, seven years after her death, did the novelist achieve the recognition she craved, when a television dramatisation of her two Fortunes of War trilogies was widely acclaimed. Since then her reputation has flagged but, with this first biography, her friends Neville and June Braybrooke have attempted to bring her in from the cold.

Time has been unkind to Olivia Manning. Not until 1987, seven years after her death, did the novelist achieve the recognition she craved, when a television dramatisation of her two Fortunes of War trilogies was widely acclaimed. Since then her reputation has flagged but, with this first biography, her friends Neville and June Braybrooke have attempted to bring her in from the cold.

Sadly, both biographers died before it was completed and the novelist Francis King finished the task. Because the authors are part of the story, there can be no pretence of detachment and the result is more "a well-researched memoir" than the usual literary life.

Manning emerges as both heroine and anti-heroine, sure of her talent yet seeking reassurance, kind and generous though prejudiced and bitchy. Born in Portsmouth of Anglo-Irish extraction, she worked as a typist and beautician before attending art school. She first used a masculine pseudonym but, in 1937, The Wind Changes - her first novel as Olivia Manning, set amid the Irish Troubles - prefigures the trilogies with its subtle exploration of relationships against a backdrop of war.

In September 1939, she married the ultra-gregarious Reggie Smith, a British Council lecturer, departing with him for Bucharest. They were an odd couple - she conservative and superstitious, he communistic and sceptical - but the bond was enduring. Reggie never allowed wedlock to inhibit his philandering; she too took lovers but never considered separation.

War disrupted her writing career, but the seven years they spent abroad gave her the material for her masterwork. Only in the late 1950s did she begin Fortunes of War. Rereading the two trilogies, one is struck by the finely-judged language and exquisite evocations of place. Manning is at her intelligent best exploring the wartime intrigues and deceptions of exotic cities, and the intricate lives of often comic characters.

Hungry for literary fame, Manning was extremely jealous of other women novelists, such as Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark and Stevie Smith. Her friendship with Smith soured when she discovered a murderous poem directed against Reggie. She retaliated by basing a promiscuous character in her 1955 novel, The Doves of Venus, on Smith. The latter countered, in a review, with spiteful remarks about Manning's novelistic skills. Olivia's reaction was to throw a pair of shoes at Reggie.

The political background is well drawn by the Braybrookes, as is the labyrinthine world the Smiths constructed: Reggie with his lovers, Olivia with hers, all cloaked in blind toleration. This biography should attract a new generation of readers to a writer who deserves to be savoured for her ability to tell a story, and to tell it with such style.

The reviewer's life of George Orwell is published by Abacus

Buy any book reviewed on this site at www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
- postage and packing are free in the UK

Comments