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Olivia Manning: A Life by Neville and June Braybrooke
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Sunday 21 November 2004
Someone once dubbed Olivia Manning "Olivia Moaning", and reading this biography of the novelist, most famous for The Balkan Trilogy, it isn't difficult to see why. Manning's life as a writer was dominated by her complaints about the slur she perceived against her standing in the literary world. She complained (not without justice) that her novels didn't receive the attention, or the prizes, that they merited, and harangued literary editors when her books weren't given a solo review, or when someone had the temerity to publish an adverse notice.
She worried incessantly about her literary reputation, and never hid her competitiveness with other writers ("Iris seems to be walking away with all the prizes," was a regular whinge). Attending a party to launch Beryl Bainbridge's latest novel, Manning asked Bainbridge to autograph a copy for her. "What shall I write in it?" asked Bainbridge. "Just put - 'with admiration and love'," was Manning's reply. Manning once said that she wished she could be famous like the actor-comedian Peter Sellars, and by an irony of fate she died on the same day as Sellars in 1980. One waggish bookseller who had known Manning imagined her in the next world complaining about the length of her own obituary: "Wasn't it just my luck to die on the same day as Peter Sellars? He'll get most of the space."
Manning's philandering, Marxist husband, Reggie Smith, was his wife's most consistent advocate, and never doubted that posterity would confirm his belief in her genius. In 1987 that belief began to be vindicated when the BBC mounted an acclaimed six-part adaptation of the sequence of Manning novels known as The Fortunes of War, made up of the Balkan and Levant trilogies. Based on Manning's own wartime peregrinations as the wife of a British Council lecturer in Bucharest, Athens, Egypt and Jerusalem, invariably just a step ahead of the invading Nazi forces, this group of novels was once described by Anthony Burgess as the finest fictional record of the Second World War produced by a British writer, a quality highlighted by the television series, which possessed as an added strength the performance of Emma Thompson as Manning's alter ego, the sharp-tongued Harriet Pringle. The Fortunes of War draws fully on Manning's descriptive skills (she had studied art as a young woman), and presents a profoundly moving portrait of a modern marriage in its depiction of Harriet's union with Guy Pringle, the husband who belongs to everyone, and refuses to be enveloped in an exclusive relationship with his wife.
Regrettably, this first biography of Manning, written by her old friends Neville and June Braybrooke, themselves both now dead, does no one any favours, least of all Manning herself. It is a sadly misbegotten project which, frankly, ought to have been shelved. In an editor's note, Francis King, a friend of both the authors of the biography and its subject, describes the book's protracted evolution. It was originally commissioned over a decade ago, and its progress was a victim of the Braybrookes' dilatoriness ("Deadlines were repeatedly reset and then overrun," tut-tuts King) and subsequently of the death of first June (in 1994), and then Neville (in 2001). As a consequence, the book reads like a collection of research files - the chapter entitled "A Year of Bits and Pieces" rather sums up the situation - instead of a fully-fledged biography which has found its organising structure. To make matters worse, King and the Chatto editor responsible appear to have fallen asleep at the controls. Repetitions abound, while the meandering narrative is full of non-sequiturs and tangential anecdote. No doubt, the Braybrookes wanted to do their best by their friend, and they obviously worked assiduously to collect material, but the overall the tone has a Pooterish feel to it. Is it really necessary to be told that "Often she visited the Oxfam shop in Marylebone High Street and it was here that she bought a Lurex number which, after a hard winter's wear, she passed on to a charity shop for the elderly"?
A thoroughgoing life would have considered more fully the effect on Manning of the childhood unhappiness and insecurity that baulk so large in her novels, of the early poverty that forced her to work as a typist, or of the death of her younger brother, killed in action in the Second World War. Frances King, who has recently taken biographers to task for their overlong, over-researched books, has unfortunately played his part in producing this scrappy, disjointed memoir instead of the biography that might do Olivia Manning justice.
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