It does seem as if I am on something of an Olivia Manning binge at the moment – this being the third of her novels I have read in something like six weeks. Although I realise I am reviewing this at least a day late for the event itself – I chose to read School for Love for Simon and Karen’s #1951 club. Simon and Jacqui have already reviewed it – it’s a book which has been a big hit with them.
School for Love is a beautifully written coming of age novel, set in Jerusalem towards the end of World War Two. Felix Latimer is a boy (we’re never told exactly how old; I assumed fifteen or sixteen, although there were moments he seemed younger) who has recently lost his mother. Told in the third person, we see everything through Felix’s eyes. While hostilities continue, he is unable to return to England – where he’s not lived for several years anyway. Felix had been living in Baghdad with his mother, about a year before his mother’s death, Felix’s father was killed by Iraqi forces. Now Felix is alone, his loneliness and total bewilderment is touchingly portrayed by Olivia Manning, a boy who has had the rug pulled out from under him. As a last resort, it was arranged by friends of his mother’s, for Felix to go to a distant relative in Jerusalem. Miss Bohun an older adopted sister of his father and a woman his mother had never wanted Felix to visit. As Felix arrives in Jerusalem, there is snow on the ground, though he is assured it won’t last too long.
Miss Bohun turns out to be quite a character – one beautifully rendered by Manning, complex and endlessly infuriating, she feels like a character who must have been drawn from life. Felix arrives at the house Miss Bohun runs as a kind of inferior boarding house – friendless, grief-stricken, not knowing what to expect.
“Miss Bohun was so unlike his mother, and, for some reason, he felt sure that when she had raised her eyes and looked at him she had somehow expressed disappointment in him. Perhaps she had imagined he would be older, or younger, or better-looking, or a more unusual sort of boy. Anyway she retired now into her own thoughts, eyes hidden, and he gave his attention to the meal of grey, gritty bread and tasteless tea. Then he heard a slight movement beside him. He looked down and cried out involuntarily in delight. As the bars of the fire had grown red, a Siamese cat had come out towards the warmth. It looked a sad little cat, as lost as himself, and his heart seemed to swell with relief at the sight of something – something he could love.”
Miss Bohun is hardly a warm, welcoming presence – she is in constant conflict with Frau Leszno and her son Nikki who work and live in the house. Like the rest of the house, Felix’s room is cold and unwelcoming, while Miss Bohun keeps an empty front bedroom, spick and span for some mysterious purpose, while the old Mr Jewel lives in the attic. Later, when Mr Jewel has been removed to the hospital – a new tenant; Mrs Ellis is installed and Miss Bohun moves up to the attic. Mrs Ellis is a very young widow, Felix can’t help but be enchanted by her.
Living in her house, eating her food and relying upon her for the only home he has, Felix is often uncomfortable by Miss Bohun’s frankly monstrous behaviour. Compelled by his reliance on her to legitimise her treatment of others, Felix clearly needs to see it as completely normal. Miss Bohun is miserly, desperately deluded, she suspects everyone of cheating her, and sees herself as a long-suffering paragon of virtue. Having bullishly taken over the house from its previous occupant; Frau Leszno, the Polish refugee, has been reduced to the role of a servant living in tiny, servants’ rooms. Miss Bohun, appears to honestly believe, that she has done the poor woman a great service.
Miss Bohun keeps fierce hold of the household purse strings, making savings where she can (substituting deep fried aubergine for fish!) Always calculating ways of making her money stretch, she manages to prise almost all Felix’s monthly allowance out of him, refuses to buy from the black market and successfully plots to get Mr Jewel out of the attic so she can have it herself.
Much of Miss Bohun’s time is taken up with a religious group known as the ‘ever-readies’ – whose exact purpose she seems shy of explaining to Felix at first – yet in time we discover it is all to do with the second-coming.
In the midst of the chilly atmosphere of Miss Bohun’s house, Felix finds companionship in Mrs Ellis, who couldn’t be more different from Miss Bohun, and who opens his eyes to his relative’s true character. With her scarlet, pointed finger-nails, she frequents the cafes and bars in the city – and in following her around – Felix finds himself entering a world he doesn’t entirely understand. He is a child still, in so many ways, clinging to the memory of the life he led with his gentle mother.
“A bleak atmosphere, like that which preceded the going of Mr Jewel, haunted the meals, but now it was not Miss Bohun who controlled the discomfort. Mrs Ellis had shut herself off in a silence that seemed to put Miss Bohun completely at a loss, Once or twice, perhaps attempting to test the surface of this frost, Miss Bohun had repeated tentatively and unconvincingly, remarks like: ‘Well, here we are! Just a happy family!’ or ‘One day, Mrs Ellis, we really must have that cosy chat in my room,’ but Mrs Ellis made no sign that she had heard. When she did not come in to meals, Miss Bohun would sometimes say to Felix, meaningfully: ‘Mrs Ellis seems to be sulking about something. So childish of her. It spoils everything, we could be such a happy family.’”
Felix continues to visit old Mr Jewel in the hospital – though stops short of telling him about the attic. Taking lessons from Mr Posthorn, Felix’s life is spent entirely with adults. There are few pleasures – he loves to go to the cinema, but the money he gives Miss Bohun leaves him with practically no pocket money. Soon however, the war will end – and a passage arranged for him back to England.
This is a deeply touching novel, the portrayal of Felix, growing up yet not quite grown up enough – coming to terms with his loss, and all at sea with the world around him, is breath-taking. Most impressive, however, is the extraordinary depth of character. Olivia Manning’s portrait of Miss Bohun is brilliantly unforgettable.