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Posts Tagged ‘Olivia Manning’

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You may have noticed that I rather love books by twentieth century women writers, and so it was never going to be too long before I paid a visit to The Second Shelf in London. A delightful little shop in the heart of the capital selling my kinds of books.

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My friend Meg and I got the train to Euston, and from there it was a short tube ride to Leicester Square on the Northern Line, swapping to the Piccadilly Line for one stop, we got off at Piccadilly Circus and walked to the shop via Shaftesbury Avenue and Great Windmill Street. Tucked away in Smiths Court is the Second Shelf – and it is a delight. The proprietor Allison Devers who has worked so hard to get this project off the ground was so warm and welcoming, and we had a lovely chat and were permitted to take photos – I did ask first of course.

There were so many books by the kinds of writers I love, I saw Daphne Du Maurier, Anita Brooker, Nina Bawden, Margaret Atwood, Virginia Woolf and many others. It is an Aladdin’s cave of women’s literature.

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Well I was always going to buy some books – and of course I did. Actually, one was purchased a few weeks ago, paid for and just picked up today. The other three – were just too hard to resist. I could have bought several others. I am so happy with these four books.

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A Game of Hide and Seek – by Elizabeth Taylor – one of my favourite writers, definitely one of my top five – and A Game of Hide and Seek is probably my favourite of her novels. I have a green virago edition too, which I am keeping – I have read it twice already, and as I am planning on re-reading some of the others this is just going on my special books, bookshelf for now. It isn’t a first edition, it’s the book club edition (book club editions are cheaper obviously) but I adore the cover. I can just imagine Harriet and Vesey going into that little house.

My mothers House and Sido by Colette – I have been reminded a couple of times lately how I really need to read more Colette – and this gorgeous little book shouted out to me. A 1953, American first edition.

The Unspeakable Skipton by Pamela Hansford Johnson, I have come to really enjoy PHJ’s writing. She was pretty prolific, and I have only read about four of her novels so far. This one just sounds so interesting, and I loved the cover. It is also a first edition.

The Rain Forest by Olivia Manning – many of you will have seen my love of Olivia Manning through my reading of The Balkan and Levant trilogies (the last one of those left to read) and others of her work. This, one of her later novels is a first edition.

I am completely delighted with my beautiful purchases.

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After this we went to a tiny deli next door and had a cup of tea – the food smelled amazing – but we had a table booked elsewhere where we were meeting three other friends. A lovely long lazy chatty lunch at Bill’s on Brewer Street was next on the agenda – which was rather busy and a bit chaotic at times, but the food was good, and it is great catching up with people I don’t see very often.

Before heading back to Euston Meg and I had some time to kill and so we went to the National Portrait Gallery, we spent about 45 minutes in there – and still managed to see quite a lot. The literary theme continued there with portraits of Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, Seamus Heaney and photographs of Edna O’Brien, Beryl Bainbridge and Nadine Gordimer among others.

A truly lovely day, with laughs and treats a plenty, I realise now, I really needed it!

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the battle lost and won

The second book in Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy starts exactly where the previous one finished. Published just a year after The Danger Tree it’s a book I had been looking forward to a lot. I have enjoyed every bit of the Balkan and Levant trilogies, which – featuring many of the same characters – make up The Fortunes of War series. The fact that this one fitted so neatly into my A Century of Books was a bonus. I have been reading this second trilogy in an ebook trilogy, after my old penguin copy of The Danger Tree fell apart half way through.

We have followed Harriet and Guy Pringle since the early days of their marriage in the first year of the war in Bucharest. When we last saw them, Harriet was mainly alone in Cairo, while Guy continues working for the educational institute in Alexandria. Harriet seems destined to be always alone, her husband is infuriating, and in fact in this novel appears much less. I didn’t miss him, but I did feel for poor Harriet. Will things ever improve for her?

“He had said the climate was killing her but now, seeing the relationship from a distance, she felt the killing element was not the heat of Cairo but Guy himself.”

The Battle Lost and Won opens however, with Simon Boulderstone, who we met for the first time in The Danger Tree – he has just discovered that his brother has been killed. Both men, had been stationed with different units in the desert, and Simon had been trying to find a way to visit his brother – when permission is finally granted he arrives too late. His grief is overwhelming, the world moves to a different rhythm now. Olivia Manning knows how that connection to our sibling is like nothing else – anchoring us to home – to our past selves.

“He was twenty years of age. Hugo had been his senior by a year and they were as alike as twins. Imagining Hugo’s body disintegrating in the sand, he felt a spasm of raging indignation against this early death, and then he thought of those who must suffer with him: his parents, his relatives and the girl Edwina whom he thought of as Hugo’s girl.”

With a week’s leave still ahead of him, Simon goes to Cairo to find Edwina, the girl he met briefly when he was in Cairo before, and who he thinks of as his brother’s girl. Edwina is still living in Dobson’s embassy flat, with Harriet and Guy Pringle. She never was really Hugo’s girl, and Harriet kindly tries to shield Simon from the truth of this when he arrives red eyed and grief stricken. Edwina, no time for grieving or looking backwards, is about to go out, all dressed up. She leaves on the arm of another man; Peter Lisdoonvarna, an Irish peer and lieutenant-colonel. After a day in Cairo – Simon heads back to his unit early – much to the bemusement of the other men. Days later new orders arrive for Simon, arranged by Peter. Simon is to be a liaison officer, right along the front lines. We follow his progress as he joins his new unit, and undertakes his new duties.

One of Harriet’s almost constant companions is Lady Angela Hopper, another character we met for the first time in The Danger Tree, when following her young son’s tragic death, she left her husband and found a new way of life in Cairo. Angela, to almost everyone’s bemusement has taken up with Bill Castlebar – a poet and lecturer, with a formidable wife back in England. As the usual crowd gather in the bars frequented by the ex-pats each evening, Angela and Castlebar can be seen gazing longingly at each other. Soon, Angela takes to bringing Castlebar back to Dobson’s flat, where she too is staying, much to Harriet’s irritation. When Castlebar’s wife arrives triumphantly from England – everyone amazed she even managed it – sparks look like flying. Mona Castlebar of course realises at once what had been going on, and she is determined to see the back of Angela. It is obvious that there is no affection at all between Bill and Mona, but that doesn’t stop Mona taking possession of the miserably cowed poet. Angela can only stand back and watch in saddened fury.

“She thought, ‘Everything has gone wrong since we came here.’ The climate changed people: it preserved ancient remains but it disrupted the living. She had seen common-place English couples who, at home, would have tolerated each other for a lifetime, here turning into self-dramatizing figures of tragedy, bored, lax, unmoral, complaining and, in the end, abandoning the partner in hand for another who was neither better nor worse than the first. Inconstancy was so much the rule among the British residents in Cairo, the place, she thought was like a bureau of sexual exchange.”

Harriet has been left more and more on her own by her husband – the same old story. Guy is so guilty about not being in uniform, he feels he must be working all the time, dashing around, organising things. It is Harriet that bears the brunt of this. The climate in Egypt has not completely suited Harriet, and there has been mention, from Guy, of her leaving on the next available ship for England. When Harriet falls ill following a visit to Luxor and the Nile, she starts to seriously contemplate the idea of leaving.

So, I have just one book in this incredible epic series of novels left; The Sum of Things, which will probably have to wait till after I finish ACOB.

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the danger tree

Today is the start of the 1977 club hosted for us again by Simon and Karen. I got started a few days ago – as I had been looking forward to reading this particular book for a while.

The Danger Tree is the first novel in Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy – which follows directly on from her Balkan Trilogy – that I re-read with such relish last year. The Danger Tree is every bit as compelling as those first three novels. Enormously intelligent, it is, at times, a no holds barred account of the war in the desert.

“Cairo had become the clearing house of Eastern Europe. Kings and princes, heads of state, their followers and hangers-on, free governments with all their officials, everyone who saw himself committed to the allied cause, had come to live here off the charity of the British government. Hotels, restaurants and cafés were loud with the squabbles, rivalries, scandals, exhibitions of importance and hurt feelings that occupied the refugees while they waited for the war to end and the old order to return.”

Having been forced to flee Greece – where they ended up having fled the German occupation in Romania – Guy and Harriet Pringle find themselves in Egypt. Again, they are surrounded by the flotsam and jetsam of war – thrown together with strangers and old friends – and enemies – with German forces still far too close for comfort.

1977clubThe novel opens with Simon Boulderstone, just twenty years old, who has just arrived with the draft. A young officer, he had formed close alliances aboard ship – but is now separated from his mates – and finds himself alone, in the midst of chaos. Tobruk has just fallen. After reporting to his new barracks Simon is given two days leave and in search of a friendly face, goes to Cairo to look up his brother’s girlfriend; Edwina Little. Simon knows that somewhere out there in the desert is his brother Hugh and he hopes to get a chance to see him.

Harriet is also in Cairo – though Guy has had to go to Alexandria to find something to do for the Organisation – the Organisation is educational not mafioso which is what it always sounds like to me. Harriet is alone – and there are moments when the heat, flies, loneliness and constant rumour takes its toll.

“On one occasion she was in a landscape which she had seen years before, when riding her bicycle into the country. It was an ordinary English winter landscape; a large field ploughed into ridges that followed the contours of the land, bare hedges, distant elms behind which the sky’s watery grey was broken by gold. She could smell the earth on the wind. There was a gust of rain, wet and cold on her face – then, in an instant, the scene was gone like a light switched off, and she could have wept for the loss of it.”

Harriet encounters Simon in the company of some other ex-pats – when together they go off on a sight-seeing tour. The days end with a stark and tragic reminder of war at the desert home of Sir Desmond Hooper.

Guy is in a reserved occupation but his arrival in Egypt brings him back into conflict with those colleagues who had undermined his position in Greece. Finding himself on the outside again – Guy is not the man to sit back do nothing and get paid – he needs to be doing something. Guy always has a host of people around him – he puts everybody before Harriet – who finds herself every bit as frustrated by this behaviour in her husband as she was in Romania and Greece. While Harriet endures the discomfort of Madame Wilk’s pension, working in the American embassy, where she is daily reminded of her outsider status — Guy is running a course for just two students in Alexandria.

Returning to Cairo – to Harriet’s relief – Guy’s career prospects suddenly improve when he is appointed director. Guy’s appointment means the Pringles can move into better accommodation too – a large room in a shared embassy flat which they share with Edwina Little, a strange, rather sad man named Percy Gibbon and Dobson – who the Pringles first knew in Romania. Outside their window is a large mango tree – the danger tree of the title. Harriet loves the tree, Guy hates it.

“The Danger Tree”. You know that in England someone dies every year from eating duck eggs? – Well, in countries where a lot of mangoes are eaten, someone dies from mango poisoning every year.’ Edwina, who had been putting out her hand for another mango, withdrew it, saying, ‘Dobbie, how could you! What a horrid joke!’”

As the novel progresses we also follow the fortunes of young Simon Boulderstone as he joins his new unit. He is a young, inexperienced officer – and his days are long, hot and often boring. When action comes its swift, terrifying, and bloody. Olivia Manning brings us the realities of war with neither sentiment or gratuitous violence. As ever her storytelling is superb.

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I’ve really come to love Olivia Manning’s writing, and so I was delighted when I received The Doves of Venus as part of the Librarything Virago secret Santa parcel exchange. This accompanied me on the journey home from Devon almost two weeks ago now and proved to be one of the highlights of last month. Sometimes it is hard to write about a book I loved as much as I did this one, as I can’t really be objective. So, I should probably keep this simple.

Actually, the plot is very simple, but Olivia Manning brings so much to the story, her exploration of the characters is absolutely spot on. As always, her characters step fully formed from the page, they have a past and a future – and speak with the voices of people Olivia Manning herself must have known.

Eighteen-year old Ellie leaves her home in the provincial seaside town of Eastsea in search of independence. In Eastsea, Ellie’s mother runs a restaurant, and favours Ellie’s sister – who is about to get married. Ellie’s help is wanted – and everyone in the town seems to think it entirely appropriate that Ellie should stay and help her mother – and completely scandalous that she has gone off to London instead. Ellie is suffocated by the atmosphere of home; the small-town mind is not hers – she seems to be able to do nothing right anyway – and is always getting on the wrong side of her mother. Having done a night school art class at the technical college Ellie has her sights set on the art world.

In London, Ellie takes a small bedsit in Chelsea and manages to get a job at a furniture studio – initially in packing – but soon she is moved to the ‘antiquing’ room where she paints bits of furniture. She also acquires a middle-aged lover Quintin Bellot – who has a much more laid-back attitude to their affair than Ellie – who has fallen head over heels. The affair is destined to be a short one, with Ellie learning quickly, the complexities of a married lover.

“During her weeks with Quintin she had lived, it seemed like the ‘Snow Queen’ girl, in a garden where it was always summer. Now she was shut out from the summer garden of love.
‘My fault’ she said
All female gossip, all advice given in women’s magazines, made it clear that a woman thrown over had only herself to blame.”

Quintin is harried continually by his estranged wife – Petta; a familiar figure around the pubs on the Kings Road with her circle of assorted bohemians. When Petta leaves her most recent lover, she lands back at Quintin’s flat – much to his irritation – charming his housekeeper Mrs Trimmer and setting up home in his dressing room. Petta is manipulative and slightly hysterical, bitterly resentful toward all of Quintin’s ‘little girls’ – shrugging off her own indiscretions, a previous marriage and an abandoned daughter. She yearns sadly for a time that is long gone, a world she understood, the world as it had been when she was young.

“‘Why is it all so dismal now? What happened to life? What’s missing from it? It used to be such fun. It’s true, conditions were different. Money bought things then. Everyone had country cottages: they picked them up for a few pounds. Other people did the work for us – but it wasn’t all that that made life fun…’”

When Quintin tells Ellie, he won’t be able to see her anymore, she is devastated – but is determined to believe he will come back to her in time. In the meantime, Ellie concentrates hard on impressing with her work at the studio – and ignoring her mother’s attempts to get her to go home. Ellie is at the bottom of the rung at the studio – her tasks quite menial – she attempts to win the friendship of colleagues Denis and Bertie and when a new girl Nancy starts the two become firm friends.

Although she doesn’t see Quintin again for months – Ellie unknowingly spends time in a world not so far from Quintin. Nancy introduces Ellie to her uncle. Tom Claypole an old roué – who is also related to Quintin. Tom loves to surround himself with young girls, the doves of the title (nothing inappropriate occurs, Tom’s a gentleman). Ellie and Nancy spend several delightful weekends at Clopals – Tom’s country home. Nancy wants to put Tom’s mistress Maxine’s nose out of joint – and the two enjoy dancing attendance on the old man – who is a generous host. There is a wonderful exchange between Nancy and Tom about equal pay for men and women – an argument that rumbles on still.

“Recently she had spoken to Daze, the chief of staff, and had been told that there was one wage scale for men and another for women.
Tom nodded his approval: ‘Men need more money.’
‘They don’t need more’ said Nancy crossly, ‘they just get more, that’s all. Prices aren’t reduced for me because I’m a woman. You bet they’re not.’
‘Surely my dear girl, you’ve discovered by now that you’re living in a man’s world. You must try to gain things by your charms. We men are delighted to reward you, but we won’t disarm ourselves in your favour, Why should we? Eh?”

As the months pass, Quintin is never too far from Ellie’s thoughts – though the image of him fades a little – and she stops seeing him everywhere she goes. When they do meet again, he is no longer quite the romantic figure he was. Ellie has had to learn how to live in London on little money – and with few friends – she loses her job and is terrified to be in debt to her landlady. Ellie’s determination to remain independent sees her through – and by the time the novel ends she is a stronger, wiser young woman – who has found a new happiness for herself.

The Doves of Venus is a brilliant novel – which has reminded me I should get back to the Pringles and read The Levant Trilogy – having finished my re-read of The Balkan trilogy some months ago.

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One of the best things about social media is how it allows us to share our enthusiasms and discover new ones.

Over on Twitter just lately I have been very much enjoying the #NeglectedLadyNovelists tweets from writer Judith Kinghorn – and the conversations resulting from them. Now I do like a good bit of Twitter banter.

I found the World cup of #NeglectedladyNovelists particularly good fun. Several rounds and a semi-final have come and gone – with Twitter folk having to vote for who they consider the most neglected of the lady novelists in each round. Now, I have always taken my democratic responsibilities very seriously – and so I naturally thought very carefully over my choices. For women writers of a certain period – whether neglected or not – are very much my thing. It was really, really hard – and sparked a bit of debate – for instance in group 1 we had Elizabeth Taylor pitted against Anita Brookner, Jean Rhys and Rosamond Lehmann, while in group 3 the choice was between Sylvia Townsend Warner, Flora Mayor, Storm Jameson and EM Delafield, to me it seemed quite impossible to choose. In each group there were at least two writers I wanted to vote for. In all seriousness I want all these writers to enjoy a resurgence in popularity, that is why I love Persephone books and the VMC publications of the 1980 and 90s so much.

I began to wonder how people were voting – surely if we were looking for those women writers who have become truly neglected then I would have expected the likes of Flora Mayor, EH Young or May Sinclair to have made it through to the final. May Sinclair made it to the semi-finals but neither of the other two did terribly well. It’s hardly surprising that people ended up voting for writers they loved most – and I was guilty of this myself. I couldn’t help but vote for Sylvia Townsend Warner and Rosamond Lehmann as I love them so much. I do, also consider them to be rather neglected, however in truth some of their novels are still in print. Virago still publish three or four Rosamond Lehmann titles – and Selina Hastings’ biography of her is also available. VMC print on demand editions of some Sylvia Townsend Warner novels are available – as well as some NYRB editions (though why they felt it necessary to change the title of Mr Fortune’s Maggot is a mystery) – so are these writers truly neglected? Knowing all this I cast my votes – perhaps wrongly. In truth it is perhaps those writers who work is only to be found on second hand book sites, and on the shelves of (very good) second hand bookshops that are truly neglected – so in some rounds I voted with my heart and not my head. I do feel a little guilty – but at least it has got us all talking about these wonderful women writers, and that can’t be a bad thing. I didn’t vote for Elizabeth Taylor despite my great love of her writing because I can’t honestly say she is as neglected as she once was – that is definitely a good thing. How many of these writers’ works can be found in high street bookshops though is another matter – easily bought from a certain online seller perhaps – but how many times do readers get a chance to idly pick up Sylvia Townsend Warner or Rosamond Lehmann in their local branch of Waterstones I wonder?

When I start thinking about the list of #Neglectedladynovelists I would compile – it begins to get very long. Two writers I have been enjoying during this past week would definitely be on the list; Pamela Frankau and Pamela Hansford Johnson, both very good writers and excellent storytellers.

Many of the other novelists considered under that hashtag however – are exceptionally good writers, women who really did have something to say – they were not merely the tellers of good stories – although they did that too. When I consider the likes of Rebecca West, Olivia Manning, Antonia White and Winifred Holtby and others I am reminded what amazing, varied lives, they all lived. They each had so much to tell us – worlds to show us, so much to say – of course I want more people to read them.

I have wondered before how it is that some writers fall out of favour – while others endure – fashion and tastes change I suppose, and new writers come along. It is sad how many wonderful writers get forgotten during that process – when it comes to books I might sometimes be swayed by a pretty new edition, but I don’t much care about fashions. It is probably unrealistic to expect lots of these writers to be re-issued in shiny new editions – the cost for a publishing company would I suspect be prohibitive.

Still no reason why we who love these #NeglectedLadyNovelists shouldn’t continue to scour the bookshelves of second hand bookshops and celebrate our finds on our favourite social media sites. That way these wonderful voices will still be heard – at least by some of us.

Should you still want to get involved in the chat – the final of the world cup of #NeglectedLadyNovelists is at the end of the week. Make sure you are following @Judithkinghorn if you don’t want to miss it.

The original list has now been whittled down to Sylvia Townsend Warner and Jean Rhys – both truly wonderful writers – but I wonder if you can guess where my vote will be going? If neither of them take your fancy (and why wouldn’t they) who would be your choice of most NeglectedLadyNovelist?

(Incidentally, Sylvia Townsend Warner will be the Libraything Virago Group’s author of the month in December – and I am going to be re-reading Lolly Willowes as I have persuaded my very small book group to read it in December.)

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friends and heroes

It is always particularly difficult to review books which are part of a series – Friends and Heroes is the third book of The Balkan Trilogy – which is continued in The Levant Trilogy. The two trilogies make up The Fortunes of War series which Olivia Manning published between 1960 and 1978.

Following on from the events in the previous novel, Harriet Pringle is newly arrived in Athens, her husband Guy has stayed behind in Bucharest. Rumania – where the Pringles have been living since their marriage at the start of the war is under German occupation, and most of the ex-pat community have left or are in the process of leaving. Harriet is in a fever of anticipation waiting for Guy to arrive in Athens. Yakimov, and his sable lined greatcoat is already in Athens, and despite previously having disliked him Harriet has become much fonder of him, and it is Yakimov who first brings Harriet news of Guy.

Guy arrives in Athens much to Harriet’s relief – who is eager for them to visit the Parthenon together – but in typical Guy fashion he wants to immediately find himself something to do. Always rushing about somewhere – although not always where Harriet wants to rush off to – Guy can’t easily sit still.

“At breakfast, on his first morning in Athens, Guy said: I must see the Director and get myself a job. Have you discovered anything about him?’
‘Only that he is called Gracey. Yakimov doesn’t know him and I was too worried to think of anything like that.’
‘We’ll go to the Organization,’ Guy said, ‘We’ll report our arrival and ask for an interview with Gracey.’
‘Yes, but not this morning, our first morning here. I thought we could go and see the Parthenon.’
‘The Parthenon!’ Guy was astonished by the suggestion but realizing that the excursion was important to her, he promised: ‘We will go, but not today. For one thing, there wouldn’t be time.’
‘I thought of it as a celebration of your arrival. I wanted it to be the first thing we did together.’ Guy had to laugh, ‘Surely there’s no hurry? The Parthenon’s been there for two thousand years and it’ll be there tomorrow. It may even be there next week?”

Guy is an academic employed what is always referred to as the organization – which I can’t help but think makes it sound rather more shadowy than it is. In Bucharest Guy held a prominent position in the English department of the University. Now Guy fully expects to be able to walk into a similar position in Athens, the organisation is responsible for the staffing here too – but Guy was never meant to end up in Athens – his original posting was going to be Egypt – and two former colleagues Toby Lush and Dubedat, who Guy had upset in Bucharest are now happily installed in Athens. They are working for director Gracey, who is off sick, and Toby and Dubedat are rather enjoying having the chance to do things that Guy wouldn’t allow them to when they worked for him. Harriet is furious that Guy isn’t being given the opportunity he should, Guy is more philosophical about it.

Though the peace that Guy and Harriet think they have found in Athens is destined to be short lived, and soon the war which is raging across Europe creeps ever close to their door. They live at first in cramped conditions in an hotel, but Harriet is keen they should have their own home. They move, in time to a small, isolated house which comes with an elderly servant who speaks no English.

With possible invasion a daily concern, the city rife with rumour – it is remarkable how much jealous professional manoeuvring goes on between Guy, Toby, Dubedat, Gracey, Professor Pinkrose and their newer acquaintances Ben Phipps and Archie Callard. As Guy and Harriet get to know the ex-pat community of Athens they realise that Gracey – who certainly has his critics – is mostly concerned with getting himself on the next boat in the role of an invalid. Once Gracey has left – the directorship will be up for grabs and then Guy could very well get his chance. One of the key figures in the ex-pat community is Mrs Brett – who has a particular loathing of Gracey – she seems keen to help Guy.

Guy is soon occupied again, and shows us he has learned nothing. Again, just as he did in Bucharest, Guy throws himself into another project. In Bucharest is was a production of Troilus and Cressida – in Athens it is a revue – the result of course is the same. Guy spending hours and hours away from his young wife, wrapped up completely in preparing the revue – Harriet feels his absence keenly. When Harriet hears a British film is to be shown to members of the ex-pat community – an event which warrants a party, dressing up, food etc – she is childishly excited, having looked forward to it, in full expectation of attending it with Guy, she is devastated when Guy says he is too busy to attend. She refuses to go alone, but her disappointment in a missed treat is palpable. There are signs here that the Pringle marriage could be in trouble, Harriet loves Guy, but they have their differences and Guy seems to think Harriet has less need of his presence than she actually does, and seems happier when doing his own thing. The war is getting closer to Athens, Italy invades, although the Greeks do a good job of pushing them back, there is an unsettled tension in the air, a feeling among some that they are practically sitting ducks. Charles Warden is a handsome young officer, temporarily stationed in Athens before being sent elsewhere – he and Harriet are obviously attracted to one another, and spend a little time together, before Guy even senses there might be a danger here.

“With faces lit by the café lights people could recognize one another, and Guy and Harriet, stopping or being stopped by acquaintances were told that the Thermopylae defence was breaking. The Germans could arrive that very night. What was there to stop them? And the retreat went on. The main roads were noisy with the returning lorries. At times, passing through patches of light, they could be seen muddy as farm carts, with the men heaped together, asleep or staring listlessly at the crowds.”

Danger of another kind though is looming, and despite the best efforts of the Greek forces, the time comes when the Pringles and all their friends must try to get out of Athens. The problem, however seems to be a lack of ships.

As ever, Olivia Manning portrays a capital in the midst of war to perfection, her ability to capture the different personalities of the ex-pat community – thrown together during extraordinary times is especially superb.

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school for love

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.

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