Authors: Frederic Manning

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Australian novelist and poet


Frederic Manning’s reputation rests securely on his novel The Middle Parts of Fortune: Somme and Ancre 1916, one of the best works about World War I. The work provides a compelling portrayal of the points of view both of the private soldier in the British army and of the quintessential outsider. Both roles were familiar ones for Manning. Born in Sydney, Australia, into a socially prominent family, Manning suffered from recurrent ill health as a child. His battles with asthma and other respiratory problems hampered his formal education and gave him instead a haphazardly directed private education in Italy, Sydney, and England, where his family moved after 1898.{$I[AN]9810001696}{$I[A]Manning, Frederic}{$I[geo]AUSTRALIA;Manning, Frederic}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Manning, Frederic}{$I[tim]1882;Manning, Frederic}

As a result of his persistent illness, Manning became a voracious reader of the literature then popular in England, which included in particular the short fiction and poetry of such Georgian writers as Hector Hugh Monroe, who used the pseudonym Saki, Edward Thomas, and others. At the age of sixteen Manning began writing, and soon after he won local recognition for his lighter verse. In 1907 his first published poems appeared in The Vigil of Brunhild, which was followed two years later by a collection of short fiction entitled Scenes and Portraits and in 1910 by a second volume of poetry, Poems. In 1909 Manning also began writing reviews for the leading literary magazine The Spectator.

When World War I broke out in August, 1914, Manning enlisted in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. Like many young, upper-class recruits–including his friend Richard Aldington–Manning had the social profile and the education to qualify for an officer’s commission. In 1914, however, he refused a commission, preferring the company of private soldiers. Although the sheer physical hardship of life in the trenches in 1915 and 1916 killed and crippled many healthier men, Manning managed to serve through the Somme and the Ancre battles despite his persistent ill health.

Following the battle of Ancre in 1916, Manning was invalided to England with severe respiratory problems. After convalescing Manning was declared fit for duty in 1917. He was again offered a commission in the Royal Irish Regiment, and this time he accepted. He served with the regiment through 1917 and into 1918, but a series of bizarre and petty confrontations with his superior officers, symptomatic of posttraumatic distress disorder, led to another stay in the hospital to convalesce. After the war Manning became a journalist and traveled throughout Europe.

Manning is best known for The Middle Parts of Fortune: Somme and Ancre 1916, his account of trench life on the western front during World War I. His was one of a flood of books published in the late 1920’s that documented the experiences of the combatants, whose point of view was often at odds with the official histories of the war or with the memoirs of commanding generals. Perhaps because it was intended to represent the concerns of an average soldier, Manning published the work under the pseudonym “Private 19022.” The main character, Bourne, is an educated Australian who joins the ranks and, like Manning himself, refuses a commission. Better educated than his fellows, a student of Roman literature and William Shakespeare, Bourne is the image of the young British officer fresh out of university. Bourne prefers serving with two other outsiders: Shem, a Jewish soldier who refused to take a supply position in England so that he could do active duty, and Little Martlow, a young man from the slums who lied about his age to enlist.

In the face of such sacrifices from individuals on the margins of English society, Bourne cannot leave the trenches. What has been called the “moral bind of the front line” becomes painfully obvious as the soldiers must endure seemingly endless cannon fire, attacks through acres of barbed wire, badly prepared food, lack of sleep, and knee-deep mud. Front-line soldiers tended to feel more sympathy for the enemy, who were suffering the same torments, than for those safe at home or back at headquarters. Even when he is given the chance to leave, Bourne refuses because he cannot bring himself to abandon those who do not have the choice and are, in effect, sentenced to the trenches.

Late in the novel, when Shem has been wounded and Martlow killed, Bourne takes part in a raid on the enemy trenches, an act of self-sacrifice since, as a candidate for officer training school, he could have refused to participate. The responsibility he feels to accompany the night attack is a moral one, for he feels that he cannot let his friends face danger alone. In this aspect of his character Bourne represents not just Manning but all those who joined the war who were rendered outsiders by the experience.

An interesting aspect of the novel is Manning’s choice to give equal attention to the peaceful moments of Bourne’s life when he is free from immediate danger and forced to confront the realities of life during wartime. Manning here focuses on the psychological effects of soldiering and of the war during periods of inactivity. Manning skillfully presents Bourne’s dehumanization from the stress of combat as well as from the more insidious manipulation during periods of rest.

Among the first to praise the novel were Arnold Bennett, E. M. Forster, and T. E. Lawrence. Ernest Hemingway is reputed to have reread the book each year to recall to mind the horrors of the war. Manning himself did not benefit from the acclaim the novel received, for it was not until 1943, eight years after his death, that the original, unexpurgated version was published under his own name.

BibliographyBergonzi, Bernard. Heroes’ Twilight: A Study of the Literature of the Great War. 3d ed. Manchester, England: Carcanet, 1996. This survey study includes analysis of Manning’s work.Bonadeo, Alfredo. Mark of the Beast: Death and Degradation in the Literature of the Great War. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989. A psychological study of the effect of World War I on writers.Cobley, Evelyn. Representing War. Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 1993. A theoretical study of representation in World War I literature.Coleman, Verna. The Last Exquisite: A Portrait of Frederic Manning. Carlton, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 1990. A biography.Marwil, Jonathan L. Frederic Manning: An Unfinished Life. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1988. An academic biography.
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