Olivia Manning has been acclaimed by such distinguished contemporaries as Anthony Burgess as one of the great storytellers of modern times. Born in Portsmouth, England, she was the daughter of an English naval officer father and an Ulster-Irish mother. After studying art, she traveled while in her early twenties to London, where she worked as a typist and a furniture painter and then in book production. The Wind Changes, her first novel, was published when she was in her mid-twenties. Just before the outbreak of World War II, she married R. D. Smith, at that time a British Council lecturer and later a radio producer and professor at the New University of Ulster. The couple went immediately to his post in Bucharest, Romania, but they were forced to leave as the political situation deteriorated. They fled to Greece, but the advancing German army occasioned another move, and they were evacuated to Egypt. Manning served as a press officer for the American embassy at Cairo and then as a press assistant at the Public Information Office in Jerusalem.
After the war, Manning returned to England and continued her career as a writer; eleven years had elapsed since she had written her first novel. She said of her writing: “My subject is simply life as I have experienced it and I am happiest when writing of things I have known.” It is this personal view that gives her work objectivity, restraint, and proportion.
Although the point of view in most of her novels is feminine, her major concern is the relationship that must exist between men and women in order to establish some degree of self-knowledge and self-fulfillment. All of her characters struggle with themselves and others in order to understand and accomplish what they see or imagine their place in the universe to be. The result is a world of people who are more or less limited by their ambitions and desires but mostly by faults that are perfectly understandable and, therefore, forgivable. Even though her major novels, the Fortunes of War series, consisting of The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy, deal with the cataclysm of World War II, the lives of her characters are perfectly scaled to a dimension of humanity that is commensurate with their everyday lives. In this sense she has been compared to Jane Austen, who never forgot that people are part of a social fabric that defines, limits, and even entertains them.
A characteristic novel is Doves of Venus, in which two women, one an inexperienced young girl from the provinces and the other a worldly-wise city woman, vie for the attention of the latter’s husband. Much of the novel is autobiographical; the young woman from the provinces who takes a job painting furniture is similar to Manning herself. It has been suggested that Nancy, the young woman’s friend, is modeled on Stevie Smith, a longtime friend of Manning. The juxtaposition of youth and age as seen from a woman’s point of view provides a rich emotional texture.
World War II is the background of Manning’s major work, the Fortunes of War series. In many ways the novels in this group are unique; the story is told from the point of view of Harriet Pringle, a noncombatant whose personal life is not the center of the action and who is for the most part a bystander. She is not political and is in the position of the masses of humanity who, in wartime, are helpless against the ruthless and inhuman forces that drive people and nations to humiliation and destruction. Because of the particular point of view, the reader is spared the more sensational and brutal aspects of war, although her descriptions of combat are realistic enough.
These are historical novels, and historical accuracy is not sacrificed for the sake of character. The tenor of each novel is commensurate with the precise political situation. Thus the actions of the corrupt and venal government of Romania are mirrored in the effect they have on the characters, the local population, and the British as well. Acts of unselfish heroism are counterbalanced by cowardice, deceit, and betrayal. Nothing escapes Harriet’s scrutiny; even the mass media get a withering glance. Without straining for effect, Manning forces the reader to share with prince and peasant the calamities that overtake everyone. As Harriet and her husband, Guy, flee to Greece, much is made of the contrast between the vacillating and downtrodden people of Romania and the heroic stand of the Greeks against their invaders.
The Levant Trilogy takes place for the most part in Egypt among British army personnel and civilian hangers-on. For purposes of historical interest, the point of view shifts occasionally to that of Simon Boulderstone, a soldier who participates in the defeat of the German general Erwin Rommel’s Panzer divisions in the battles at El-Alamein. It is in these novels that Manning draws her picture of the loosening of the moral fabric that must accompany the exigencies of war and the changes that it brings.
On another level the novels are the story of a marriage: that of the Pringles. Harriet is shy, reticent, and private; Guy is extroverted, gregarious, and social. Their differences are a constant source of wonderment, pain, and doubt to Harriet, who endeavors to understand her sometimes indifferent and negligent husband, whom, in spite of his faults, she deeply loves.
Olivia Manning, one in a long line of distinguished British women novelists, will be remembered primarily for her wartime trilogies. The continuing appeal of these novels was attested by the success of a television adaptation for the Public Broadcasting System’s Masterpiece Theatre in the mid-1980’s.