Billingham Manor Newport, Isle of Wight Unitary Authority, Isle of Wight, England
Olivia Mary Manning CBE (2 March 1908 – 23 July 1980) was a British novelist, poet, writer, and reviewer. Her fiction and non-fiction, frequently detailing journeys and personal odysseys, were principally set in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the Middle East. She often wrote from her personal experience, though her books also demonstrate strengths in imaginative writing. Her books are widely admired for her artistic eye and vivid descriptions of place.
Manning's youth was divided between Portsmouth and Ireland, giving her what she described as "the usual Anglo-Irish sense of belonging nowhere". She attended art school and moved to London, where her first serious novel, The Wind Changes, was published in 1937. In August 1939 she married R. D. Smith ("Reggie"), a British Council lecturer posted in Bucharest, Romania, and subsequently lived in Greece, Egypt, and British Mandatory Palestine as the Nazis overran Eastern Europe. Her experiences formed the basis for her best-known work, the six novels making up The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy, known collectively as Fortunes of War. Critics judged her overall output to be of uneven quality, but this series, published between 1960 and 1980, was described by Anthony Burgess as "the finest fictional record of the war produced by a British writer".
Following the publication of the final volume of The Balkan Trilogy in 1965, Manning worked on her cat memoir and a collection of short stories, A Romantic Hero and Other Stories, both of which were published in 1967. Another novel, The Play Room (published as The Camperlea Girls in the US), appeared in 1969. The book of short stories and The Play Room both contained homosexual themes, a topic which interested Manning. The latter was a less than successful exploration of the lives and interests of adolescents, though the reviews were generally encouraging. A film version was proposed, and Ken Annakin asked her to write the script. The movie, with more explicit lesbian scenes than the book, was all but made before the money ran out; a second version, with a very different script, was also developed but came to nothing. "Everything fizzled out", she said. "I wasted a lot of time and that is something which you cannot afford to do when you are sixty"; in keeping with her obfuscations about her age, she was actually sixty-two.
Early in 1975 Manning began The Danger Tree, which for a time she described as "The Fourth Part of the Balkan Trilogy"; in the event, it became the first novel in The Levant Trilogy, continuing the story of the Pringles in the Middle East. The first book proved "a long struggle" to write, in part because of Manning's lack of confidence in her powers of invention: the book juxtaposes the Desert War experiences of a young officer, Simon Boulderstone, with the securer lives of the Pringles and their circle. Manning, fascinated by sibling relationships, and remembering the death of her own brother, also examined the relationship between Simon and his elder brother, Hugo. She felt inadequate in her ability to write about soldiers and military scenes; initial reviewers agreed, finding her writing unconvincing and improbable, though subsequent reviewers have been considerably kinder. While some parts of the book were inventions, she also made use of real-life incidents. The opening chapter of The Danger Tree describes the accidental death of the young son of Sir Desmond and Lady Hooper. The incident was based on fact: Sir Walter and Lady Amy Smart's eight-year-old boy was killed when he picked up a stick bomb during a desert picnic in January 1943. Just as described in the novel, his grief-stricken parents had tried to feed the dead boy through a hole in his cheek. Manning had long been resentful at the Smarts' failure to include her and Smith in their artistic circle in Cairo. The scene was considered in poor taste even by Manning's friends, who were also outraged that the quiet and faithful Lady Smart was associated with Manning's very different Lady Hooper. Though both Sir Walter and his wife had died by the time of publication, Manning's publisher received a solicitor's letter written on behalf of the Smart family, objecting to the scene and requiring that there should be no further reference to the incident or to the couple in future volumes. Manning ignored both requests. She based the character of Aidan Pratt on the actor, writer, and poet Stephen Haggard, whom she had known in Jerusalem. Like Pratt, Haggard committed suicide on a train from Cairo to Palestine, but in Haggard's case it followed the end of a relationship with a beautiful Egyptian woman, rather than unrequited homosexual love. The Danger Tree was a considerable critical success, and though Manning was disappointed yet again that her novel was not shortlisted for the Booker prize, The Yorkshire Post selected it as their Best Novel of 1977. This award followed her appointment as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 1976 Birthday Honours.
Manning returned to London after the war and lived there until her death in 1980; she wrote poetry, short stories, novels, non-fiction, reviews, and drama for the British Broadcasting Corporation. Both Manning and her husband had affairs, but they never contemplated divorce. Her relationships with writers such as Stevie Smith and Iris Murdoch were difficult, as an insecure Manning was envious of their greater success. Her constant grumbling about all manner of subjects is reflected in her nickname, "Olivia Moaning", but Smith never wavered in his role as his wife's principal supporter and encourager, confident that her talent would ultimately be recognised. As she had feared, real fame only came after her death in 1980, when an adaptation of Fortunes of War was televised in 1987.
Manning's books have received limited critical attention; as during her life, opinions are divided, particularly about her characterisation and portrayal of other cultures. Her works tend to minimise issues of gender and are not easily classified as feminist literature. Nevertheless, recent scholarship has highlighted Manning's importance as a woman writer of war fiction and of the British Empire in decline. Her works are critical of war and racism, and colonialism and imperialism; they examine themes of displacement and physical and emotional alienation.
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