Born in England in the Lake District, Susie Vereker has spent much of her life travelling around the world, first as an army officer's daughter and then as a diplomat's wife. She has lived in Germany, Thailand, Australia, Greece, Switzerland and France, but is now settled in a small Hampshire village that has been the family home – between travels abroad – for over 25 years. Susie writes novels. She is the author of Pond Lane and Paris (nominated for the RNA/Foster Grant prize), An Old-Fashioned Arrangement, Paris Imperfect and Tropical Connections. She reviews books and films, mentions her puppy and sometimes country houses and gardens, at Susie Vereker - writer. In this post Susie writes about the work of Olivia Manning
Susie Vereker on Olivia Manning
As a young woman I would always say that Olivia Manning was my favourite author. Nowadays I normally choose more modern writers, such as Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood or Kate Atkinson, but I still like to reread Olivia Manning from time to time. I try to sort my vast and disorganized library now and then, but I can't see myself ever disposing of the six volumes that make up The Fortunes of War.
The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy form a single narrative entitled Fortunes of War, which Anthony Burgess described as 'the finest fictional record of the war produced by a British writer. Her gallery of personages is huge, her scene painting superb, her humour quiet and civilized. Guy Pringle is one of the major characters of modern fiction.'
I used to feel that the complicated and lonely life led by Harriet Pringle, Manning's heroine, in some ways reflected my own a generation or so later. Like me, she was often alone in a strange foreign capital with not quite enough to do, but then she also had to face dangerous conflicts whereas I did not, and she had the problem of a neglectful husband, whereas I didn't, so one must be careful not to stretch the comparisons. As for Olivia and her husband Reggie themselves, rather than their fictional counterparts, it turned out they led quite a racy life.
Olivia Manning is often underrated as a writer and was said to be jealous of her contemporaries like Iris Murdoch and Ivy Compton-Burnett. I'm told that many people nowadays only started reading her after the television series Fortunes of War in the 1980s. Incidentally, as a serious Olivia fan, I wasn't much impressed by this Branagh version as I'd imagined Harriet to be thin and pale, unlike the hearty jolly-hockeysticks character portrayed by Emma Thompson. Apparently there's been a good dramatization recently on Radio 4 Extra, narrated by Joanna Lumley, but no longer available on iPlayer, sadly. Perhaps there's a CD. I only heard one episode – sounded a little too gushing in parts. I don't feel Harriet ever gushed.
Olivia herself said that many of the incidents in her novels were taken from life – and indeed her life must have provided plenty of material as she moved from Rumania to Greece to Egypt during World War II. Harriet marries Guy Pringle, whom she hardly knows, and goes as a bride to Rumania in 1939. Guy works for an organization similar to the British Council (like OM's husband). Trouble is that Guy is a chap who likes to be constantly surrounded by people and has little time to look after his more reticent wife. Through the six volumes, we follow Harriet and Guy as they escape from one country to the next ahead of the Germans, meeting a host of strange and colourful characters en route.
In the early 1990s my diplomat husband was seconded to the Royal College of Defence Studies. An official visit to Rumania was scheduled at the time. Then you must read Olivia Manning, I urged. No, piffling women's books, said my husband, not to be persuaded. But when he arrived at the RCDS, the briefing began with the advice that all the senior military students should read The Balkan Trilogy to better understand the country.
It's dangerous to comment on a novel I haven't read recently but I do remember an age ago finding the first part of The Balkan Trilogy slightly heavy going. Don't be put off. It's well worth persevering. Other novels by Olivia Manning include School for Love and The Rain Forest. I've read that she was a competent artist, and perhaps this contributed to her flair for vivid descriptions of people and places.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]