The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning

Olivia Manning is perhaps best known for The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy (Fortunes of War), a set of six novels inspired by her experiences of life in Eastern Europe and the Middle East during the Second World War. Before embarking on this series in the 1960s, she wrote a number of standalone novels including The Doves of Venus, a coming-of-age story set in London in the 1950s.

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Eighteen-year-old Ellie Parsons has escaped the limitations of a dreary existence in the provinces to create a new life for herself in the city. Despite the disapproval of her somewhat bitter mother and conventional sister, Ellie is determined to make a success of her move to London, relishing her new-found independence and all the opportunities the future may bring. She has a tiny room at the top of a Chelsea boarding-house, a job packing furniture at Primrose’s (a business run by the formidable Mrs P), and an older lover named Quintin Bellot. As the book opens, Ellie is on her way home after spending the evening with Quintin, high on the first flushes of love and the excitement of new experiences ahead.

Profoundly satisfied by her adopted city, Ellie found her key, entered her house and climbed to her room on the top floor. When she reached it, she opened her window and gazed down on the windows of Margaretta Terrace. She was wide awake again and excited as though, even at this last minute of the day, life might extend some new experience. What lay ahead for her? Would she ever rap on door-knockers with the urgency of important emotions? and run round a corner wearing a fur coat? and, lifting a hand to an approaching taxi, impress some other girl named Ellie and fill her with envy and ambition. (pg. 6)

Trading on his position as a shareholder in Primrose’s, Quintin arranges to have Ellie transferred to the firm’s studio where she hopes to develop her skills as an artist. In reality, she is little more than an odd-job girl, but it’s a start, and in time she learns the craft of ‘antiquing’, treating furniture to give it an aged appearance. Unfortunately for Ellie, Quintin is not quite the knight in shining armour he appeared to be at first sight. A somewhat uncaring man at heart, Quintin has a habit of embarking upon short-term love affairs with pretty young girls, and Ellie may just be the latest in a long line of flings. At first he is captivated by her, charmed by her innocence and optimism, but he knows better than to get too involved…all good things must come to an end at some point.

He was not, as Ellie had been, disturbed by rapture, but by an irritation of the senses that exhausted him and kept him awake. He had involved himself with Ellie from habit, and it was a habit he would soon have to break. The very young, flinging their energy into the transports of love, were becoming too much for him. (pgs. 6-7)

Quintin’s life is further complicated by the reappearance of his wife, Petta. (At some point in the past, Petta left Quintin for another man as she had grown tired of her husband’s roving eye for young girls.) Petta is a complex creature: fickle, flighty, self-absorbed, but ultimately rather vulnerable and unhappy. When she is found balancing on the parapet of Westminster Bridge, Petta gives Quintin’s name as a contact and he is called to take her home. As he encounters his wife again, Quintin realises her former beauty has faded with time.

She gave him a quick, uncertain glance, then, making a movement coquettish and pathetic, turned away. She had been crying. Looking down on her head, he noticed among the filmy fairness of her hair a sort of dust of grey hairs. Her whole appearance had taken on a kind of lifeless dryness as though, during the months she had been away, she had been pressed colourless like a flower in a book. Her lipstick had come off. In this light, her lips were mauve. (pgs. 8-9)

When Quintin takes her back to his flat for the night, Petta sees an opportunity to recapture something of the past, and so she makes herself at home in an attempt to remain there as long as possible.

The central focus of Manning’s novel is Ellie and her quest to find her place in the world. As such, the book charts the various ups and downs along the way – there is at times a touch of Patrick Hamilton’s Slaves of Solitude about Ellie’s story as she struggles to get by in her room at the top of the boarding house.

When Quintin makes the move to break up with Ellie, she is crestfallen and longs for him to reappear. At first she struggles to make new friends, but then another girl, Nancy, joins the artists’ studio, and Ellie finds in her a kindred spirit. But the young girl’s dreams of becoming an artist are still far from becoming a reality; and with Quintin out of the picture, who will protect her from the scrutiny of Mrs P? As the months slip by, Ellie soon realises that her attitude to life has started to change. On her arrival in London she felt there was everything to hope for; now she is a young woman with something to lose. She seems to have lost Quintin, and now her job appears to be at risk too. With all this going on in her life, Ellie’s mood oscillates between one of hopeful expectation and one of despondency.

She remembered those evenings when she had walked home from the art class and breathed the summer scents of flowers. Then she had believed she could achieve so much, she had been so exhilarated by the sense of the future and her own achievement, she had thought she might at any moment fly into the air. But now she did not feel like that. Sitting on the garden-seat, half-sleeping from exhaustion, she felt, even in her finger-tips, the weight of her own body. She could scarcely face the effort of moving it. (pg. 176)

There is plenty to enjoy in this rich novel which is so much more than a simple coming-of-age story. The characterisation is excellent. Naturally the three central characters stand out, but Manning’s novel includes a strong cast of minor players too – all are very well observed. With her freshness and enthusiasm, Ellie is easy to like, but my favourite character has to be Petta, probably because she is so very troubled. I often find myself drawn to ‘difficult’ characters like Petta, damaged or depressed individuals battling their own demons in life. Certain aspects of her demeanour (and her story) reminded me of Julia, the lead character in Jean Rhys’ After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, as she drifts around London in a state of confusion and despondency.

She crossed the road again and escaped from the uproar into King Street. She had once lived near here: then the district had seemed to hold all the delight and fashion of the world. Now she found it repellent; trampled upon, agitated and rowdy as a bank holiday fair.

She did not know where she was going. She walked because she could not face so soon the return to Redcliffe Gardens. She would spend this evening alone. She turned a corner and made her way towards a hotel in Jermyn Street where she and her friends had met before the war. She had a curious hope that someone there might claim her; draw her from the empty and purposeless present, back to the past that in her memory held the flavour of perpetual summer. (pgs. 270-271)

Manning touches on a number of themes in this novel, most notably the contrasts between the young, the middle-aged and the elderly. There are young girls like Ellie, bursting with beauty and enthused by the prospect of what life has to offer them; there are the middle-aged typified by Petta, the faded beauty desperate to recapture her lost youth, and Ellie’s mother, Mrs Parsons, a woman hemmed in by the responsibilities of widowhood and the resentment of her daughter’s independence; and finally the elderly in the shape of Nancy’s Uncle Tom, a traditional man fully aware of his own mortality in the twilight of his life. The story also reflects on the inequalities between men and woman in the workplace, particularly in relation to opportunities and income. None of these ideas are overworked in any way; all are handled with a lightness of touch.

Finally, there are Manning’s wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of London in the 1950s. She is particularly good on both the city’s skyline and the weather, the rain fine as a web as it covers the streets.

Ahead of her, traffic lights changed in an empty world. When she reached them, she gazed down Chelsea Bridge Road to observe the infernal splendour of the Battersea Power Station. It was flood-lit. The rosy cameo of chimneys, seeming incandescent against the black sky, billowed smoke wreaths, glowing, massive, majestical as the smoke of hell. She loved them. They were a landmark of home. (pg. 4)

I’ll finish with a favourite quote, one that illustrates the author’s painterly eye. In her youth, Manning studied art; unsurprisingly, her prose demonstrates an ability to visualise and capture a scene.

A pink light, strained through thinning cloud, washed the garden with a supernatural sheen. […] By the time the girls had reached the stream, the colour had gone from the air. In the milky sheen of evening the trunks of the apple trees were luminous, bloomed over with copper-green. Among the tress the water flickered, the links of a silver chain. (pg. 167)

The Doves of Venus is published by Virago. Source: personal copy.

48 thoughts on “The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning

  1. MarinaSofia

    I’ve only ever read the Balkan and Levant trilogy by Olivia Manning but was entranced by her accurate observations of relationships between men and women in those books as well. This sounds like a subtle and somewhat sad book.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, Manning’s good on the subtleties of these relationships. She was in her late forties by the time she wrote Doves of Venus, so I guess she was able to draw on various experiences by that point. It is quite sad, although there are glimmers of hope, especially for Ellie.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s certainly the case with Petta in particular. She reminded me so much of the women in Jean Rhys’ novels, faded beauties drifting around the city in a state of desperation, hoping to latch onto a man as a means of survival. There is a sense that Petta is trying to cling to the past, hence her desire to hunker down in Quintin’s flat. I didn’t have space to cover it in the review, but the sections involving Nancy’s uncle are rather nostalgic, too. Ellie forms a connection with him which adds another thread to the narrative…

      Reply
  2. hastanton

    I’ve read the two trilogies ( following the brilliant BBC TVseries with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson) ….never read any of her other books but this sounds fab.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Glad you like the sound of it, Helen. I would certainly recommend it to you, especially as you’ve read Manning’s trilogies. A friend mentioned The Fortunes of War TV series to me when she saw Olivia Manning’s name on my Classics list. It does sound good, but I’m tempted to read the books first. Now that I’ve ditched Knausgaard (sorry!), I should be able to find enough space to make a start on The Balkan Trilogy, maybe later this year.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, fantastic. Good to hear that you enjoyed the trilogies, Susan. I’m very keen to give them a go. The Doves of Venus is certainly worth a look. Manning packs quite a lot into it, but it never feels overworked.

      Reply
  3. poppypeacockpens

    Not someone I’ve read before but you certainly sell her writing Jacqui… I’m particularly curious about how she portrays Petta and Mrs Parsons as like you I’m drawn to the ‘flawed’ heroines. Great review☺

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Poppy. Petta’s great. In many ways, she’s more interesting than Ellie because everything is slipping away from her – she’s very aware of the things she has lost and will never recapture. Ellie, on the other hand, has her whole life ahead of her, she’s only just getting started. Mrs Parsons is very interesting, too. She plays a fairly minor role in the novel, but you get a clear sense of the bitterness and jealousy towards Ellie.

      Reply
  4. Cathy746books

    I’ve never read Manning (although I do remember the TV adaptation) but this sounds wonderful. I love that first quote of Ellie’s – it perfectly captures that sense of being young and having the world open out in front of you. Lovely.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a great quote, isn’t it? I really enjoyed this novel. It was just what I need at the time, a good old-fashioned story with interesting characters and themes. Manning’s equally good on the vibrancy of youth and the despondency that comes with middle age. Petta’s character acts as a clear contrast to Ellie’s, the faded beauty vs. the freshness of youth.

      Reply
  5. Jonathan

    I like the sound of this; it would make a good accompaniment to my current reading, Powell’s ‘Dance to the Music of Time’.

    I haven’t read the Balkan trilogy but it sounds as if this would be a good book to start with. The Virago cover is great.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, terrific. I hope you’ll write about A Dance to the Music of Time as I would love to hear your thoughts. I’ve been toying with the idea of reading those novels for quite some time, but it’s such a big commitment, especially as I suspect it might be best to read them in fairly quick succession.

      I really want to try the Balkan trilogy too, but I’m glad I started with this one. It feels like a good introduction to Manning’s style and some of her themes. I lucked out with this old Virago edition, a great secondhand find!

      Reply
      1. Jonathan

        I’m enjoying Powell so far (I’ve finished vol. 2) as it’s just my type of book – heavy on characterisation, light on plot. I’m reading along with a GoodReads group, one book a month for the year.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, I like the sound of that. Reading one a month is a good way of approaching this type of series. I doubt whether I’ll be able to do it this year as I’d like to continue with my Classics Club list, but maybe in two or three years’ time.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think so, Stu. In her introduction to The Doves of Venus, Isobel English states that the story of Ellie coming to London is loosely linked to Manning’s experience of moving from Portsmouth to the capital in the early 1930s. On her arrival in the city, she took a similar job to Ellie’s, painting and gilding whitewood furniture to make it appear Regency or Edwardian in style. In some ways, Ellie seems to be the forerunner of the lead character in the trilogies, Harriet Pringle.

      Interestingly, Nancy (Ellie’s pal in The Doves of Venus) was thought to have been inspired by Manning’s close friend the poet and novelist Stevie Smith. Not so much in terms of appearance, more her character and relationship with Manning.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Jane. It’s interesting to hear that you preferred it to some of Manning’s other work. The storyline and London setting really appealed to me, so it felt like a good one to begin with. Did you review it by any chance?

      Reply
  6. Emma

    I’ve never heard of Olivia Manning, so thanks for the discovery.
    There seems to be a lot to ponder in this novel, about ageing and lost illusions.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome, Emma. She’s probably better known in the UK than abroad, possibly as a result of the BBC TV adaptation of The Fortunes of War with Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh. I vaguely recall my mother mentioning the series to me, so she must have been watching it back in the late 1980s.

      Yes, the contrast between the different ages is nicely done. As you say, there’s a lot of food for thought here, especially around the theme of opportunities for the different generations, plus the need to live in the moment rather than dwelling too much on the past. At one point I wondered if Manning was trying to fit too many things into one novel, but it all comes together in the end.

      Reply
  7. Brian Joseph

    Superb commentary Jacqui.

    This sounds like a great character study. I cannot help to think about Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning as it was another post war coming of age story. The characters in this book sound more mature.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. Yes, the emphasis is on the characters here, just the type of novel I enjoy! Oh, and good call on Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, too. Yes, I think you’re right, Manning’s characters are more mature – they’re certainly less rebellious than Sillitoe’s based on my impressions of the story. Would you believe I’ve never read that novel even though I’m familiar with the narrative from the film starring Albert Finney? I must remedy that at some point…another book for my list.

      Reply
  8. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review as always Jacqui. I’ve read the Balkan Trilogy and loved Manning’s writing (despite having trouble with the Pringles!) But her sense of place and her wonderful descriptions really won me over, and I do intend to get onto the Levant Trilogy eventually. Fortunately I have this one (and possibly some other Mannings) on my Virago shelves…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. Great to hear you have this one to look forward to, Karen, as I’d love to hear what you think of it. Petta’s very interesting (particularly given the complexity of her character) so I’m curious to see how you take to her!

      That’s good news about The Balkan trilogy as I would definitely like to make time for it at some point. It doesn’t surprise me to see your comments on Manning’s descriptions of the locations in the first trilogy. You can tell she trained as an artist before turning to writing, don’t you think? She has that painterly eye for capturing the landscape.

      Reply
  9. Naomi

    Petta sounds like the most interesting character to me, as well. I’m increasingly drawn to older characters and away from younger ones. I do enjoy age as a theme in books. Your review makes me think of a book I read last year that was very much about the interactions between the generations, called Close To Hugh by Marina Endicott. It might be one you would like, although it is a new book set in present day.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, me too on both counts. There’s something to be said for age and experience. I tend to warm to characters that have lived a little, which is probably one of the reasons why I found Petta so intriguing!

      Thanks for the recommendation, Naomi. I’ll head over to yours in a little while to check it out (assuming you’ve reviewed it).

      Reply
  10. Scott W.

    I’ve been wanting to read one of the trilogies for years, but have yet to get to them. I was unaware of this novel. If that last quotation is any indication, I’ve been missing out.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The trilogies are her landmark works, for sure, although I’m quite glad I started with this one. It seems that Ellie is a kind of forerunner to Harriet Pringle in The Fortunes of War as both characters are based on Manning herself (well, at least to some extent). I enjoyed this novel very much – the characters, the themes, the sense of place, everything really. Manning has a knack for capturing a scene, painting a picture of the landscape for the reader to visualise in their mind. The novel is full of quotes like that last one.

      Reply
  11. Alex

    I read the trilogies at a time when I was going out with a man who was the very epitome of Guy and so identified completely with Harriet. I didn’t want to read anything else by her at that time because as far as I was concerned she was the writer who had captured my emotional life in those novels and anything else was bound to be an anticlimax. Given that that relationship has been over for at least two decades maybe it is time to give some of her other novels a chance.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I can understand why you didn’t want to try anything else by Manning. The Doves of Venus is worth a look, and there’s a link to the trilogies as Ellie could be considered a younger version of Harriet Pringle. From the notes I’ve read on Manning’s work, it seems she drew on her own life experiences for both Venus and The Fortunes of War.

      Reply
  12. 1streading

    I was aware of Manning from seeing the trilogies in bookshops and from the TV series, but hadn’t given her other novels a thought (I suppose this is out of print?) You do seem drawn to novels set in the middle of the last century – any idea why?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I sometimes wonder whether I was born in the wrong era. Either that or I’m turning into my mother as this is exactly the kind of book she would have loved! I’m not sure why I’m drawn to this period, but it’s something to do with setting as well. Several of these books are set in post-war Britain or America, so I guess it’s a combination of the time and place. Much of the contemporary fiction I’ve read in the last two years (mainly for my book group) has left me feeling a bit flat, so I’ve been turning increasingly to older fiction that has stood the test of time.

      As for The Doves of Venus, it’s still in print with Virago, but the cover is different. I’d seen it on display in a bookshop and was all set to buy it when I came across a secondhand copy of the old green Virago edition on a book swapping website. Luckily it was in pretty good nick!

      Reply
  13. heavenali

    I read The Doves of Venus and The Balkan Trilogy more at least twenty years ago, though I no longer have copies of them, I remember I loved them. You make me want to read them again, those quotes, especially the last one are wonderful.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, how lovely. It’s good to hear that you enjoyed The Balkan Trilogy, too. I really must make time for it in the future as I’m sure it will be well worth the investment!

      Isn’t that last quote simply wonderful? The novel is full of beautiful descriptions of the landscape and scenery just like that one.

      Reply
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  16. Max Cairnduff

    Nice thoughts on the depictions of different ages.

    I’ve always been slightly, well, put off isn’t right but deterred maybe, by Manning’s habit of writing multi-volume epics. It seems such a commitment.

    This though seems much more approachable. It sounds not so much a coming of age novel but more a capturing of the sense of youth (as you say). I’ll take a look.

    By the way, I’ve reviewed the A Dance to the Music of Time series at mine, pretty much without spoilers (which is hard when you get to volume 12). It’s worth giving a go. For about a year I just made sure one book in two I read was from Dance and it worked well.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Max. Yes, that’s sort of why I decided to start here. There’s little point in signing up to a trilogy if you’ve never read an author before and are not sure if their style will suit your personal tastes. Mind you, I enjoyed this one so much that I’ve now bought a copy of The Balkan Trilogy – well, it was hard to resist at £2.50 in the one of the local secondhand bookshops!

      Returning to Doves, it’s a very good portrayal of that feeling of being young and having your whole life ahead you, all those hopes and opportunities, but uncertainties too. I think you would likely enjoy it, especially the contrast between Ellie and Petta.

      The current Virago covers are just dreadful, aren’t they? I really wish they would go back to the classic green livery and those images of beautiful paintings. Several of the old covers of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels featured works by Stanley Spencer, so much nicer than the latest versions which look as if they might be aiming for the chick-lit market. Oddly enough, I saw another copy of green Virago edition of The Doves of Venus in London fairly recently. It was in the fiction section at Any Amount of Books on Charing Cross Road, so it might be worth a look if you’re passing at some point.

      Thanks for the info on Powell’s series. One in every two or three books sounds like a good way of approaching it, and I’ll definitely bear that in mind for the future – maybe not in the next two or three years but something for the medium term. Your reviews are on my reading list. :-)

      Reply
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