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.
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.