Category Archives: Manning Olivia

School for Love by Olivia Manning

All this week, Simon and Karen are hosting one of their themed readalongs: the 1951 Club, a celebration of books first published in this notable year. My choice for the event is Olivia Manning’s School for Love, a highly compelling coming-of-age story set in Jerusalem during the closing stages of the Second World War. It’s a brilliant novel, one that features a most distinctive character quite unlike any other I’ve encountered either in literature or in life itself. I hope to find a place for it in my end-of-year highlights.

Recently orphaned following the death of his mother from typhoid, young Felix Latimer is sent from Baghdad to Jerusalem to live with his father’s adopted sister, Miss Bohun – at least until the war is over and he can return to his homeland of England. (His father, a British official of some sort, was killed by the Iraqis during a disturbance one year earlier.) As the novel opens, Felix is feeling apprehensive about meeting his adopted aunt, a woman his kind-hearted mother had never wanted to visit when she was alive.

Whenever his father had suggested a trip to Jerusalem, his mother had said: ‘Oh no, dear one, not there. We’d have to see Ethel Bohun. I couldn’t bear it.’ (pp. 7-8)

On his arrival in Jerusalem, Felix finds the formidable Miss Bohun rather brusque and unwelcoming, preoccupied as she is with running the household and preparing the front room for an unspecified guest. (As it turns out, Miss Bohun spends much of her spare time running the city’s branch of the ‘Ever-Readies’ , a religious group that believes in the Second Coming of Christ. Her endeavours to prepare the spare room are closely connected to these activities, a point that becomes apparent as the story unfolds.)

Desperately craving some much-needed love and affection, Felix is terribly lonely and unsettled by his new surroundings. The environment in which he finds himself is cold and spartan in more ways than one. There is very little in the way of comfort here; even the meals are scant and tasteless, Miss Bohun refusing to buy anything on the black market in her quest to save money at every given opportunity.

Miss Bohun said: ‘I know no one can take the place of your mother, Felix, but I’m a sort of relative – the only relative of any sort that you have out here – and I want to do what I can for you. It’s my duty, anyway.’

Felix said: ‘Thank you,’ and tried out of gratitude to feel responsive, but the space between them seemed to echo with emptiness. Miss Bohun was so unlike his mother, and, for some reason, he felt sure that when she had raised her eyes and looked at him she had somehow expressed disappointment in him. Perhaps she had imagined he would be older, or younger, or better-looking, or a more unusual sort of boy. Anyway she retired now into her own thoughts, eyes hidden, and he gave his attention to the meal of grey, gritty bread and tasteless tea. (pp. 15-16)

It soon becomes clear – to the reader at least – that Miss Bohun is a manipulative monster, a rather absurd and disillusioned creature who considers herself a paragon of virtue when in fact she is anything but. She appears to have taken over the running of the house from its former occupant, the Polish refugee, Frau Leszno – the latter now relegated to the position of cook/housekeeper to Miss Bohun, and shunted out to reside in the servants’ quarters, a reversal of fortunes Frau Leszno deeply resents. In this scene, Miss Bohun tells Felix how she came to live at the house, clearly implying that she was doing Frau Leszno a huge favour by taking control of the situation. Or, if one looks at it another way, Miss Bohun saw an opportunity for personal gain which she seized without a moment’s hesitation.

I happened to knock on this gate and Frau Leszno opened it – a poor, bedraggled, starved thing that started to cry before she’d said half-a-dozen words. They’d already sold part of the furniture at a loss to keep going. Well, I came in and took charge at once. I’m always looking for some way to be of use in the world and here was my chance – the sick old man, and Frau Leszno wailing and lamenting and wringing her hands. She showed me over the house – well, really, I showed her over it – and there were these simply splendid rooms, empty, just what I wanted. I told her I’d take two of two of the bedrooms. “Now,” I said, “you’re not to worry. I’ll look after you.” (p. 31)

Also living in the house are Frau Leszno’s grown-up son, Nikky – a young man whom Felix initially misjudges as being somewhat surly and uninformed – and an impoverished elderly gentleman, Mr Jewel, who camps out in the attic.

In his naivety and innocence, Felix initially finds himself coming down on the side of Miss Bohun in her running battles with Frau Leszno over the various arrangements in the house. After all, his adopted aunt has been charitable in offering him a home. Nevertheless, it would appear that Miss Bohun is profiting out of Felix’s presence by overcharging him for his board and lodgings. She scrimps on everything in the house – food, heating, lighting – basically any kind of warmth or compassion is in short supply. Felix’s only friend is Faro, Miss Bohun’s adorable Siamese cat. But then one day, everything changes…

Into the mix comes a recently widowed young woman, the rather sophisticated Mrs Ellis, who joins the household on the understanding that she will be able to rent the whole house from Miss Bohun at the end of the summer. Naturally, Felix is captivated by Mrs Ellis, particularly as she treats him more like a grown-up than a young boy, taking him out in the evenings and opening his eyes to the wider aspects of life. Moreover, Mrs Ellis is no fool, and she quickly gets the measure of Miss Bohun and her modus operandi. As a consequence, tensions emerge in the household, particularly once it becomes clear that Mrs Ellis is expecting a baby. In this scene, Miss Bohun is talking to Felix following a run-in with her new lodger.

‘I don’t want to discuss it, Felix, if you don’t mind. I was quite ready to do Mrs Ellis a kindness if I could – but, dear me, it isn’t everyone nowadays that’s willing to have a baby in their house. I feel sorry for the poor thing – a widow and going to be a mother, it’s very sad – but I have to consider myself, as well, and you, too, my dear boy. I offered you a home. I know young mothers think the world should revolve round themselves and their offspring, but she can hardly expect to deprive you of your home.’

‘She said I could live here with her,’ said Felix eagerly.

‘She did, did she?’ Miss Bohun smiled a sour little smile. ‘So it’s all arranged! I’m afraid you don’t know this town, my dear boy. You are under my protection and I certainly could not let you involve yourself in a situation that might lead to gossip.’

Felix was not clear what Miss Bohun meant by this remark, so did not contest it, […] (p. 121)

As the story moves towards its dramatic conclusion, young Felix discovers that our first impressions of others may not always be entirely representative of their true values. He learns to look beyond the surface, to question the motives and behaviours of those around him, especially when the individuals concerned appear to lack any sense of humanity and compassion. As his eyes are opened and the veil of innocence falls away, Felix begins to see another side to Miss Bohun, one that is captured in the following quote.

Felix, paused by the table, turned on her a mystified face. He could feel no reassurance in her change of tone: he was fearful and filled with distrust. For a moment, seeing her sitting there calmly and running at will through the gamut of her tones of command, exasperation, self-pity and disapproval, he was suddenly certain of her falsity. His faith in her as a human being had gone and he could believe her to be capable of anything – perhaps even of cruelty to Faro or indifference were Faro suffering. (pp. 221-222)

School for Love is a really terrific book, by turns sad, humorous, insightful and surprising. In its focus on a young boy’s loss of innocence, the novel shares something with Alberto Moravia’s Agostino and Stefan Zweig’s Burning Secret, both of which are excellent reads. I couldn’t help but feel for Felix as he tries to fill the yawning gap left by the loss of his beloved mother, a woman who wanted to shelter him from the harsh realities of life for as long as possible. (Felix’s age is never confirmed, but I had him at around thirteen or fourteen). In Miss Bohun, Manning has created a fascinating character, one that is sure to generate strong opinions either way. Is she a manipulative hypocrite, determined to seize any opportunity and exploit it for her own personal gain? (At several points in the novel, Miss Bohun appears to be manoeuvring people in and out of various rooms in the house as a means of protecting her own interests.) Or is she simply deluded, predominately acting on the belief that she is doing the morally upstanding thing in a changing and unstable world? The former, I think, although it’s hard to discount an element of the latter. (This would make a terrific choice for a book group discussion.)

The minor characters are beautifully realised too, especially the kind-hearted Mr Jewel with whom Felix strikes up an unlikely friendship in the latter stages of the book. Then there is Nikky who reveals himself as a rather perceptive intellectual with hidden depths. Before finishing up, I should also mention the Jerusalem setting. Manning spent time in this region and it clearly shows; the night-time scenes in the café bars are particularly atmospheric. There is a real sense of displacement here in a city where resources are scare and accommodation hard to come by.

All in all, this is a wonderful read with much to commend it – very highly recommended.

School for Love is published by NYRB Clasics; personal copy.

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.