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.