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Green Jay

Olivia Manning

I've searched for previous discussions about this author, but couldn't find what I wanted, so forgive me if this is duplication. I can also never find the Book Reviews thread, either, though I know it's somewhere. So here is my review of a Manning novel I've just read...

The Doves of Venus – Olivia Manning (published 1955)

I found this rather a disturbing book, though I’m not sure if I know why. Perhaps because I kept forgetting I wasn’t reading Elizabeth Taylor. We are in that post-war world familiar from some of Taylor’s books, and also from Barbara Pym, of awful food, rundown buildings, narrow horizons and limited possibilities. Set in the early 1950s, it reflects Manning’s own experiences as a 20-something coming to London in the 1930s and working in a studio which repaints old furniture into fashionable “antiques”. In this way it straddles two eras, contrasting the youthful, energetic and hard-working post-war generation – the heroine Ellie Parsons is only 18 – with the fast, and fast–declining, Bohemian set from the pre-war times. Ellie grew up in the war, wartime deprivation was her norm, and the pre-war world means nothing to her. She is optimistic and naive and represents a new generation.

Ellie has escaped from Eastsea, a grim seaside resort where her widowed mother runs an equally grim restaurant and bullies her daughters, strait-jacketing them with her penny-pinching ways and parochial “what will people say?” rule of thumb. Ellie thinks of herself as an artist, and cherishes this belief even in London, where we see more worldly and knowledgeable people disparaging her skills. In Eastsea she mixed with what passed for an arty set, hopefuls at the local technical school, who all want to escape as soon as possible. Ellie achieves this by getting to London, taking the first job she finds and renting a room (in Oakley St, Chelsea, where Manning actually lived.) She is wonderfully ignorant and innocent, although when we meet her she’s just spent her first night with an older married man, Quintin, who has a taste for very young women.  (The reader has to adjust to 1950s attitudes: even though Quintin is seen as exploitative, emotionally lazy, and mean, he’s not actually pervy.) At first just being in London is exhilarating, although she’s desperately hard-up and knows no one. But then she falls for Quintin and it’s heaven - until she finds herself cast off, then it’s hell! But she can’t admit defeat and return to Eastsea, just as her mother predicted, and we follow her troubled emotional and economic journey as she fights to maintain independence. Not only are girls paid less than men, natch, but the “artists” she works among get a pittance because it’s assumed they are on allowances from their families or have private means. It’s a bit like now, with unpaid internships being the only route to elusive jobs!

Ellie make friends with a new girl at the studio, Nancy (based on Stevie Smith, Manning’s good friend). Better-connected and actually Slade School of Art-trained, Nancy is plain and bespectacled but a whole lot of fun. She introduces Ellie to Tom Claypole, a rich old uncle who – here we go again – likes to surround himself with young lovelies; though, unlike Quintin, he doesn’t seem to get up to anything more than patting their hands.  At Tom's country-house weekend Ellie gets a respite from grinding poverty and enjoys good food, warmth and luxury; although Maxine, another of Nancy’s introductions, is making rivalrous inroads on Tom’s affections in the hope of getting her hands on his fortune.

Tom is also related to Quintin, and here begin the wheels-within-wheels connections that power the book. Characters intermingle, often without knowing how they are connected: the Bohemian set overlaps with Ellie’s bunch through work and play, though the older lot don’t do much work. In the first scenes in the book Ellie unknowingly spots Quintin's estranged wife, the head-turningly gorgeous Petta. She’s cruel, petulant, and ultimately unloving to anyone; we’re given a bit of why she’s like that, but even so... Petta's main role in life is to make dramatic “scenes”. She’s an old-fashioned sort of woman with no choice, apparently, but to live off men and manipulate them through her beauty and her emotional wiles. She’s on the cusp of fading (Manning put middle age at 45 and felt it to be a chasm in women’s lives!) and her arc runs alongside the youthful Ellie’s.  She’s one of the pre-war Bohemians who look back on their peak years with longing and admiration, but their cynical values – this was partly what disturbed me, I think – are completely vile. They despise people who work, who don’t have money, and who live conventional lives and nurture loving relationships; they have pretensions to lofty creativity, and yet their only activities seem to be to get drunk and drugged and laid, and spend other people’s money doing so – whatever they’ve inherited or can beg, steal or borrow, with no intention of paying back. Manning shows her opinion by having Petta discover the fate of various old friends, all self-destroying in one way or another.

Without bashing it home, Manning keeps afloat the topic of money throughout – struggling Ellie, from a very lower-middle class background, who has to work for every penny and faces hardships unknown and unrecognised by the more well-off characters; Nancy, who has a safety net of middle-class comfort and a rich uncle in the wings; Tom who has actually earned his considerable wealth; Bohemians on dwindling unearned funds and those who do well-paid hack work and despise themselves for it; and the cosily-wealthy who married serious money or inherited it. Some “despise” money – because they can afford to - and think themselves hard-done-by while they merrily exploit others and leave them unpaid or sack them on a whim. There is talk of the “deadly” taxes imposed after the war on those who’d previously kept all their (unearned) money to themselves. Both Petta and Maxine madly connive to get money or what money buys. Ellie just works, and trustingly hopes, and gets duped. Women’s relationship to money is dreadfully compromised, because their power is never autonomous. Even the wealthy widow, Alma, who Quintin, against his fastidious taste and better judgement courts to ensure his own future comfort, isn’t really independently powerful. I suppose everyone, male or female, except perhaps Tom, is in thrall to money in some way.

The early 1950s is depicted in vivid detail and rather unexpected ways, exciting and dissipated, dingy and luxurious. So many aspects seem totally foreign to me, even though I was born not long after the book came out. People drink masses then drive off, able to career around unclogged London streets, parking wherever they wish. Policemen are friendly! Single men have no domestic abilities whatsoever, and have their “dailies” make them breakfast!! Employees have very little in the way of rights, but you can pick up a job and rent a room at the drop of a hat, then do a flit without paying up – again and again. Regulars run a tab at pubs and restaurants - again without ever paying. It’s a cash and tick economy. But you feel the world is on the brink of becoming a new world, with jobs for girls and boys, and the old order losing its touch, and uneducated purposeless women losing their place; marriage is becoming more a partnership. And the old assured system of cosily-powerful men and patronage and class assumptions, and puritanical nosiness and disapproval, is getting a bit of a tweak. Though it doesn’t like it.

This novel was written long before Manning’s six wartime novels about Harriet and Guy Pringle. It is set after them, but I think on the whole its characters are given less sympathy, apart from Ellie, (although many get short shrift in the Balkan and Levant trilogies.) Perhaps this is why it made me uncomfortable – or perhaps it’s just her very shrewd eye on what people, and the society of the time, were really like.

It is a few years since I read this, but your review did revive some happy memories! I think I was rather more disturbed than you were by the exploitative nature of the relationship with Quintin, but I do believe it to be an accurate portrayal of the way things were back then. Ellie is so incredibly naive and vulnerable, it is quite painful to read about her experiences, but I am sure that the story was based upon real events in Olivia Manning's own life.

Interesting that you should mention Elizabeth Taylor in this context: Olivia Manning was notoriously spiteful about her contemporary and professed to despise her work. She would not at all have appreciated the comparison!
Green Jay

Goodness, I didn't know Manning disliked E Taylor. In fact, I know very little about Manning, (apart from her Harriet Pringle persona) and the introduction in my Virago copy of the above was rather waffly memories (written by a friend of hers) which made her sound a bit arrogant, to my mind, though I'm sure the friend didn't think this.

I was disturbed by Quintin's relationship to Ellie and by his habitual turning towards young girls. I was just trying not to put the lens of the 21st century over it to such an extent that it got in the way. It's clear that although she think's it's love, we can see that Quintin was just up to another superficial affair, and as I said he's shown as mean and lazy about it, not even bothering to pay her taxi fare when he knows she's hard up!  I think he doesn't even bother to imagine what her life is like outside of her times with him.

But I found everyone's morals (except Ellie's and some of the other younger ones) totally objectionable. They are very exploitative and unloving people, full of contempt, not least, perhaps for themselves.

My authority for Olivia Manning's attitude to ET rests entirely upon Nicola Beauman's superb biography 'The Other Elizabeth Taylor'. Apparently OM was notorious for her scathing comments about contemporary, and therefore as she saw it, rival, female novelists, but reserved a special level of venom for ET. Some of this was expressed in print, much in correspondence with the writer Robert Liddell, who was a friend of both women.

Some of the contempt seems to have its roots in bad old-fashioned snobbery, both of the conventional kind (Elizabeth's husband was a sweet manufacturer, rather than something  respectable, like a banker, for instance!), but there was also a degree of inverted snobbery, based around the fact that Elizabeth's children were sent to boarding school. Many of the comments quoted read like sour grapes. It doesn't enhance my opinion of OM, but on the other hand, writers I admire are often not people I would much like to know.

I have had a secondhand copy of Doves of Venus on my TBR shelves for ages - having found the Balkan Trilogy so brilliant (haven't yet read the Levant Trilogy).  It does sound a more challenging read than I was expecting...but still very much want to read it, of course.

From that one trilogy, I would say that Manning is a more serious and more impressive writer than Taylor, though perhaps that is unfair.  I was deeply impressed by Fortunes of War, etc, in terms of the scope - political and human - and the quality and depth of the writing generally.  Taylor's books are wonderful, but quite different - they also have depth, but not the same sort of scope or interests - very focused where the Manning has an epic quality.
Green Jay

Evie wrote:

From that one trilogy, I would say that Manning is a more serious and more impressive writer than Taylor, though perhaps that is unfair.  

Yes, that is my impression. " terms of the scope - political and human ...Manning has an epic quality."
"Taylor's books are wonderful, but quite different - they also have depth, but not the same sort of scope or interests - very focused..."
I would agree. Manning was fortunate - as a writer - to have had such great material in her own experience. Compare with Taylor's home-based At Mrs Lippincote's. I am trying to recall what happens in Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy, which I read so many years ago. I think the first book dealt with the tedious mundanities and trivial irritations of being based in camp in England for months on end; a later book deals with the fighting on Crete. If you have experienced both you have a huge canvas to work with, with confidence. If you've been a civilian at home, or never actually got as far as the fighting, I suppose you an only filter those experiences into fiction when writing semi-autobiographical material.

But then we can fall into that thing that books about the wider world being seen as more important, serious etc. than those that look at the microcosm. There was a wonderful refutation of this in an article about Jane Austen, but of course I can't remember now what the argument was! There is a place for both are to be valued and I think they enormously widen our perception of the war situation - think of the varied perspectives of At Mrs Lippincote's, Olivia Manning, and Irene Nemerovsky's fleeing Parisians and anxious rural inhabitants of an occupied country, and then Paul Scott's Jewel in The Crown, part of which looks at both soldiers and civilians in India.

"...the quality and depth of the writing generally" I'm not sure if I agree about this bit, though, if you mean Manning has more. I heard David Baddiel on Radio 4 Book Club and he described Taylor's writing very well - it is surgical, almost. I wonder if it is more subtle in its effects, too. I suppose I should be in a good position to compare, having just read a book by each from fairly early in their careers, but I can't really say, with evidence to back it up. Probably that comes back to me being too involved with the book when I'm reading a good one to analyse it much, as well. One of the great pleasures of no longer reading for study, or work, only for my own ends.

I am sure you are right on the last point, Green Jay - at least in the sense that I am only thinking in general impressions rather than having analysed either of their writing properly.  I am sure that Taylor's writing is a lot more sophisticated than I am giving her credit for here - I was just so impressed by the Balkan Trilogy that Manning seems, on superficial reflection, to be a richer sort of writer.  But I am sure you are right about the subtlety in Taylor's writing.  I must read another of her novels and try to reflect in more detail on that!  And I don't mean to make Taylor seem mediocre at all - I love her writing.
Green Jay

I was listening to Book Club in the car so didn't get all of it, but one of the audience remarked on the male characters in Mrs Palfrey being thinly written or something like that, and David Baddiel came back on that, saying he found them very convincing and not at all thin. It was interesting to hear a male reader's perspective on that one. Especially someone like DB who is far from a rarified academic (I know theyre not all rarefied,  Evie!  Wink)  ((I have no idea how spell that word!!)) He also called her writing muscular and was keen to show it is not at all chick-lit - I do wish we could get away from that term, and that idea, just because it was written by a woman. But I suppose I do feel that Taylor's writing might appeal more to women readers than to men, so it was good to have a bit of gender balance.

Maybe that's part of the difference in scope we were discussing above. Manning's situations, in the two famous trilogies anyway, were those applying to men and women, and Taylor's are - on the surface - more about a situation applying to women or from a woman's point of view. Though - [holds out foot and aims at it] - a lot of Harriet Pringle's story was what happens when a maried woman has no real role apart from wife and has to follow her husband about and feel the frustration of hanging on his coat-tails or trying to establish something meaningful for herself when others do not take her seriously.

I have yet to read Nicola Beauman's biography but fully intend to. When I go to the library it is never on the shelves where it is meant to be. I think someone has pinched it!

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