I'm not sure that I would have been led to this reading of The Balkan Trilogy and the writing of Olivia Manning had it not been for that recent journey with Horatio Clare and Orison for a Curlew.
It was talk of the night train from Bucharest that did it I think.
Sadly the entire expedition was almost thwarted by my old Penguin edition, with its print that suited my 1970s 20/20 vision, but not my 2015 lesser equivalent. The online search for another edition came to a halt at delicious looking a New York Review Books volume priced at £15, but again some qualms expressed by readers over the quality of the print.
Nothing for it, I'd download the Kindle sample, hate it in that version too and I would give up.
Happily quite the opposite, I was dragged in and made to stay.
Now I baulk at £9.99 for a Kindle book, and have you noticed how that seems to be the average price these days... rare are the bargains and good quality special offers of the early days, but at 1000 pages I decided to take a chance and I am so pleased I did. Book One The Spoiled City is reading so well, but alongside I have been dipping into Deirdre David's Olivia Manning - A Woman at War.
After a duller than dull childhood growing up in Portsmouth, Olivia Manning, the daughter of Olivia and Oliver Manning and the sister of...yes you guessed it Oliver (how confusing must life have been Chez Manning) heads to London to escape the bickering, penny-pinching family life, and the sense of inferiority that plagued her. So deeply embedded was that class consciousness that it never left her, and even when accepted into hallowed literary circles later in her life Olivia would be beset by insecurities. She would eventually become friends with Ivy Compton Burnett, Margaret Drabble and Elizabeth Jane Howard but would garner a reputation for being waspish and unpleasant ' a collector of famous people and few seem to have fond memories of Olivia as a person.
Ambitious to conquer Bloomsbury it was only an affair with publisher Hamish Miles that gave Olivia Manning the necessary foot up into the literary world, and a chance meeting with the amiable and charming teacher Reggie Smith (following Hamish's unexpected death) that sealed her future.
And so Guy and Harriet Pringle, the stars of The Balkan Trilogy, are born, as Olivia accompanies Reggie, who she had met in August 1939 and married three weeks later, as he travels to Bucharest where he teaches English. They board the Orient Express for its sixty hour journey from Victoria via Venice, Trieste and Belgrade with the declaration of war imminent and hey presto Olivia has her story.
Bucharest is a deeply fashionable city, wealthy and sumptuous, and Olivia is out of her depth in this alien environment and struggling with the language barrier; she is wan, bored and unhappy and, suggests Deirdre David, now realising the consequences of her hasty marriage...just as Harriet Pringle does likewise...
'She had been prepared to possess him and be possessed - to envelop and be enveloped in a relationship that excluded the enemy world. She soon discovered that Guy was not playing his part...'
I have now set the biography aside because I don't want to know what happens next, but will return to it. Highly readable and it has given me a good grounding with a novel that I only read in part back in the day. I suspect I was drawn to it by the TV series which then overtook my reading. I have the TV series ready and waiting but plan to read the book first this time.
So any other Olivia Manning fans out there...
Do her other books match up to The Balkan Trilogy...I love the writing style, it is immediate and realistic so I want to read more...
And I'm interested to know what you think...does an author's reputation as a person, in Olivia Manning's case by all accounts deeply unpleasant and a treacherous trouble maker, affect how they and their writing may be viewed post-humously.
Or can it be set aside and the work rightly allowed to stand alone, because my impression to date is that Olivia Manning is a brilliant but seriously under-rated writer, and I am sitting here wondering why.