Mannin, Ethel (1900–1984)

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Mannin, Ethel (1900–1984)

British author and political activist whose many novels, travel books, and works of autobiography were enthusiastically awaited by a loyal readership for more than half a century . Born Ethel Edith Mannin in Clapham, London, England, on October 11, 1900; died in Devon, England, on December 5, 1984; daughter of Robert Mannin and Edith Gray Mannin; married J.A. Porteous, in 1919; married Reginald Reynolds, in 1938; children: (first marriage) daughter, Jean Porteous .

A largely self-educated woman and lifelong political maverick, Ethel Mannin was a pacifist, an anarchist, and an ardent supporter of the Palestinian cause. She published her first novel in 1922 and went on to publish 94 additional books, including numerous novels as well as travel reports that in many instances also served as political tracts. Her 1941 novel Red Rose was one of the first works of fiction about Emma Goldman and is still considered one of the most interesting.

Born in a London suburb in 1900, Mannin was the daughter of a Post Office employee and grew up in the confining working-class world of Edwardian England. In her 1952 book This Was a Man, a work about her father which Mannin considered to be her finest book, she recalled the circumstances of her childhood: "even though other girls' fathers might be 'better off' and go to something called 'business,' whereas my own father merely went to 'work', we were really much superior as a family because of our rows of books." Ethel did not do well at school and regarded herself as physically ugly, deficiencies for which she compensated by becoming a proficient writer. "When I was writing I became someone," she wrote in Privileged Spectator (1939). "I was transformed, power was in me, the power of words … always this preoccupation with the written word, since I was seven years old."

Both of Ethel's parents opposed her ambitions of becoming a writer, believing that this was a guarantee of poverty. Instead, they hoped she might find employment with the Civil Service or security as a clerk in the Post Office. At age 14, she ended her formal education. Her parents breathed a guarded sigh of relief when, after taking some commercial courses, she found her first job as a stenographer in the Charles Higham advertising agency. Mannin's work there soon shifted from stenography to assisting in the production of several trade publications. Before long, Charles Higham spotted her journalistic talents, and, although Mannin was only 17, he put her in charge of producing The Pelican, a theatrical newspaper he had recently acquired. In 1919, Mannin married J.A. Porteous and had a daughter named Jean.

In 1922, Mannin published her first novel, Martha, which neither she nor the reading public found particularly satisfactory. With her third novel, however, Mannin found her own voice as a writer. Entitled Sounding Brass (1924), this work is a biting satire of the advertising world and its values (or lack of them). Both a commercial and critical success, Sounding Brass was reviewed in the Saturday Review, with L.P. Hartley comparing it favorably with Aldous Huxley's novel Antic Hay, while across the Atlantic American reviewers made complimentary comparisons of Mannin's prose to that of Sinclair Lewis. Over the next decades, Mannin would write and publish at a furious pace, producing 30 novels by 1952. The goal she set for herself early in her career of writing two books a year, one fiction and one nonfiction, was rarely missed.

Motherhood brought forth an interest in various facets of education and child-rearing, subjects about which she developed strong opinions and dealt with in several books. Her politics and views on schooling were progressive, and the ideas of A.S. Neill, the radical advocate of child-centered education, are reflected in her books Commonsense and the Child (1931) and Commonsense and the Adolescent (1937). Mannin had equally unambiguous opinions on the great social and political controversies of the day. All of her books are in one way or another manifestations of her sympathy for the underdog, particularly the working classes. The various crises of the 1930s only served to heighten her sense of social justice. During these years, she joined the Independent Labour Party, which advocated taking a strong position against the growing threat of Fascism abroad and a more militant position in favor of domestic social change.

In 1930, Mannin published her first work of nonfiction, Confessions and Impressions, which reveals a desire to relate to the famous women and men of the period; some critics have detected in the book a basic insecurity in the author's personality, likely rooted in her working-class childhood and upbringing. Mannin traveled to the Soviet Union in 1936, a visit she recorded in South to Samarkand, and the sharply critical observations of the Stalinist regime included in the work made her very unpopular in British Marxist and pro-USSR circles. Her first marriage having ended, in 1938 she married the Quaker pacifist writer Reginald Reynolds. He resigned from the Independent Labour Party (1939) over the issue of British policies toward the Arab population of British-occupied Palestine, and she soon followed suit. During the next decades, Mannin would become deeply involved with issues relating to the rights of the Palestinian Arabs, eventually emerging as one of the most vocal and eloquent defenders of Palestinians at a time when most British intellectuals championed the Zionist-led cause of the Jewish population of Palestine.

During the Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939, Mannin helped American anarchist veteran Emma Goldman organize meetings in London to create public support for Spain's anarcho-syndicalist factions as well as to make possible meaningful British military assistance to the beleaguered Spanish Republic. She would draw an essentially sympathetic portrait of Goldman in her 1941 novel Red Rose (her second husband Reginald, however, was less impressed by Goldman's personality, finding her to be aggressive, dictatorial, and downright ungracious in temperament). The novel, which centered on the triangular relationship between Goldman, her lover Alexander Berkman, and Berkman's inamorata Emmy Eckstein , remains an important source on Goldman's life and personality. Red Rose has been described as the earliest attempt to reproduce and "complete" Goldman's own autobiographical opus, Living My Life. By the end of the decade, Mannin had undergone a political metamorphosis, moving away from Leftism, toward pacifism, philosophical anarchism, and defense of the rights of women and other disenfranchised groups in society. Publication of her Privileged Spectator in 1939 was evidence that her perspective had matured. Ending what she called "the bitter, dangerous 1930s" with a better understanding of politics, society and literature, Mannin had far more respect for her working-class friends and acquaintances, whom she saw as "good comrades of the class struggle," than for the "suede-shoed communists with Oxford accents and about as much knowledge of working class life and problems as they have of the word 'Left.'"

Although she continued to write novels until the final years of her long life, from the late 1930s more of Mannin's energy went into various nonfiction projects. In her 1938 volume Women and the Revolution, she made a vigorous case for full equality for women, at the same presenting a powerful attack on the entrenched prejudices and social inertia of the existing capitalist society.

In the mid-1940s, Mannin had a brief but intense attraction to the theology and rituals of the Roman Catholic Church. Eventually, she would decide to remain an atheist, but the depth of her exploration at this time was attested to by her 1948 novel Late Have I Loved Thee. With a title taken from the Confessions of St. Augustine, this realistic account of the saint's search for the divine force in the universe seems to parallel Mannin's own spiritual quest as she entered middle age. In the years after 1945, Mannin traveled around the globe for material for new books. She first spent time in Ireland, which made possible the writing of Connemara Journal (1947). A stay in war-ravaged occupied Germany resulted in German Journey (1948), while a number of other books were based on visits to Brittany, Egypt, Iraq, Japan, Jordan, Morocco, and Sweden. Although her trips were usually brief, Mannin's sharp powers of observation often resulted in considerable insights in her travel books. Some of these insights also found their way into her fiction, as was the case in her 1956 novel The Living Lotus. Set in rural upper Burma (now Myanmar), the book has been described as a realistic work with not only entertainment value but also information about the Burmese.

During the last two decades of her writing career, Mannin's time was consumed by her involvement in the cause of the Palestinian people. Believing that the Arab cause was essentially a just one, she felt that as such it deserved to be properly presented to the Western public. Her 1963 novel The Road to Beersheba was expressly written as an "answer" to Exodus, the immensely popular novel by Leon Uris. Mannin's 1966 novel The Night and Its Homing, a work about the Palestinian resistance movement, continued her advocacy of what was often a lonely and unpopular cause outside of the Arab world. Both of these books were translated into Arabic, and her work was praised in the media of several Arab nations. Mannin established friendships with Palestinians and other Arabs, and she believed that her writings on behalf of their national cause could contribute to a better understanding between the Arab world and the West. This commitment is perhaps most discernible in her 1963 volume A Lance for the Arabs: A Middle East Journey.

As an artist involved in contemporary controversies, Mannin sometimes walked a fine line between reality, fiction, and the "smoke and mirrors" of politics. This was particularly true in her relationship with General Abdel Karim Qassim, the Iraqi leader who had invited her to visit his country but who fell victim to an assassination plot in 1963. Mannin's 1969 novel The Midnight Street deals graphically with Qassim's bloody demise. Mannin had once noted that she could not help but be a part of her own books: "We are [shaped], by what we have experienced."

Mannin continued to live in her beloved home of Oak Cottage, Wimbledon, after the 1958 death of her husband. At the end of her writing career, when she was in her 70s, she moved to Teignmouth in Devon to be near her daughter Jean. In 1976, Mannin published her last novel, The Late Miss Guthrie. The next year, she published her final book, a fifth and last volume of autobiography, Sunset over Dartmoor: A Final Chapter of Autobiography (1977). In this work, she addressed her many loyal readers as old friends and demonstrated the charm that had kept them faithful to her even when in some instances her opinions were by no means palatable to every reader. She died of the infirmities of old age in Devon on December 5, 1984.


"Ethel Mannin," in Margot Levy, ed. The Annual Obituary 1984. Chicago, IL: St. James Press, 1985, pp. 643–645.

Frankel, Oz. "Whatever Happened to 'Red Emma'? Emma Goldman, from Alien Rebel to American Icon," in The Journal of American History. Vol. 83, no. 3. December 1996, pp. 903–942.

Hartley, Jenny. Hearts Undefeated: Women's Writing of the Second World War. London: Virago, 1995.

Huxter, Robert. Reg and Ethel: Reginald Reynolds (1905–1958), His Life and Work and His Marriage to Ethel Mannin (1900–1984). York, England: Sessions Book Trust, 1992.

Mannin, Ethel. Confessions and Impressions. Rev. ed. London: Penguin Books, 1936.

——. The Living Lotus. NY: Putnam, 1956.

——. Young in the Twenties. London: Hutchinson, 1971.

O'Rourke, Rebecca. "Were There No Women? British Working Class Writing in the Inter-War Period," in Literature and History. Vol. 14, no. 1. Spring 1988, pp. 48–63.

Silverstein, Josef. "Burma Through the Prism of Western Novels," in Journal of Southeast Asian Studies. Vol. 16, no. 1. March 1985, pp. 129–140.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia