Manning, Olivia (1908–1980)

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Manning, Olivia (1908–1980)

English novelist whose best-known works are two trilogies dealing with the Second World War . Name variations: Jacob Morrow. Born Olivia Manning on March 2, 1908, in Portsmouth, England; died of a stroke suffered in Ryde, Isle of Wight, on July 23, 1980; elder child of Lieutenant-Commander Oliver Manning, R.N. (retired) and Olivia (Morrow) Manning; attended Portsmouth Grammar School and Portsmouth Technical College; married Reginald (Reggie) Donald Smith, in 1939.

Moved to London (1926), where she became friends with Stevie Smith; had first novel published (1937); spent war years in Bucharest, Athens, Cairo and Jerusalem (1939–46); had first book of short stories published (1948); had first book of the Balkan trilogy published (1960); made a Commander of the British Empire (1976).

Selected writings:

The Wind Changes (1937); Growing Up (1948); Balkan Trilogy: The Great Fortune (1960), The Spoilt City (1962), and Friends and Heroes (1965); The Play Room (1969); Levant Trilogy: The Danger Tree (1977), The Battle Lost and Won (1978), and The Sum of Things (1980).

Although she was always admired by other writers, Olivia Manning's books were slow to gain popularity with the general reading public, a state of affairs which depressed her. However, following the success of her Balkan Trilogy, she was published in paperback during the 1970s, and in 1976 she had further proof of her growing acclaim when she was awarded a CBE. In 1987, seven years after her death, the Balkan Trilogy was successfully serialized on television as "The Fortunes of War." Nevertheless very little has been written about her and no full-scale biography of her has yet been published.

Manning's father had been an officer in the Royal Navy. He had served during the days of sail and must have had a wealth of stories about distant times and places to tell his young children. It has been suggested that these stories may have fostered Olivia's historical interest. Olivia's mother Olivia Morrow Manning was Lieutenant-Commander Manning's second wife, and he had already retired by the time children were born. The Mannings, themselves called Oliver and Olivia, chose to call their two children Oliver and Olivia likewise. Olivia was the firstborn and it is thought that Mrs. Manning made no attempt to hide her preference for her son, and that Olivia never came to terms with being demoted from a favored only child to a daughter in secondary position to her brother.

Mrs. Manning was part American and part Irish. Olivia claimed that she herself felt like a "displaced person" and Janet Todd believes that her mixed background intensified her sense of belonging nowhere. Mrs. Manning came from Ulster but it was in Dublin that Olivia spent part of her childhood. By the time she was old enough to attend secondary school, she was in Portsmouth, a pupil in Portsmouth Grammar School and later at Portsmouth Technical College where she studied art.

A retired naval officer's pension was far from munificent, and the family was constantly short of money. It may have been the need to supplement her meager pocket money which encouraged Olivia, while still at school, to write some stories which she later described as "lurid serials." She used the pseudonym of Jacob Morrow, the surname being her mother's maiden name. Manning was paid £12 apiece for these stories, and a few years later, while still finding it hard to make ends meet, she sold their copyright for a small sum.

It was certainly a shortage of money within the family which caused Olivia to leave Portsmouth Technical College before she had completed her course, in order to start work. That she moved to London to do so probably had much to do with the fact that relations at home, particularly with her mother, were often strained. Once in London, she worked as a typist in the office of a city department store during the day and spent her evenings writing. Manning also made use of her artistic talents by painting reproduction furniture to supplement her income. She lived in Chelsea, where she rented a bed-sitter in Oakley Street, only a short walk away from the Chelsea Embankment and the Albert Suspension Bridge spanning the River Thames. At some time in the early 1930s, she met the poet and novelist Stevie Smith . The two became friends, and Olivia often spent weekends with Stevie and her aunt at their home in Palmer's Green.

According to Stevie Smith's biographers, Jack Barbera and William McBrien, the friendship was "spiky." Early in the 1930s, Manning had a love affair with Hamish Miles who was Smith's editor at the publishing house of Jonathan Cape. When the affair foundered, Manning blamed Smith. However, it seems that Manning's friendships rarely ran smoothly; a mutual friend, Kay Dick , said, "Olivia's animosities were legendary and a bit of a joke among her friends." Despite the quarrel, it was on Smith's recommendation that Jonathan Cape accepted Manning's first novel after it had already been rejected by several other publishers. The Wind Changes, published in 1937, concerns Ireland's political troubles, especially during the settlement of 1921 which culminated in the signing of a treaty between Ireland and the rest of Great Britain and ultimately the formation of the Irish Free State. For her novel, Manning drew upon her knowledge of Ireland in general and of Dublin in particular.

In 1939, Manning married a British Council lecturer, Reginald Donald Smith. Stevie was a bridesmaid. When Olivia and Reggie went to Bucharest, where Reggie was already working, Stevie was put in charge of removing Olivia's books to her own home at Palmer's Green. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Manning and her husband found themselves marooned in Europe. Moving only just ahead of the hostilities each time, they escaped from Bucharest to Athens, from Athens to Cairo, and finally from Cairo to Jerusalem. In Cairo, Manning worked as a press officer in the U.S. Embassy and on her move to Jerusalem became press assistant at the

Public Information Office there. During the war, Oliver was killed in action. Olivia was greatly distressed for, despite her mother's partiality, the brother and sister had been close.

Not surprisingly, Manning had no new novels published during this time, although in 1942 Stevie tried to get John Hayward to print one of Olivia's short stories. Manning and her husband did not return to England until after the end of hostilities in 1946. By 1947, Stevie was sending some of Olivia's poems to Kay Dick in the hope of getting them printed in the Windmill series. Olivia herself was preparing for publication her account of Sir Henry Morton Stanley's rescue of the Emir Pasha, titled The Remarkable Expedition. The year 1948 saw the publication of a collection of short stories, Growing Up, and 1949 that of her next novel, Artist among the Missing. From then on until her death in 1980, she brought out a book approximately every two years.

We have here [two trilogies,] an extraordinary body of work that should earn her a permanent place among the authors of that very considerable literature arising out of the Second World War.

—Harry J. Mooney, Jr .

During the 1950s, Olivia's relations with Stevie fluctuated and seem to have relied to some extent on the tone of Stevie's review of Olivia's latest book. Manning was always extremely sensitive to criticism and, like many writers, tended to remember the negative things said about her work while disregarding the positive. Stevie's reviews in the early 1950s were in the main appreciative and there is evidence that the pair were on amicable terms in 1953, for Stevie was invited to a party at Manning's home on July 23rd. But by 1955 the friendship had gone at least temporarily sour following Stevie's less favorable review in the Observer of Manning's newest book, The Doves of Venus. Olivia was offended by Stevie's criticism. Stevie in turn was less than pleased with one of the characters—Nancy Claypole—rumored to be based on her.

As well as being a novelist and short-story writer, Olivia Manning worked as a freelance literary critic and as a book reviewer. She contributed articles to many newspapers, journals, and magazines, including the Sunday Times, the Observer, the Spectator, the New Statesman, Horizon, Vogue, and Punch. In 1956, her sketches for Punch were collected into a book entitled My Husband Cartwright, which is said to throw light upon her relationship with her own husband, Reggie, who outlived her by only four years. (In the late 1970s, a contribution she made to the Sunday Times "First Love" series dealt with her affair with Hamish Miles.)

In one sense all fiction can be claimed to be autobiographical, as a writer can only create out of her own actual or imagined experience, but much of Olivia Manning's work is more overtly autobiographical than that of many other writers. She herself said, "My subject is simply life as I have experienced it, and I am happiest when writing of things I know." Her story of adolescence, The Play Room, has been called an autobiographical novel and many of the situations contained therein were grounded in her own experience. Also autobiographical in nature are her two trilogies in which her two main protagonists, Guy and Harriet Pringle, traverse the same parts of the world at the same point in history as did Olivia and her husband. It would, however, be foolhardy to claim that the Pringles are reproductions of the couple. Harry J. Mooney, Jr. said of her writing, "She impresses me as a writer whose experience as historical witness compels her to creativity."

Barbera and O'Brien refer to Olivia's interest in the psychic and her desire that there should be some form of existence after death. They quote her admission to her friend, Frances King , "I have an absolute loathing of death, I really love life … and I do want to … believe that, even if it were far worse than any existence here on earth, there was the promise of an existence elsewhere." Some time after Stevie Smith's death in 1971, Olivia Manning was writing her memoirs. Evidently when a few pages which referred to Stevie went missing, Olivia blamed Stevie herself for removing them.

Manning had had an affection for the Isle of Wight since childhood, and while holidaying there in July 1980 she suffered a stroke and died. The final part of her Levant Trilogy, The Sum of Things, was published posthumously later the same year.


Barbera, Jack, and William McBrien. Stevie: A Biography of Stevie Smith. London: Heinemann, 1985.

Mooney, Harry J., Jr. "Olivia Manning: Witness to History" in Twentieth Century Women Novelists. Edited by Thomas F. Staley. London: Macmillan, 1982.

Shattock, Joanne, ed. The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Todd, Janet, ed. Dictionary of British Women Writers. London: Routledge, 1991.

related media:

"Fortunes of War" (VHS, 6 hrs.), starring Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson , Ronald Pickup, and Rupert Graves, a BBC production, 1987.

Barbara Evans , Research Associate in Women's Studies at Nene College, Northampton, England

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