It is an irony that the dramatization of a novel may deter not spur. Instead of leading the viewer to the book, it becomes a substitute. Such a fate appears to have befallen Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War, which in its Balkan and Levant trilogies traces the wartime travails of young Harriet and Guy Pringle as they flee the advancing Germans, first in Bucharest and Athens, then in Egypt and the Middle East. The six volumes were published to acclaim between 1960 and 1980. Yet Manning’s work is now probably better remembered as the 1987 BBC TV dramatization starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh.
This is unjust. Fortunes is a triumph, fusing fiction with diligently researched fact to portray a disparate group of expatriates surviving under threat of invasion: their stoicism, heroism and cowardice; their fleeting romances and petty intrigues. The prose is economical and the gaze sceptical and unsentimental. Added to this tapestry is a rich evocation of contemporary society, place and manners. Anthony Burgess called the sequence the ‘finest fictional record of the war produced by a British writer’.
Fortunes is unashamedly autobiographical, a creative reconstruction of actual people and events, with the fictionalized emotional battleground of Manning’s marriage to the ebullient Reggie Smith mirroring the wider conflict.
I was drawn to the series because my father served in wartime Greece and Egypt, and I thought I might glimpse some part of his experience about which, like so many veterans, he was reticent. I was also intrigued to read, from the perspective of a sharp and critical intelligence, how a generation raised to believe in the certainties of empire reacted to the disillusion occasioned when those certainties were found wanting.
Manning’s literary achievement is the greater for the obstacles she faced. Born in Portsmouth in 1908, she had no educational or social privileges. Her naval officer father was easy-going and warm-hearted. Her mother, the daughter of an Ulster Presbyterian publican, was a rancorous termagant who hen-pecked her husband and turned against her daughter when her son was born. Money was short and rows were frequent. Yet, remarkably, this effectively self-educated woman fought her way into the literary world. In her mid-20s she moved to London, took ill-paid temping jobs and wrote in every spare moment. Her first novel was published in 1937. She remained, however, blighted by a sense of inferiority which literary success could assuage but not dispel. Nicknamed Olivia Moaning, she could be prickly in company and frequently complained that she did not receive due credit.
Manning, then 31, met Reggie, six years younger, in London in 1939. He was everything she was not – open-hearted, charismatic and a committed Communist. Reggie had transcended his working-class background to graduate with honours in English, which he was then teaching at the British Council in
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