The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning

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The Novels

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

In the Orient Express on the way to Rumania at the start of The Balkan Trilogy in 1939, Harriet and Guy Pringle encounter a German refugee on his way to Trieste. The man loses his ticket, passport, visa, and money, and so he is turned over to unidentified officials who remove him from the train, most certainly to return him to Nazi Germany and a terrible fate. Newly married and on their way to Bucharest, where Guy will take a teaching post at the national university, the Pringles are equally alone in a hostile environment. The Rumania to which they are headed is a corrupt monarchy slipping toward Fascism; the local Iron Guard will eventually take over, and German and Italian troops will cross the border. Harriet and Guy work out their relationship with each other against the slowly encroaching backdrop of World War II.

In The Great Fortune, Olivia Manning treats the Pringles as contrasting personalities. Harriet is rational, politically conservative, and somewhat aloof. Guy is extroverted, liberal in his politics, and intensely emotional. Each needs to recognize the inadequacy of his perspective. The events of contemporary history serve to counterpoint details in the domestic life of the Pringles. As Guy and Harriet settle in Bucharest, the pro-Western prime minister, Armand Calinescu, is assassinated and replaced by Take Ionescu, who suppresses the Iron Guard temporarily. The political situation disintegrates as Guy throws himself into his work at the university, his relationships with students, and preparations for a production of William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Harriet finds it more difficult to make friends; she feels most comfortable with Clarence Lawson, Guy’s colleague, who makes romantic advances at the same time that he voices hero-worship of her husband. Clarence calls Guy a saint and accuses Harriet of corrupting his integrity by expecting him to conform to middle-class conceptions of married life. Guy’s production of Troilus and Cressida opens just as Paris falls to the Germans, an ironic juxtaposition that reverberates throughout the trilogy.

In The Spoilt City, political conditions in Rumania deteriorate while Harriet’s confidence in Guy and her commitment to their marriage become more uncertain. She hopes either to be free of him, since she cannot share his enthusiasm for his work, or to escape from Rumania with him to begin life over in another place. Harriet spends time with Sasha Drucker, a Jewish deserter from the Rumanian army whom Guy has allowed to hide in their apartment, and she gradually loses her British sense of moral and social superiority to the “lesser breeds” with whom she is forced to associate. She even musters sympathy for Prince Yakimov, the son of a White Russian father and an Irish mother, whose personality serves to parody Harriet’s own insularity and self-centeredness. The Iron Guard, a body of native Fascists, comes to power; King Carol abdicates, and his son Michael becomes king. Germany seems prepared to come over the border into Rumania, and Sasha is captured in an Iron Guard raid on the Pringles’ apartment. Harriet...

(The entire section is 779 words.)