Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Novelist and critic Anthony Burgess calls The Balkan Trilogy one of the most significant fictional treatments of World War II in Europe. It is the only one to be written by a woman. Unlike Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955), and The End of the Battle (1961), Manning’s account of the war in the Balkans is neither comic in tone nor retrospective in focus. She does not use Waugh’s technique of juxtaposing the world of the past with the one engaged in military action. Her emphasis is always on present action, and while there is irony, even incidental comedy, in her handling of characters, she does not savage them with quite Waugh’s gusto.

Manning, according to an interview with Kay Dick, had intended to write only two novels about the Pringles in Rumania. The Balkan Trilogy behind her, she wrote about other material before returning to the Pringles in a second trilogy about the war in Egypt. In The Danger Tree (1977), The Battle Lost and Won (1978), and The Sum of Things (1980), Manning continues to probe the impact of World War II on the culture of Western Europe. In these volumes, she takes the reader into the thick of the Egyptian campaign, and her descriptions of military action are as convincing as those of any male novelist dealing with similar material.

The six novels dealing with the Pringles overshadow even such fine work as Manning’s The Play Room (1969) and The Rain Forest (1974). They are the body of work on which Manning’s reputation rests. In part, this is because the experience at the core of them is something important to Manning herself. She clearly needs to make sense of World War II as she experienced it in the Balkans and in Egypt. In part, the significance of The Balkan Trilogy and the three later novels about Harriet and Guy Pringle in Egypt derives from the skill Manning shows in sustaining a complex narrative at such length. The chief reason for the importance of these books, however, is that they capture a particular place and time in history and make sense of them.