Olivia Manning has been acclaimed by such distinguished contemporaries as Anthony Burgess as one of the great storytellers of modern times. Born in Portsmouth, England, she was the daughter of an English naval officer father and an Ulster-Irish mother. After studying art, she traveled while in her early twenties to London, where she worked as a typist and a furniture painter and then in book production. The Wind Changes, her first novel, was published when she was in her mid-twenties. Just before the outbreak of World War II, she married R. D. Smith, at that time a British Council lecturer and later a radio producer and professor at the New University of Ulster. The couple went immediately to his post in Bucharest, Romania, but they were forced to leave as the political situation deteriorated. They fled to Greece, but the advancing German army occasioned another move, and they were evacuated to Egypt. Manning served as a press officer for the American embassy at Cairo and then as a press assistant at the Public Information Office in Jerusalem.
After the war, Manning returned to England and continued her career as a writer; eleven years had elapsed since she had written her first novel. She said of her writing: “My subject is simply life as I have experienced it and I am happiest when writing of things I have known.” It is this personal view that gives her work objectivity, restraint, and proportion.
Although the point of view in most of her novels is feminine, her major concern is the relationship that must exist between men and women in order to establish some degree of self-knowledge and self-fulfillment. All of her characters struggle with themselves and others in order to understand and accomplish what they see or imagine their place in the universe to be. The result is a world of people who are more or less limited by their ambitions and desires but mostly by faults that are perfectly understandable and, therefore, forgivable. Even though her major novels, the Fortunes of War series, consisting of The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy, deal with the cataclysm of World War II, the lives of her characters are perfectly scaled to a dimension of humanity that is commensurate with their everyday lives. In this sense she has been compared to Jane Austen, who never...
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