Olivia Manning (1908–1972)
the novelist whose most famous books are the Balkan Trilogy and the Levant Trilogy, written between 1960 – 1980 known collectively as the Fortunes of War, lived in St John’s Wood after 1951.
Her childhood was spent in Portsmouth and Ireland. She was the daughter of a naval officer and a mother who poured all her affection onto her son who was 5 years younger than Olivia and left Olivia bereft; despite this Olivia was devoted to the brother who joined the RAF and was killed in action in 1941.
Having moved to London in 1934 during the Depression work was scarce, and after various jobs combined with writing in the evenings in her chilly bed-sitting room, her first novel was published in 1937. Two years later, she married Reginald “Reggie” Smith, a British Council lecturer and communist sympathiser who spent most of his energy talking and drinking. Their wartime experiences in eastern Europe, escaping Romania just ahead of the arrival of the German army, living penniless in Athens and fleeing to Cairo, became the basis for her trilogies. After the War Reggie worked as a producer at the BBC and Olivia wrote novels and short stories, and plays for the BBC. Reggie never stopped encouraging her writing career, but she was insecure, first jealous of post-war male writers like Kingsley Amis and John Osborne and then resentful of the success of other women writers like Iris Murdoch and Stevie Smith, which earned her the nickname of Olivia Moaning. And, although she achieved a CBE, she never made the Booker list.
In 1946 they were living in Shepherd’s Market but by 1951 they appear on the electoral roll at 26 Queens Grove Studios, St John’s Wood. Olivia had a long term lover in Dr Jerry Slattery, a Hampstead doctor who “collected” women novelists, and she also pursued some of the various lodgers who rented the basement flat, including actor Tony Richardson who was so nervous of her unrequited love that he hardly dared to take a bath. By 1962 they were threatened with a writ from the Eyre estate and struggled to find money to pay for dilapidations at Queens Grove.
Life in Abbey Gardens
Olivia’s friend Inge Goodwin with her husband Dennis and son Alan were also living in Abbey Gardens, along with Anthony Panting at no 30, a photographer and wit, who had been Kim Philby’s fag at Westminster School and who knew everybody, and who said of Olivia “She’s a funny lady”. Godfrey Smith editor of the Observer Magazine and novelist and columnist lived at no 6.
Inge writes: Olivia and Reggie Smith lived at 36 Abbey Gardens and were friends of ours. Unlike many writers, Olivia was a very entertaining conversationalist. She had anecdotes about everybody, and knew how to tell them. And add in the telling, because it was natural to her to make novels. Olivia was fun to have to coffee – she offered sharp judgements and entertaining stories, not drowned in milk of human kindness. Olivia was not generous by nature or judgement. She saw through people. It makes her novels bitterly entertaining, but in a way prevents greatness.
The travels abroad with Reggie and the British Council gave her material but destroyed her health: she caught a tropical disease (possibly Schistosomiasis) which she never really got over. She became pregnant but miscarried and then decided she did not want children anyway – and indeed, she could not have written so much or so well.
Olivia loved cats more than people, as you can see from her books. After an unfortunate incident involving an allegedly pyromaniac tenant in the basement of no.36 she employed our son Alan as cat sitter whenever she and Reggie went out for the evening. He had strict instructions to save her cats – and nothing else, none of their first editions or paintings – in the event of fire.
Her best friend – equally Reggie’s friend – was Dr Jerry Slattery, who visited Olivia every afternoon. It was a generous, happy friendship. On Saturdays Reggie and Slattery would go to cricket or rugby together. Jerry’s wife was confusingly always known as “Johnny”.
As for her work, praise was never quite enough. “Best woman writer?” She wanted them to say “Best writer”. She remembered reviews which were grudging. The non-autobiographical novels which were not televised were also very good, but under-appreciated. In particular, The Rain Forest and The Playroom (the latter published in the US as The Camperlea Girls)- are marvellous. These are not her most famous but showed she could invent/create.
She thought very well of her own work (supported by Reggie’s opinion). On one of Christopher Isherwood’s visits to London, at a local meeting chaired by Bill Coldstream and Reggie, he asked ‘But whom shall we be reading in 20 years’ time?’ ‘My wife?’ suggested Reggie (Olivia was not at that meeting). He always supported and appreciated her. The reverse, we know from her autobiographical novels, was not always true.
They gave very enjoyable parties – interesting people – writers, radio and TV people and actors. Towards the end of their parties Reggie would take on the washing up and make scrambled eggs, though he was also known for occasionally leaving their parties ‘to go to the pub’ and not returning for two or three days. Beloved by all who knew him (even, in the end, by Olivia). His memorial service at the BBC – the queues to get in stretched round the whole block – was the most wonderful event, full of poetry and songs and writers’ reminiscences.
Their new home at 36 Abbey Gardens was more attractive than Queens Grove and had a charming sitting room decorated with rugs from Damascus and their parties would be full of a hard drinking crowd of friends, who did not mind the gin and water, cheap wine and cold cuts from the local delicatessen and the gritty lettuce and tomatoes hacked into chunks which were served. Writer Julian Mitchell became a tenant and found his flat a bit squalid. Olivia and Reggie remained married despite numerous affairs on both sides. Reggie renounced communism after the invasion of Hungary in 1956. They finally moved to 10 Marlborough Place. Olivia was depressed by Slattery’s death in 1977 and gradually grew weaker herself, dying before the immense success of the serialisation of the Fortunes of War starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson on television. Anthony Burgess called her trilogies the finest fictional record of the war produced by a British writer.
There are two biographies about her, one by her friends Neville and June Braybrooke in 2004 and Olivia Manning, a writer at war by Deidre David in 2010.