Balancing the Books

Pamela Hansford Johnson, English novelist and critic, chatting to novelist Olivia Manning at a party given by the British PEN Club to celebrate the opening of the club's new headquarters in Chelsea. Original Publication: Picture Post - 4722 - People Who Write Your Books - pub. 1949 Original Publication: People Disc - HM0383 (Photo by Picture Post/Getty Images)

It’s going to take a lot of work to correct history so that it includes all the great women whose lives and work have been overlooked and obliterated by the patriarchy. But strides are being made! The New York Times is retroactively publishing obituaries of notable women and others who aren’t straight white men. And now The Paris Review, which had virtually erased one of its own women editors from its masthead, as A.N. Devers reported last December *, has launched something of a corrective: “Feminize Your Cannon,” a monthly series featuring “underrated and underread” female authors.

The first installment, by Emma Garman, profiles British Novelist Olivia Manning (1908-1980), known best for her novel School for Love and for her Balkan and Levant trilogies.

It took Manning until late in her career to achieve a level of real acclaim, perhaps because her stories drew on harsher aspects of real life and less likable women characters — aspects that might have been better appreciated if she were publishing now. Manning was so vocally dissatisfied with her career she was known as “Olivia Moaning.” A contemporary of Iris Murdoch and Kingsley Amis, she was outwardly jealous of their greater success and fame. She’d bristled at the idea that she’d be more successful posthumously, but that’s what came to pass.

Seven years after her death in 1980 at age seventy-two, the BBC aired Fortunes of War, a faithful seven-part adaptation of the Balkan Trilogy and the Levant Trilogy. Starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh and featuring multiple international locations, the series had the highest budget in BBC history. Masterpiece Theatre’s broadcast of the show in the U.S. prompted the New York Times to call Manning “the only English woman novelist to have painted a broad, compassionate and witty canvas of men and women at war that invites comparison with Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh.”

Manning would have been gratified to finally hear it—and then disappointed anew. Today those who have read Manning’s novels (usually only the trilogies, as most of the others are out of print) tend to admire them. But her place in the pantheon of important twentieth-century British novelists, even of rediscovered women authors such as Elizabeth Taylor and Rosamond Lehmann, is marginal and precarious. The scholar and critic Rohan Maitzen, when writing about Manning, found “that her name was wholly unfamiliar to two of my academic colleagues who are specialists in early 20th-century literature.” None of Manning’s work is available on Kindle.

“Not all writers of genius take the public by storm,” she writes in her introduction to a 1968 edition of Northanger Abbey. “Jane Austen in her lifetime was successful without being a sensation.” The self-consolation is touchingly evident.

In the mean time, Devers soldiers on in her efforts to make sure women authors are given their due and more widely read. She’s just successfully crowdfunded a new business, The Second Shelf, which will offer “rare books, modern first editions, manuscripts, & rediscovered works by women,” plus a quarterly publication.

*The omission has since been corrected.

Read the story