Jane and Prudence – Barbara Pym

Jane and Prudence is the third Barbara Pym novel I’ve read, and it’s wonderful, right up there with my other favourites – Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle.

Penned in 1953, Jane and Prudence is a joyful and poignant read from Pym’s oeuvre, reminding us, as quoted by Anne Tyler “of the heartbreaking silliness of everyday life.”

Jane Cleveland is a vicar’s wife, who after her marriage returns to Oxford to take up a teaching job. Prudence Bates at the time was one of her pupils, but they remain good friends despite the wide difference in their ages. But even keeping their age gap aside, the two could not have been more different.

Jane is in her forties and when the book opens, we learn that she and her husband Nicholas, a mild mannered man, have moved to their country parish, where Nicholas will take on his new duties as a vicar. Jane begins to more or less settle into her role as the clergyman’s wife, although she’s quite terrible at it. Having studied at Oxford and bestowed with an academic mind, Jane had a bright future ahead of her with the possibility of writing books, but that ambition falls by the wayside once she marries.

It was a cold November day and she (Jane) had dressed herself up in layers of cardigans and covered the whole lot with her old tweed coat, the one she might have used for feeding the chickens in.

Carelessly dressed and socially awkward, she can cause a stir by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. With no inclination towards domesticity or even displaying a flair for it, she manages to soldier on relying on her competent cook Mrs Glaze and her efficient daughter, Flora.

In her late twenties, Prudence is elegant, beautiful, and still single with a flurry of relationships behind her. She is getting older but has lost none of her good looks. Having reached the age when the prospects for marriage look dim, Prudence sometimes is beset with sadness and frets whether she will ever settle down with a man.

Prudence looks lovely this evening, thought Jane, like somebody in a woman’s magazine, carefully ‘groomed’, and wearing a read dress that sets off her pale skin and dark hair. It was odd, really, that she should not have yet married. One wondered if it was really better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, when poor Prudence seemed to have lost so many times. For although she had been, and still was, very much admired, she had got into the way of preferring unsatisfactory love affairs to any others, so that it was becoming almost a bad habit.

And yet Prudence is doing reasonably well for herself. She is an independent woman with her own stylish apartment and works in a publisher’s office in London run by Mr Grampian. Mr. Grampian is an older, married man, but Prudence has taken a fancy to him, although he rarely notices her or only when it’s convenient to him. Jane is aware of Prudence’s feelings for Mr Grampian but remains doubtful of anything meaningful coming out of it.

Meanwhile, as she begins to mingle with the residents in the village, Jane is introduced to Fabian Driver, a man in mourning having recently lost his wife Constance. Fabian is good-looking but with an unsavoury aura around him – it is rumoured that he was frequently unfaithful to his wife during their marriage. And yet, he is now milking the ladies’ sympathies as an inconsolable widower.

Jane, in some ways is like Austen’s Emma – she is good hearted and greatly desires to find a husband for Prudence. Her introduction to Fabian brings out the matchmaker in Jane, and she casually mentions him to Prudence. When Prudence visits the Clevelands, she and Fabian get along quite well and begin to see each other regularly. Will anything significant come out of it? Has Prudence finally met her man?

As was evident in Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle, Pym excels in describing the eccentricities of parish life, its small time politics, how a woman meeting a man can set tongues wagging, and how rumours of people’s lives fly thick and fast.

As ever, Pym’s writing sparkles with humour and astute observations on the personalities of people…plus, her plotting and character sketches are top notch. We also get an inkling of the social fabric of the 1950s, where the women were chiefly concerned with finding someone to love and cherish and finally embracing marriage. Still, Pym raises the point that being single and living independently also brought its own share of rewards.

“I suppose I’ll never get a man if I don’t take more trouble with myself,” Eleanor went on, but she spoke comfortably and without regret, thinking of her flat in Westminster, so convenient for the Ministry, her weekend golf, concerts and theatres with women friends, in the best seats and with a good supper afterwards. Prue could have this kind of life if she wanted it; once couldn’t go on having romantic love affairs indefinitely. One had to settle down sooner or later into the comfortable spinster or the contented or bored wife.

Food is quite vividly described especially afternoon teas with their abundance of hot buttered toasts, iced walnut cakes, cucumber sandwiches, chocolate biscuits, buns and so on. Not to mention the occasional sherry. Tea can also provide the much needed respite from a dull office job. Indeed, at Prudence’s place of work, the sameness of their desultory conversations gets on her nerves, as her cronies constantly upstage each other over who got to work earliest. The only bright spot then is the tea trolley being wheeled in at four in the afternoon. These set pieces, particularly, highlight Pym’s genius for dry wit and comedy.

Jane and Prudence, then, is sprinkled with liberal doses of both laughter and melancholia. Each of the characters evokes the reader’s sympathy – whether it’s the well-meaning, blundering Jane, the gorgeous, self-centred Prudence, or even the frightful Fabian, who might have possibly gotten a raw deal towards the end.

This gem of a novel is awash with nostalgia for youth and its vista of seemingly endless possibilities. But with great depth and subtlety, Pym explores how, as we grow older, our lives can completely deviate from the path we had originally envisaged in our idealistic youth. We might not live the life we had planned, but once we accept it, we can somehow make it work.

The Enchanted April – Elizabeth von Arnim

I read this lovely book in April because of its title, and really wanted to put up my thoughts in that month as well, but alas, it was not to be.

The Enchanted April is a delightful, charming novel centred on four women from different walks of life who decide to spend a month in summer holidaying in Italy.

We are introduced to Lottie Wilkins, who married to a city lawyer, feels bogged down and stifled by their humdrum existence in Hampstead. Her husband Mellersh is an intelligent, respectable, good-looking man, highly regarded by his senior partners, but rather something of a bully at home. In their social circle, when pitted against him, Lottie pales in comparison and her careless style of dressing only adds to the general consensus that she should stay home. Mellersh is cautious with money and the daily drill of having to strictly live within their means with no room for wasteful expenditure begins to take its toll on Lottie.

While on one of her shopping trips, she spends a miserable afternoon at a women’s club, and there chances upon an advertisement in the newspapers that sets off a chain of thoughts. The ad is addressed to those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine and proposes to let furnished for the month of April a small mediaeval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean.

At first, with a resigned air Lottie dismisses the idea, she grudgingly tells herself that such delights exist for the privileged. But Lottie loves wisteria and sunshine and so the idea of spending a month at the castle begins to take hold on her.

Rose Arbuthnot’s circumstances are a source of heartache for her too. Being an extremely religious woman, she is disturbed by her husband Frederick’s success as a writer of trashy but popular memoirs of the mistresses of Kings. This vocation brings him money but Rose feels guilty and dirty touching it and so she immerses herself in charity work, with the fervent hope that it will cleanse her and ease her conscience. As a couple both Rose and Frederick have drifted apart and this hurts Rose a lot given that they were so in love in the early days of their marriage.

When Lottie spots Rose also staring at the ad wistfully on that same dreary afternoon, an idea begins to take shape in the former’s mind. She approaches Rose, the two strike up an earnest conversation and Lottie gradually convinces her that if they in turn advertise for two more companions, the four of them could split the costs of staying at the castle so that the individual burden will be considerably reduced.

Using their saved nest-eggs, the two women begin the process of renting the castle. Also, with respect to their ad for more companions, two women express interest – Lady Caroline Dester and the older Mrs Fisher. Caroline Dester is a stunning woman with many admirers at her beck and call but having tired of all the attention, she is craving to get away and do some soul searching in a restful place, and Italy fits her bill perfectly. Mrs Fisher is a catankerous, old-fashioned woman who still lives in her past and reminisces about her illustrious friends and acquaintances of yore in the literary world.

These women come from completely different backgrounds, but there’s one common thread binding them: they are disillusioned with the sameness of their days and are desperately seeking an outlet that will bring some colour to their lives along with the much needed rest and solitude.

Once ensconced in the Italian castle, the four women begin to interact with each other and it is these exchanges that make The Enchanted April so delightful – the awkward dinner conversations, the various machinations of Mrs Fisher and Caroline Dester to claim the best rooms and views for themselves, and their opinions of each other.

As soon as her stay at the castle begins, Lottie’s personality undergoes a sea of change. Mesmerized by the gorgeous views, Lottie is immediately rejuvenated and her perspective of the world around her alters dramatically. Stunning vistas of the bay, jaw dropping sceneries, abundance of pretty secluded spots and the enchanting feel of the castle all combine to work their therapeutic magic on her.

Something was wrong somewhere. Wonderful that at home she should have been so good, so terribly good, and merely felt tormented. Twinges of every sort had there been her portion; aches, hurts, discouragements, and she the whole time being steadily unselfish.

Now she had taken off her goodness and left it behind her like a heap of rain-sodden clothes, and she only felt joy. She was naked of goodness, and was rejoicing in being naked. She was stripped, and exulting.

So much so that Lottie’s powers of perception sharpen considerably, and her otherwise timid, resentful personality gives way to a charming, carefree and benevolent demeanor. Indeed, she then comes up with another audacious plan that could disrupt their present idyll or will it?

The Enchanted April then is a gem of a novel with much wit and humour to commend it. Some of the set-pieces in the first few pages in the novel are hilarious – particularly the one where Lottie and Rose are being driven by the gardener to the castle past midnight, and there is no effective way of communicating with him because they can’t speak the Italian language.

The two men opened their umbrellas for them and handed them to them. From this they received a fair encouragement, because they could not believe that if these men were wicked they would pause to open umbrellas. The man with the lantern then made signs to them to follow him, talking loud and quickly, and Beppo, they noticed, remained behind. Ought they to pay him? Not, they thought, if they were going to be robbed and perhaps murdered. Surely on such an occasion one did not pay.

Von Arnim explores how an invigorating holiday is a much needed respite from mundane routines of everyday life. The novel was penned in the 1920s when there were hardly any career opportunities for women and their role was largely restricted to the household. In the novel, Arnim does not aim to depict how their Italian sojourn alters the circumstances of her characters, but rather to capture the perceptible shift in how they view it.

Lottie and Rose are housewives and will continue to play that role, but there’s something to be said for how a holiday can energize and recharge one’s batteries. Beauty of nature and the wonder of a new place can be a tonic for a tired mind…Lottie and Rose are certainly transformed by the magic of Italy, it is an apt place for some semblance of a rebirth.

“Were you ever, ever in your life so happy?” asked Mrs. Wilkins, catching her by the arm.

“No,” said Mrs. Arbuthnot. Nor had she been; not ever; not even in her first love-days with Frederick. Because always pain had been close at hand in that other happiness, ready to torture with doubts, to torture even with the very excess of her love; while this was the simple happiness of complete harmony with her surroundings, the happiness that asks for nothing, that just accepts, just breathes, just is.

Arnim’s writing is lovely and evocative and all the four women in the novel are brilliantly etched, they come across as fully realized characters. This was a perfect book to read in April with a particularly feel-good vibe in these trying times.

A Wreath of Roses – Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor is quickly becoming one of my favourite authors. My first of hers was A Game of Hide and Seek, which I loved, followed by Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and The Soul of Kindness. The latter two books found a place on my best reads for 2019 and my list of 2020 favourites respectively. A Wreath of Roses, then, is another winner from her oeuvre.

A  Wreath of Roses is a beautiful, dark tale of dangerous deception, lies, friendship and mortality.

The ominous opening scene pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the novel. We meet Camilla Hill – possibly in her late thirties who holds a secretarial position in a girls’ school – on a railway platform waiting for the train. Camilla is on her way to the countryside to spend the summer with her two best friends – Liz and Liz’s former governess Frances – just like they always did in the previous summers.

It is a blistering, scorching day, the white buildings shimmer, and an air of lethargy descends upon Camilla. She notices another individual waiting on the same platform as her (later revealed to us as Richard Elton). But this is just the lull before the storm. Very soon, both of them witness a man climb the parapet above the tracks and jump in front of the oncoming train.

This happening broke the afternoon in two. The feeling of eternity had vanished. What had been timeless and silent became chaotic and disorganized, with feet running along the echoing boards, voices staccato, and the afternoon darkening with the vultures of disaster, who felt the presence of death and arrived from the village to savour it and to explain the happening to one another.

This sudden juxtaposition of suicide and death in an otherwise seemingly calm environment unnerves the reader as much as it instills a sense of unease in Camilla. To add fuel to the fire, more unwelcome surprises await Camilla.

On reaching their holiday cottage, Camilla notices a marked change in both Liz and Frances. In earlier years, their summers were always ripe and filled with shared confidences, literary jokes, painting, and going for long strolls. But this year, it all feels different. Liz has married a clergyman and is preoccupied with her baby. Frances is growing old and frail and has departed from her trademark style of painting – having switched from gentle portraits and bucolic landscapes to producing wild, terrifying abstract works of art.

She felt ashamed of her preoccupation with stillness, with her aerial flowers, her delicate colours, her femininity. She was tempted outside her range as an artist, and for the first time painted from an inner darkness, groping and undisciplined, as if in an act of relief from her own turmoil.

In terms of personalities, Camilla and Liz could not be more different. Liz is warm, vivacious, sweet-natured, and holds no grudge. Camilla is guarded and reserved, certain disappointments in her life have made her defensive, and she employs sarcasm as a shield to keep hurt at bay.

Into this picture, we are once again introduced to Richard Elton, the man Camilla travelled with on the train. Richard is a sinister character, full of secrets, a man not to be trusted. At first glance, Camilla dismisses Richard as a type of character she typically despises, an empty man ‘who could never have any part in her life, whose existence could not touch hers, which was thoughtful rather than active and counted its values in a different way.’

Yet, she finds herself dangerously attracted to him. Afflicted by a sharp bout of loneliness, and painfully aware that life is passing her by, Camilla begins to see Richard often against her better instincts. This is partly as a form of revenge against Liz because she believes the latter has abandoned her, and partly because she feels the urge to venture outside her comfort zone and plunge into excitement and adventure. After all, Liz and Frances have taken dramatic decisions regarding their lives, so why can’t she, Camilla, do something similar?

While the reader is already aware that Richard is a dangerous liar with an aura of threat about him, will Camilla eventually see through his façade, his odd behaviour sharpened by fear?

A Wreath of Roses is a novel of many themes. There’s mortality and Frances’ preoccupation with it. Having been independent all her life, Frances worries about old age and the state of dependence that it implies. Also, just when she is about to explore new territories in her painting style, health issues begin to mar her.

The novel also touches upon friendship and how a change in circumstances can considerably alter the dynamics between friends, in a way that they can no longer connect on a deeper level as they once did.

A Wreath of Roses is also an unflinching portrayal of deception and lies – not just told by others, but probing deeper into the lies we tell ourselves to justify our actions.

Taylor excels at visual imagery and the landscape is as much a character in the novel as the people in it. The village where the women are staying is a place of holiday and of menace, and throughout the novel these two states remain intertwined.

Adept in her depiction of big drama in small-scale settings, Elizabeth Taylor is truly perceptive, an excellent chronicler of human nature complete with sharp observations and keen insights. Throw in some dash of wit and humour, and what we have in our hands is a rich and textured novel.

This is one of her darker novels looking as it does at the pain of life, its random cruelty and agonies of isolation. Throughout its pages, an air of violence and peril lurks, all kinds of fear grips its characters, and the reader is overcome by a feeling of dread and an impending sense of doom.

We are eventually left to ponder – Can crossing the boundaries of our individual limits traumatize us forever? And can real friendship survive the myriad changes in character and upheavals in circumstances that make up life?

Just as A Wreath of Roses opens on an ominous note, so does it end with darkness at its heart.

The Door – Magda Szabo (tr. Len Rix)

Four of Hungarian author Magda Szabo’s books have been translated into English by the ever excellent NYRB Classics. The first to be released was The Door. It garnered rave reviews, but somehow it passed me by at that time. Recently, NYRB published Abigail of which I have heard only good things so far. But rather than rush out to buy it, I decided that now was the time to finally get cracking on the book I already have, The Door.

The Door is a fascinating tale and a character study focused on the relationship between two women – the narrator who has a flourishing career as an author and her rather peculiar and unforgettable housekeeper, Emerence.

The novel opens with a disturbing dream that jolts the narrator out of her sleep.

My dreams are always the same, down to the finest detail, a vision that returns again and again. In this never changing dream I am standing in our entrance hall at the foot of the stairs, facing the steel frame and reinforced shatterproof window of the outer door, and I am struggling to turn the lock.

The narrator is having a hard time balancing the demands of her work with everyday household duties. Faced with the undeniable fact that the only solution is to hire help, she is provided with the option of contacting Emerence.

From their first meeting alone it becomes apparent that Emerence is quite a strange, singular and strong headed character. Certainly, the narrator is completely taken aback by her brazen responses. For starters, although Emerence has the prospect of a job being offered to her, she makes it clear that she will only accept the position if she is convinced that they are employers worth working for. Plus, her wages would depend on how sloppy or neat they are…very unusual terms, indeed!

Perhaps we could agree her hourly wage; that should mean something to her. But no, she didn’t want to rush her decision. She would decide what we were to pay her when she had some idea of just how slovenly and disorderly we were, and how much work we’d be. She would set about getting references – not from the old schoolmate, who would be prejudiced – and when she had, would give us her answer, even if it was no.

Eventually, Emerence comes to work for the narrator and her husband. But it’s a love-hate relationship. Emerence doesn’t care for always respecting her employers in the traditional way and many a time chooses to instead humiliate the narrator. And yet the narrator puts up with it because not only can she not manage on her own but also because Emerence is excellent at her work. Her methods maybe unique and over the top, but she keeps the house in top shape. Thus, the narrator can now wholly concentrate on her work.

Thus, begins a bond between the two women that strengthens and wanes and is also put to the test as the book progresses.

Emerence displays other eccentricities. She only greets people outside on the porch of her home, she never lets them inside. It doesn’t matter who they are. In other words, no one has ventured beyond the door (hence the title of the book) of her house. The only exception is the Inspector who in the past was compelled to examine what was inside, and Emerence ramping and raging had no choice but to let him do so. Over the time though, both of them come to respect each other.

Other characters and creatures abound, the chief among them being the narrator’s dog Viola. It’s the narrator and her husband who rescue the dog, but the animal becomes attached and comes to love Emerence fueling pangs of jealousy in the narrator.

The meat of the book, however, centers around the relationship between the two women. There are many set pieces where Emerence’s dramatic behaviour gets on the narrator’s nerves and yet the narrator cannot bring herself to detach herself completely from her. At the same time, after a misunderstanding where Emerence almost leaves, she begins to grow fond of the couple. Gradually, she reveals some of her past to the narrator – a past that involves a traumatic childhood, the burden of war and its consequences on the family she worked for at the time among other things. And yet, the narrator has no clue what’s behind the door until the very end.

Ultimately, things come to a boiling point where the narrator has to choose between her loyalty to Emerence and doing what’s actually best for her – a situation that has tragic consequences.  We are given an inkling of this in the very first chapter, but it is only later that we understand the true meaning of this statement.

Thus far I have lived my life with courage, and I hope to die that way, bravely and without lies. But for that to be, I must speak out. I killed Emerence. The fact that I was trying to save her rather than destroy her changes nothing.

The Door then is a novel that explores the themes of old age, dependence, friendship and the lengths you are willing to go to preserve that bond. The two women, in their own way, come to depend on each other. And yet, Emerence keeps alluding to the fact that the narrator has no clue as to what it takes to really love a person. Is the narrator selfish, does she understand the concept of sacrifice?

Overall, The Door is a strong piece of work – memorable characters and a solid plot. And yet, I felt the novel dragged in places, the dynamics between the two women and how it played out did get a bit repetitive sometimes. But that’s a minor quibble in what was otherwise a book that will stay in my mind for a while.

The Levant Trilogy – Olivia Manning

Early this year, I raved about The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning. That book was fabulous and what stood out was Manning’s ability to paint a picture of a city where invasion is imminent, and yet its citizens are in a state of denial. The sense of uncertainty, that grips ordinary people during times of war as they sit around in cafes discussing and analyzing the situation, was spot on. I reviewed the first two books in the trilogy – The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City – but somehow never got to writing about the third, Friends and Heroes.

It was time to move on to the next installment, The Levant Trilogy. And I found it to be equally compelling.

Levant Trilogy

The first two books in The Balkan Trilogy were set in Bucharest, Romania, while the city in focus in the third book was Athens, Greece.

In The Levant Trilogy, the action has now moved to Cairo in Egypt with the bulk of the trilogy based in the city.

In The Levant Trilogy were are introduced to a new character Simon Boulderstone, a twenty-year old recruit who has received orders to fight in the Desert War. This is how the first book in the trilogy opens…

Simon Boulderstone, aged twenty, came to Egypt with the draft. For nearly two months, as the convoy slid down one side of Africa and up the other, he had been crowded about by other men. When he reached Cairo, he was alone.

After he is assigned to Major Perry’s unit in the desert, he has a couple of days of leave on his hands before the action begins.

He decides to visit Cairo. But more importantly, he wants to meet Edwina Little who is betrothed to his brother Hugo and who according to him is ‘the most gorgeous popsie in Cairo.’ Simon is presented with the task of buying a bottle of perfume on Hugo’s behalf and gifting it to Edwina.

Meanwhile, Simon finds himself dragged with a bunch of people who are being taken on a tour of Egypt by the brazen tour guide Clifford.

One of the people in the tour group is none other than Harriet Pringle, the central protagonist in The Balkan Trilogy.

At this point, we are only 30 pages into the novel, and the most distressing and heartbreaking scene in the book is only a few pages away.

One of the things that Manning brilliantly does is to convey the uncertainty inflicted upon the British expatriates in a foreign land. The ordinary British in Cairo have no clue what is really happening out there in the desert, and reliable information is hard to come by. Some can handle it, some cannot.

Clifford, the tour guide, is certainly impatient for news on the war front. So is Professor Pinkrose and Major Cookson, recurring characters from The Balkan Trilogy. Manning does a very good job of giving a brief refresher on the background of her secondary characters lest they have slipped from your mind.

Anyway, the group hits upon the plan of visiting Sir Desmond Hooper out in the Fayoum. According to Clifford, Sir Hooper is always wining and dining the army big shots, so he is bound to have some information to give them.

Some people in the group are aghast at the idea of strangers barging into Sir Desmond Hooper’s home. But the desperation for news takes over and the party unwillingly proceeds towards the Hooper mansion.

In the midst of their conversation with Sir Desmond Hooper, Lady Hooper makes a desperate entry.

They heard the heavy front door crash open and from the hall came the sound of a stumbling entry that conveyed a sense of catastrophe. A woman entered the room shouting, ‘Desmond. Desmond,’ and seeing the company, stopped and shook her head.

The men got to their feet. Bowen said, ‘Lady Hooper, is anything the matter?’ She shook her head again, standing in the middle of the room, her distracted appearance made more wild by her disarranged black hair and the town, paint-covered overall that protected her dress. Lady Hooper was younger than her husband. She was some age between thirty and forty, a delicately built woman with a delicate, regular face. She looked at each of the strangers in turn and when she came to Simon, she smiled and said, ‘I think he’ll be all right.’

Two safragis carried in the inert body of a boy.

I won’t reveal more but this particular section in the novel is quite distressing and incredibly sad.

Nothing more is heard of Lady Angela Hooper since that scene but she makes an entry again later in the book and goes on to become the most interesting character in the trilogy.

So far I have touched upon the basic outline of the plot that takes place in the first fifty pages, but since I don’t want to get into spoilers, I will write more about the development of characters and what makes The Levant Trilogy such an absorbing read.

Angela Hooper

Let’s begin with Angela Hooper. When we first meet her at the Hooper residence, she comes across as a tentative, distracted woman. That is not the case when we meet her again later.

The incident at the Hooper mansion having left a profound impact on her, Angela Hooper has decided to cast away her old life and begin afresh. When we meet her again, she has managed to secure a room in the Embassy quarters where Dobson is in charge (another figure from The Balkan Trilogy). She strikes up a friendship with Harriet Pringle, who has also managed to acquire lodgings there after initial hurdles.

Angela Hooper is immensely wealthy and is irreverent with the way she spends her money. She does not like to be bothered about the limitations of not having the means. This is in sharp contrast to the Pringles, who are struggling to eke out a living and are financially constrained.

Because of the ease with which she doles out cash, Angela Hooper becomes a regular fixture at the club called the Union along with Harriet, who drags along. Angela’s penchant for ordering whiskies attracts the company of Bill Castlebar…

‘Who’s this?’ she (Angela) asked Harriet.

‘Bill Castlebar; one of my husband’s time-wasting cronies. Describes himself as a poet.’

Soon, Castlebar and Angela Hooper are in a relationship, which has a lasting impact on the her. While to the outside world, there are no redeeming qualities in Castlebar, to Angela he becomes an important partner. It is a relationship of equals with both having mutual respect and love for one another. It means that this relationship pretty much defines Angela’s actions in the rest of the trilogy with equal moments of joy and distress.

The Pringles – Guy and Harriet

The other most important feature of this novel is Harriet’s development and her increasing sense of independence.

For the whole of The Balkan Trilogy, Harriet and Guy were always together even if it meant Harriet had to unwillingly put up with the people in Guy’s ever increasing social circle. The striking feature in this trilogy is that for larger chunks of the novel, Harriet is mostly alone.

Whether it is spending evenings at the Union with Angela and the other expatriates, or going on sightseeing tours, Guy is absent most of the time. It comes to a point where Harriet increasingly begins to toy with the idea of living a separate life from Guy.

He had said the climate was killing her but now, seeing the relationship from a distance, she felt the killing element was not the heat of Cairo but Guy himself.

What is redeeming for Harriet is her friendship with Angela Hooper. Circumstances and subsequent events propel Harriet and Angela to become close friends – while Angela provides financial assistance to Harriet, Harriet becomes instrumental in giving emotional support to Angela.

More importantly, it means Harriet has a first true friend of her own, one who is not part of Guy’s friend circle. What is also satisfying is the manner in which Harriet stands up to Guy and is steadfast in maintaining her friendship with Angela, even if Guy does not have a good opinion of the latter.

Guy Pringle, in the meanwhile, continues to be as irritating as he was in The Balkan Trilogy. Perpetually and stubbornly immersed in his work and forever befriending people at the drop of her hat, he continues to have no regard towards Harriet’s needs and feelings. Even when there is a major crisis point in the final book of the trilogy, the reader has this sense that Guy will never change.

The Desert War up Close

There is a new element present in The Levant Trilogy, which was never really a prominent feature in the Balkan – the description of the actual battle scenes.

In The Balkan Trilogy, the realities of war and Germany’s invasion was always palpable, but the action was mostly centred around the daily lives of the people in the city.

In that sense, The Levant Trilogy is a bit different because we see the battle scenes up front through the eyes of the recruit Simon Boulderstone.

To give credit to Manning, the portrayal of the actual war – the uncertainty, the stretches of terror alternating with periods of boredom and tedium is very well done. Manning manages to make the Simon Boulderstone and the Desert War sections pretty fascinating. And yet, one can’t help feeling that the more interesting parts of the novel revolve around Angela Hooper and Harriet Pringle.

A Riveting Travelogue

In the third book – The Sum of Things – Harriet goes on a road journey in the Levant with two women, Mort and Phil, who are a lesbian couple and members of the para-military service. Their job involves making regular trips to Iraq with ammunition and other supplies.

Manning’s descriptions of this road trip are striking and evocative…

Sitting together in the cabin of the lorry, they (Mort and Phil) took it in turns to drive or sleep so they could keep going all day and all night.

Harriet, in the back among the cases of ammunition, hardly slept at all. The road over the desert was little more than a track and full of potholes. Each time she drifted into sleep, she was jolted awake as the lorry bumped or skidded or swayed into the sandy verge. In the end she sat up and stared into darkness, seeing waterfalls stumbling black through the black air, huge birds sweeping to and fro across the night, enormous animals that paused to stare back at her before lumbering away put of sight. When the dawn came, she saw nine of these things, only the empty road stretching from her, away into the desert hills.

Soon after daybreak, they stopped at a frontier barrier, then the lorry moved on to tarmac and Harriet, exhausted by the uneasy night, fell into a heavy slumber.

Meanwhile, Harriet manages to make a stop in Damascus in Syria for a few days all alone with not much funds and while she has enough wits about her to carry on, the sense of loneliness is intense. This particular book felt like a wonderful piece of travel writing – a daring solo trip by a woman in an unknown region filled with adventures but also a longing for company.

A Wonderful Sense of Place

Olivia Manning brings Egypt and the Levant brilliantly to life. Whether it is in describing Cairo during war or the desolation of the seaside city of Alexandria, the atmosphere created is superb. We also get a feel for Damascus and Jerusalem, as Manning has a command over conjuring a sense of place helped immensely by her having spent time in these cities during the war.

Cairo had become the clearing house of Eastern Europe. Kings and princes, heads of state, their followers and hangers-on, free governments with all their officials, everyone who saw himself committed to the allied cause, had come to live here off the charity of the British government. Hotels, restaurants and cafés were loud with the squabbles, rivalries, scandals, exhibitions of importance and hurt feelings that occupied the refugees while they waited for the war to end and the old order to return.

On a Final Note…

Both The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy have been the highlights of my reading this year. In the NYRB Classics editions (which I have), the Balkan is a hefty 900 odd pages and the Levant is around 500. This may seem daunting but don’t let the size put you off. Once you get going, both are extremely absorbing and immersive reads and the pages furiously fly by. I cannot recommend both the trilogies highly enough!