The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning

Fortunes of War The Balkan TrilogyI’ve been aware of The Balkan Trilogy for a while and curious to discover it because of its international setting (Romania in the months leading up to the 2nd World War) though equally wary of English ex-pat protagonists living a life of privilege cosseted alongside a population suffering economic hardship and the imminent threat of being positioned between two untrustworthy powers (Russia and Germany).

This is the first of three books that make up Olivia Manning’s semi-autobiographical Fortunes of War or The Balkan Trilogy, there are another three that make up A Levant Trilogy. 

The story is chiefly about a young couple and their first year of marriage in Romania on the eve of war. Guy, a young English literature professor returns to Bucharest after a summer in England, with his new wife Harriet, a woman he met and married within a month. We know nothing about that month, their romance, or why/how they came together so impulsively.

Supposing she had known him for a year and during that time observed him in all his other relationships? She would have hesitated, thinking the net of his affections too widely spread to hold the weighty accompaniment of marriage.

Displacement Heightens Perceptive Ability

Over the course of the novel we get to know through Harriet’s perceptive observations and awareness of her own flaws and Guy’s, their characters, why they act in the way they do and the effect they have on each other, due to their differences. These aspects of personality are reflected through the way they interact and respond to others around them.

Guy’s natural warmth towards everyone could easily be misinterpreted. She herself had taken it for granted that it was for her alone.

It took a little while initially to overcome my reluctance in be among this crowd, (averse to novels where purposeless woman follow their husbands around wondering why they are unhappy with life), many of the characters and their behaviours in the set-up stage of the novel are tiresome, but the ability of Harriet to see through each of them, in an effort to better know her husband, after a while becomes more and more engaging.

Finding an Ally in Foreign Territory

She finds company in Guy’s friend Clarence, the similarity in their perceptions is both a comfort and an admission of her own more selfish inclinations.

The difficulty of dealing with Guy, she thought, lay in the fact that he was so often right. She and Clarence could claim that their evening had been spoilt by the presence of Dubedat. She knew it had, in fact, been spoilt not by Guy’s generosity but by their own lack of it.

Harriet lacks purpose and so it’s no surprise that her energy and focus turns towards analysing and judging others. In a way she reminded me of Hadley Richardson in Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife and Zelda Fitzgerald in Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler, women who find themselves in the shadows of the larger player, their husband’s lives, men whom other people are drawn too and seek attention from, leaving the wife as a companion and bed warmer for the few hours he finds himself solitary.

They too, are stories of the lives of young internationals, professors, diplomats, journalists, the locals they fall in with, the cafes, restaurants and hotels they frequent, the political background constantly a source of conversation, the lack of family and a rootlessness that drives them to seek each other out in this environment that throws people together, who wouldn’t otherwise cross paths. Harriet however, due to her lack of involvement in events, becomes the detached witness, the reliable narrator, of character(s) and of this twentieth century war.

It is precisely her position as a civilian external to the public sphere and to the war effort, together with her apparent lack of faith in politics, that validates her as a detached witness. Carmen Andrés Oliver

Shakespeare Foretells All

Shakespeare Troilus and CressidaThe novel becomes even more interesting and ironic when Guy decides to produce an amateur production of the Shakespearean play Troilus and Cressida, deliberately diverting the attention of his fans and followers, young and old, at a time when war is creeping ever closer and everyone else not involved in his amateur dramatics is frantic with worry. The play is the tragic story of lovers set against the backdrop of war.

The Balkan Trilogy The Great Fortune

Photo by Monica Silvestre on Pexels.com

Harriet is embarrassed by the idea of the play, sure it’s an endeavour that will fail, hoping it will, despite the fervour with which everyone invited to participate has responded.

Now she was beginning to realise she might be wrong. Contrary to her belief, people were not only willing to to join in, they were grateful at being included. Each seemed simply to have been waiting the opportunity to make a stage appearance.

Dropped as one of the players, Harriet is upstaged by Sophie, a woman whose affection for Guy and history that precedes her, adds to the tension of their marriage.

The Great Fortune is Life

As the novel ends, they take a look inside the window outside the German Bureau, where a map is updated daily and what they see leaves us wondering what will happen next, as Europe itself is a bed of tension and danger, depending on where one’s loyalties lie.

When they reached the window, they saw the dot of Paris hidden by a swastika that squatted like a spider, black on the heart of the country.

They stood staring at it for a while. Soberly, Guy asked: ‘What do you think will happen here? What are our chances?

Harriet responds:

We’ll get away because we must. The great fortune is life. We must preserve it.’

It is a unique novel in its close observation of the response to pending war of a small community of English people thrown together by circumstance, viewing the approaching war from inside a part of Europe that is less well traversed in English literature, given less attention at the time of writing and being rediscovered again now.

Olivia Manning, OBE (1908-1980)

Manning met her husband when he was on leave for a month in July 1939 from his first British Council post in Romania. They married in August and nine days later he was ordered back to Bucharest, so the couple left London as war was looking likely to commence. During the war, they lived in Romania, Greece, Egypt and Palestine.

She returned to England in 1945. She wrote novels, short stories, sketches, screenplays, nonfiction books, essays and reviews. She was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1976, and died four years later.

The Great Fortune was first published in 1960.

N.B. This book was a review copy ebook, kindly provided by the publisher via Netgalley.

15 thoughts on “The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning

  1. I read this first volume some time back but didn’t continue with the others. Now I need to start at the beginning. I do remember being pretty annoyed with both Guy and Harriet initially, whatever were they thinking? But I was impressed with how Manning wove their story in with the larger one of what was happening around them.

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    • I’m pleased to hear of your initial reaction Julé, I wondered overnight if I was being a bit harsh, and it is indeed that impulsive heading off into the middle of the political tensions of the region, the motivation for that not really shared, although I did read elsewhere that they were looking for ‘adventure’. It’s a little like the internet influencers of the 21st century trying to avoid the pandemic heading for Dubai!

      I think the fact that a woman ends up as a result being a first hand detached narrator of that period of history from inside the continent and without an agenda is part of what makes it interesting. I’m going to persevere since I have the next two ready to go and I like the idea of that eye witness account, even if some of the characters are insufferable.

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      • You make an interesting point about Harriet’s narrative POV, I’ll be interested to see what you think about the others. I really do need to get back to them. Between you and Jacqui they’ve moved up the TBR.

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    • She also wrote stand alone novels and at the time they were published I believe they were popular, but like so many women writing in the earlier part of the 20th century they fall out of print and are now beginning to find a new appreciative audience.

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      • It’s the same here. It’s not just women either, backlists of book publishers that were swallowed up by the conglomerates seemed to vanish and now we are all constantly drowning in shiny new releases of often quite ordinary books.

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  2. I love your thoughtful reflections on this novel, particularly you responses to the characters (and the novel itself) as the narrative unfolds. Guy and Harriet are complex, flawed individuals, and the scope of the trilogy allows Manning to explore the various dynamics of their relationship in detail. My perceptions of several of the characters changed over time, especially as their various strengths and limitations were revealed…

    Are you planning to continue with it, Claire? I hope so, as there are many more developments to come!

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    • It’s thanks to your reading that I’ve had my eye on this trilogy and of course it’s extremely tempting and rewarding to get an inside view into this era through the eyes of a woman, especially given the fact that it is considered to very autobiographical. Which is in part perhaps why in the beginning, the reader experiences the characters with that kind of “first impression” judgement and discomfort of Harriet herself. Yes, I have the next two ready to go and will be reading them very shortly, to keep the characters alive in the imagination. I’m actually looking forward to it and I know what you mean about the changing perceptions of the characters, I even found myself warming to the scrounging Prince Yakimov when Guy lead him into what might have been his true calling. 🙂

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  3. I remember starting, and not finishing this years ago because I was unengaged by it. Your review has me thinking I might do better if I persisted. But with such a long TBR list, I’m still not sure. We’ll see …

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    • It does take perseverance, but I’m going to continue, it’s at the ‘like’ not ‘love’ stage, but I think for the sheer audacity of what she has done in creating this semi-autobiographical record, I’m keen to know it from the inside, and it is also interesting given the current state of immobility, to look at a group of people defying the threat that surrounds them and choosing to stay, trying to outrun the danger while not engaging with it, if anything, providing others with a distraction. Watch and wait perhaps. 🙂

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  4. Very fascinating review, Claire. Your reluctance to read about purposeless women following their husbands, wondering why they are unhappy resonates with me. It is funny how many novels would struggle with the Bechdel Test.

    I am glad you persevered, and curious to know what Manning would do more. I haven’t read her. I will continue to keep her in my radar.

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    • Thank you Deepika, oh I have never heard of the Bechdel Test, I had to look it up. So for anyone else reading this who like me wasn’t aware of it,

      it is a measure of the representation of women in fiction. It asks whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The requirement that the two women must be named is sometimes added.

      Silencing women or keeping their narrative fixed on men is frustrating and it’s funny you mention it, because that was my criticism recently of the film ‘White Tiger’, it’s an incredibly thought provoking film and well acted, but I noticed the lack of women in the narrative, and when the woman was present, it was she who provoked or caused the central conflict of the story. Though the Grandmother who appeared to be the head of the family back in the rural village was a cause for inspiration, the matriarchal spirit or respect for elders apparent in the countryside, until the urbanites turn up.

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      • I agree with you, Claire. I haven’t watched the movie yet, but I read the book years ago. I had just begun reading fiction, but even then, the imbalance in the representation of women in ‘The White Tiger’ was glaring. I read a couple of stories on the way Netflix seems to particularly choose subjects which have underwhelming representation of women, or exploitative violence against them.

        Now when I think about some great Indian epics, women have only been made to appear as vehicles to push the narrative forward, and mainly to stir conflicts. The misogynist interpretations of the Indian epic ‘Mahabharata’ say that the great war was caused by Panchaali’s anger, and thirst for revenge, but there is very little acknowledgement of how she was objectified, and humiliated. I read a terrific book called ‘The Palace of Illusions’ written by Chithra Banarjee Divakaruni. It’s the feminist retelling of Mahabharata, especially the story of Panchaali. It was the perfect antidote. We need more stories like that one. It’s one of my best reads of 2020.

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