Paul Bailey

Envying Iris

Olivia Manning: A Woman at War

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Olivia Manning hated being called a woman writer, even when she was being praised, and slightly patronised, by Anthony Burgess, who singled her out as one of the very few women capable of describing with authority the progress of a battle. He also remarked that she understood men. As Deirdre David’s comprehensive biography of this temporarily neglected novelist is often at pains to reveal, she had good cause to understand them. She married, and never divorced, a man of limitless charm and very little in the way of scrupulousness. R D Smith, known as Reggie, was a successful and respected producer for the Third Programme and then Radio 3. He often made her unhappy, but he also inspired her very best writing. It could be said, and I would certainly agree, that she has immortalised him in the character of Guy Pringle in the novels that comprise The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy. Such was his vanity, or generosity of spirit, that he was proud to recognise himself in the essentially comic character she had created. He admired her skills of observation, which were considerable even when she was being light-hearted, and her remarkable memory for the conversations that change lives.

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