'I feel I have given my life to writing,' declared Olivia Manning in 1973, 'that I do not exist.' The words were prompted by the discovery that Martin Seyrnour-Smith had left her out of his Guide to Modern World Literature. They say much about the state of apprehension and anxiety in which most writers live, but even more about Olivia Manning herself, who by 1973 was a well-established author in her sixties, with nearly a dozen books behind her - novels, a travel book, a collection of pieces and a book about cats - as well as countless reviews and adaptations. In some ways, however, she was right to feel undervalued. The Balkan Trilogy and its sequel, The Levant Trilogy, were widely admired, but they never won her quite the sales or literary acclaim of her near-contemporaries Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, or Stevie Smith. Manning minded intensely what she perceived to be daily slights and evidence of neglect, just as she minded that she was never short-listed for the Booker Prize, or given what she called a 'solo' review on one of the major books pages. (The first solo review came soon after her death.) When friends reassured her that fame would come, she would say that this was all very well, but that she wanted it now, not when she was dead. And this persistent sense of disappointment colours Neville and June Braybrooke's book about her life.
In 1956, Neville Braybrooke, editor of J R Ackerley's letters, and June, who wrote novels and short stories under the name of Isobel English, met Olivia Manning and her husband Reginald Donald Smith for the first time. After Smith's death in 1986 (Olivia Manning had died in 1980), Chatto &