Knowing of my continued pursuit of Woolf references in fiction, Stuart Clarke of the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain pointed me to Olivia Manning’s The Great Fortune, the first book in the Balkan Trilogy, which, combined with the Levant Trilogy, is called Fortunes of War.
With a sky-high stack of reading for summer and beyond, it wasn’t my intention to take on six volumes of fictionalized Eastern European political and cultural history during World War II. But I checked out the first volume to get the reference in context, started at the beginning, and now I’m hooked. My world atlas and the “R” volume of my encyclopedia are open on the floor for quick reference, and I’m steeped in Romania’s complicated and convoluted history from its early Ottoman days through the period covered in the novels, to its Communist takeover and subsequent revolution in 1989.
Romania’s wartime occupation and shifting allegiance are balanced by a fascinating cast of characters and their relationships, primarily newlyweds Harriet and Guy Pringle—he’s there to teach English at the University of Bucharest—and the questionably charming but shifty Prince Yakimov.
Harriet is the anchor, observing and absorbing daily life and the players, mostly male, mostly enthralled with war. At one point Guy and some of his non-combatant colleagues are drawn into a plan to commit illicit actions, which the organizer tells them will be “lots of fun.”
Woolf comes into a literary discussion that Harriet has with another English resident of Bucharest. Seeing that she’s reading D.H. Lawrence, he dismisses “These modern novelists…. Why is it that not one of them is really good enough?”
A one-time aspiring writer, Clarence says that if one can’t be a Tolstoy, Flaubert or Stendhal, then why try to be a writer. Harriet asks him about Woolf, and he replies: “I think Orlando almost the worst book of the century.” To the Lighthouse is “all right—but all her writing is so diffused, so feminine, so sticky.”
So what is Manning saying here? And why Woolf? Harriet defends the writers that Clarence attacks, noting that “So much creative effort has gone into their work,” so perhaps it’s a way of differentiating Harriet from her milieu, adding to her sense of being an outsider.
Manning (1908-1980) published her first book in 1937, overlapping with Woolf’s Three Guineas and The Years, though Fortunes of War wasn’t written until the 1960s and ‘70s. I haven’t discovered yet if Woolf and Manning had any personal contact or what influence Woolf had on Manning, although they almost certainly had shared acquaintances in literary London and seem to have held similar views about war and those who perpetuate it.