'A great many novels nowadays are just travel books,' Ivy Compton-Burnett grumbled to Barbara Pym in 1960. 'Olivia has just published one about Bulgaria.' She hadn't noticed that the setting of The Great Fortune is in fact Romania. But she had a point. Journeys, voluntary and enforced, are big in Olivia Manning's work, as they had been in the first forty years of her life, and the painter manqué in her always made the most of topographical detail. An element in the success of Fortunes of War, the 1987 TV version of her two trilogies set in the Second World War (Anthony Burgess, a fan, called them a hexateuch), was the visual sumptuousness: the arrival in Bucharest of the train carrying the young British Council teacher and his new wife; the Athens settings of the wife's romance with one British officer and her scrambles up the pyramids with another; the North African desert; Alexandria, Luxor, Damascus. The series, combined with some well-timed Virago reissues, was crucial in bringing Manning's work a wider readership. A quarter of a century after her death, Neville and June Braybrooke's Olivia Manning: A Life provides an opportunity to look at what her reputation is based on.
LRB 9 February 2006 | PDF Download