This round of the Classics Club Spin sent me off to Romania, 1939, for the first of six books that are based on Manning’s own experiences, and which are combined together as her Fortunes of War series. I have only read the first book: The Great Fortune , which is a decent, meaty read for a number of reasons.
The story begins with a train journey. Newley weds, Guy and Harriet Pringle are on their way to Bucharest in Romania. Guy teaches English at a Bucharest university as part of a cultural programme sponsored by the British government. He’s met Harriet during the summer vacation and married her before bringing her to the Balkans just as Germany invades Poland.
So when the Pringles arrive at their hotel, Harriet is confronted not only by persistent beggars, many of them deformed from birth to help their earning potential, but also an influx of Polish refugees. Harriet and Guy are temporarily staying here until they can find a flat, because Guy has always tended to couch surf among his wide and varied set of acquaintances. He’s a popular young man who thrives on interacting with others, talking literature and politics into the small hours.
Guy’s also a devotee of Marxism which he sees as a potential solution in a country where the peasants are struggling under a powerful elite. Romania has a strong economy with plentiful resources, among them a highly productive agricultural sector. But with a war starting up, much of this produce is exported and the ensuing hike in the cost of living puts a terrible strain on the poorest. Meanwhile the Pringles hob-nob with assorted academics and civil servants at various plush restaurants.
As Harriet passed between the tables with Clarence, there was a little murmur of comment: first that she should make this public appearance with someone other than her husband, then the common complaint that English teachers – they were all regarded as ‘teachers’ – could afford to come to a restaurant of this class. In Rumania a teacher was one of the lowest-paid members of the lower-middle class, earning perhaps four thousand lei a month. Here was proof that the English teachers were not teachers at all but, as everyone suspected, spies.
We get another view of Bucharest society through the eyes of Prince Yakimov, also newly arrived, who has fallen on hard times. It isn’t clear quite how he comes to be in Bucharest, except that he needs to make his remittance last a bit longer and the city seems cheap. He hasn’t a clue how to earn a living. Yakimov is technically British, his father having escaped Russia at the time of revolution, but now drifts from hotel to hotel living on credit. His finely tailored clothes, his name and good manners soon have him invited to parties given by the aristocracy, in the hope they can fleece him at cards.
But mostly this is Harriet’s story. The poor girl has to get used to sharing Guy, not only with his many friends, but also with Sophie, who’d hoped to marry Guy herself, and therefore acquire a British passport. Other characters include gloomy Clarence, Guy’s colleague, who soon takes an interest in Harriet, and Guy’s boss, Inchcape, who has been put in charge of British propaganda for the Balkans. The story bubbles along full of lively conversations on the political situation, the locals as well as relationships and anything else – often very lifelike and stimulating dialogue.
Olivia Manning has masterfully recreated a time and place in a way that seems very vivid – she was similarly married to a British academic at a Bucharest university, and this shows in her descriptions of the people of the city, its buildings and parks, its cafés and restaurants. You really feel you are there with Harriet and you suffer with her all the anxiety of fitting in and waiting for Guy to come home. All the while, events are taking a turn for the worse with the outbreak of war. She worries she will never be able to return to England, that Hitler will invade Britain, that Hitler will invade Romania.
Running through the book is a wonderful cast of characters, and a smattering of dry humour. Harriet is one of those quiet observers who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but is often stuck with odd company and not much to do. Scenes with Yakimov offer a mix of hilarity and desperation. The story is set over four parts but comes together nicely towards a strong conclusion, with Guy deciding to produce a Shakespeare play. This brings out the best and worst in the members of the cast, all taken from his friends and colleagues.
I really enjoyed The Great Fortune, although it wasn’t a book to rush through, requiring lots of concentration to keep up with who was who. But I still hope to read more in the series, including Manning’s follow-up books that make up The Levant Trilogy which describes the Pringles’ life in Egypt as the war rages on. Manning also wrote a number of stand-alone novels that could also be well worth checking out – she’s a terrific writer. The Good Fortune gets four stars from me.