Olivia Manning is one of my favourite novelists and I am thrilled that her work is now being released on kindle. This story has Ellie Parsons as the central character; only eighteen years old and fleeing provincial life for the glamour of London. Her mother is disapproving that she came to London against her wishes, but Ellie is determined to make a success of her new, independent life. Wishing to become an artist, she finds work as a furniture packer, but is sure she can be promoted. One day, at her workplace, she mets Quintin Bellot, a shareholder. They embark on a love affair and he finds her a position in the 'studio' to her great delight. However, what for her is a major love affair is, for him, merely a fling.
Quintin, to be fair, has his own issues. A lifestyle and an income which don't match up, resentment at a father who managed to make a fortune and then lose it and a wife, the beautiful but self obsessed Petta, who flits in and out of his life. Petta is the social butterfly, aware she still has her looks, but not sure for how much longer she will be able to use them successfully and desperate to try to keep Quintin to maintain her lifestyle. Into this triangle are interwoven a cast of characters, all attempting to make a life in bleak, post war Britain. Olivia Manning evokes this society with wonderful vividness - a place where women who work are expected to have a private allowance to allow them to be paid less than men, for whom a job is an amusement until marriage and not a career to pay the bills. Jobs are scarce, everything drab and dull and postwar London a place to escape from.
Ellie's original joy of living is expressed in her initial optimism. Her friend Nancy exclaims they should be grateful for what they have - "I've heard of art students washing dishes in hotels, cleaning windows, acting as waiters, scrubbing stairs in blocks of flats. Some have even had to go into advertising - we can't complain really." However, Ellie gradually begins to realise that her job is not what she expected and Quintin's love for her something she cannot rely upon. As Ellie's life begins to fall apart, everything she holds dear is put to the test. Ellie and Petta's fates become entwined and the book deftly brings all the characters to the conclusions that life holds for them. Olivia Manning creates a world and makes you care you about it. This is a wonderful novel and, apart from a fantastic story, is also interesting for its portrayal of London in those postwar years. If you haven't discovered Olivia Manning for yourself yet, you are in for a treat.
After reading the truly one-of-a-kind "The Playroom", which had my mouth dropping open throughout, I was keen to read more of this author's work. I wasn't disappointed by this novel.
As a sworn lover of London (Londonphile?) it always fascinates me to read of other people's experiences in moving to the capital, and the day-to-day struggles of adjusting to metropolitan life, which haven't really changed over time - namely financial worries, dealing with isolation and trying to carve some kind of niche for yourself in this massive, teeming, hectic place.
The story follows a handful of characters in the 1950s based in and around SW3 over the course of a year or so. They are all related to / having relationships with one another in some way. Olivia Manning sensitively details their private struggles and often piercing insights into one another's flaws and failings. These are often sad, but I ultimately felt a sense of hope for most of the characters.
The two middle-aged male characters aren't particularly engaging and boringly easily manipulated by the women around them, but there are some fascinatingly strong female characters here that I would have loved to see more of - namely the calculating Maxine, hilarious Dahlia, enigmatic Nancy and also Ellie Parsons' mother and sister, who both seemed to have hidden depths during their limited appearances. I found them both more interesting that Ellie herself!
Ellie, the needy and naive protagonist, isn't always sympathetic but is completely relatable. This is a vivid and absorbing read, with some beautiful descriptions of London, and I was thankful for a much happier outcome than I expected.
A young woman, Ellie Parsons, escapes her dull suburban home to experience the excitement and bright lights of London in the mid-1950s.
Except, of course, that there are no bright lights and all she experiences is an unhappy love life.
Nearly all the characters are unsympathetic; Ellie is emotionally neurotic; her lover, Quintin, is a shallow cad; her lover's wife, Petta, vengeful and self-pitying; her boss, Mrs. Primrose, bitter and unfulfilled.
There is an emptiness, a phoniness about the characters' lives. Even the firm where Ellie works deals with fakery - a place where old furniture is antiqued.
This firm also employs a couple of gay men, though, because of the era in which the novel was published, Manning cannot state this explicitly. However, the ambiguity of their relationship is interesting and even more so their acceptance by their peers as part of the group who meet up for drinks in the pub.
The characters move seamlessly between their dingy rooms in West London and the upper class milieu of their employers. Everyone is short of money, living from hand to mouth. (The Second World War had only been over ten years and there were still housing shortages. What did strike me was the easy interplay between the classes - a feature of other novels published in the 1950s which I have read; again, this may reflect the breakdown of class attitudes brought about by the War).
If the rooms which the characters inhabit are dingy, then so is the weather - all fog and rain. The novel is typographically precise and clearly has strong autobiographical elements.
Very enjoyable and a good snapshot of bohemian life in 1950s London.