Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy consists of the novels: The Great Fortune, The Spoilt City and Friends and Heroes. The trilogy is a semi-autobiographical work based loosely around her own experiences as a newlywed in war torn Europe. The first book, “The Great Fortune,” begins in 1939, with Harriet Pringle going to Bucharest with her new husband, Guy. Guy Pringle has been working the English department of the University for a year and met, and married, Harriet during his summer holiday. As they travel through a Europe newly at war, one of the other characters on the train is Prince Yakimov, a once wealthy man who is now without influence or protection and who feels he is being unjustly ‘hounded’ out of one capital city after another. Harriet herself has virtually no family – her parents divorced when she was young and she was brought up by an aunt. In personality she is much less extrovert than Guy, who befriends everyone and expects to be befriended in turn. Throughout this novel I shared Harriet’s exasperation with her new husband, who constantly seems to care about everyone’s feelings, but ignores his new wife’s plight of being isolated in a new city, where she feels friendless and lonely.
This is the first in a book which introduces us to the characters and places that populate the trilogy. From ‘poor old Yaki’ who yearns constantly for a life now gone, to Guy’s boss, Professor Inchcape, to Guy’s colleague Clarence Lawson, whose company Harriet accepts when her own husband is too busy, to the scheming Sophie, who attempted to marry Guy for a British passport, to the journalists who cluster round the bars and cafes listening to rumours. For it is the phoney war and rumours abound about the possibility of the Germans invading. The English expats reassure themselves that the weather is too bad, that the Germans have other priorities, that the war will be soon be over. Meanwhile, the British Information Bureau (run by Inchcape) and the German Information Bureau delight in attempting to outdo each other with maps and window displays to create the illusion that they are winning. At this time, though, the Germans are certainly looking much stronger. As Guy throws all his time and energy into organising a play, Harriet is unable to refuse reality. At the end of this volume, Paris falls and England stands alone.
“The Spoilt City,” is the second volume in Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy. The uncertainty surrounding Romania in the first novel is even more pronounced at the beginning of this book. Rumours and suspicions abound and the English are viewed as likely losers of the war. Harriet begins to long for safety, but Guy refuses to accept that he will have to leave and, to Harriet’s exasperation, throws himself wholeheartedly into organising the summer school at the University.
Many of the characters in the first book also appear here. Yakimov, always on his uppers and installed in the Pringle’s spare room, is disgruntled and depressed. When Guy and Harriet come across Sasha Drucker; the son of a wealthy Jewish businessman whose ruin is the talk of the city, the pair take him in too. Sasha has deserted from the army and Harriet is concerned that Yakimov will inform someone if he knows, so he has to stay in hiding. She is right to worry – Yakimov is concerned solely with his own well-being and is the least discreet person imaginable. When he goes to visit Cluj, he is so out of touch with events, that he imagines he can visit his old friend Fredi von Flugel; now a Nazi. His bravado and bragging may well have unpleasant repercussions for the very people who took him in when he had nowhere else to turn.
Meanwhile, revolution is in the air. As Bucharest experiences upheaval, martial law and shortages, the British await the arrival of Professor Pinkrose; invited by Guy’s boss, Inchcape, to – almost unbelievably - give a lecture. Harriet begins to despair that neither Guy, nor Inchcape, are prepared to accept the danger they could be in and have their heads firmly in the sand about current events. Bucharest now has a strong German presence, the Blitz has begun back home and getting to safety may soon be impossible. You really do feel for Harriet in this book – Guy is always so concerned with everyone else that he barely has time to consider how Harriet feels and she remains isolated and worried. Before the end of this volume, she has some difficult decisions to make about the future.
“Friends and Heroes,” is the third in the Balkan trilogy. The first two volumes of the trilogy saw Guy and Harriet Pringle in Bucharest – newly married and coping in a Europe newly at war. This book sees Harriet travel to Athens alone and awaiting Guy’s arrival. Many of the characters who populated the first two novels also appear here, including Dubedat, Lush and Prince Yakimov. Indeed, so isolated is Harriet when she arrives that Yakimov, previously despised by her as an unwanted presence in her life, and her apartment, now becomes a friendly face in an unknown city.
It is fair to say that Guy Pringle is one of the most frustrating characters in any novel and his arrival, as expected, does not improve Harriet’s life noticeably. Politically naïve, emotionally warm and gregarious; Guy spends his time thinking the best of everyone despite the reality of his situation and unwilling to face reality. Guy had worked in the English department of the University in Bucharest, but, once in Greece, he finds that Dubedat, Lush and Professor Pinkrose are unwilling to help Guy with work – as he once helped them. Harriet is constantly frustrated by her husband’s unwillingness to see anything but the best about everyone and begins to feel more and more neglected as these books continue. Indeed, this novel sees her attracted to Charles Warden, as she feels her marriage means little to Guy, who has time for everyone but her, in a life taken up by providing entertainment for the troops and pouring his attention on students and friends.
As with the other novels, this is largely based on Olivia Manning’s experiences as a young wife during wartime and paints an evocative image of life during that period. Harriet believes she has escaped the danger and upheaval of Bucharest for a better life in Athens. However, as optimism in Greece turns again to disquiet, rumour and encroaching danger, you worry that Harriet will never find her feet in a constantly unstable Europe – mirrored in her rocky, unsteady marriage. She wants certainty and safety and had hoped to find that within her marriage, but now she is unsure whether Guy is the man to provide that for her. This story continues in “The Levant Trilogy” - consisting of, “The Danger Tree,” “The Battle Lost and Won,” and “The Sum of Things.” Although I have read these books before, man years ago, I am enjoying re-reading these novels very much and look forward to reading on.