Neville and June Braybrooke
Chatto & Windus, London, 2004
ISBN 0-7011-7749-7

Olivia Manning was the author of The Balkan Trilogy (made into a TV series starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson) as well as The Levant Trilogy, six novels based on her extraordinary wartime experiences, during which she managed to keep one step ahead of the Nazis, decamping from Romania to Greece, then Egypt and the Middle East.

Despite the passages of extravagant comedy in her work, Olivia Manning was a profoundly serious writer, whose talent was not universally recognised in her lifetime. This, the first biography of her, puts the record straight. Anthony Burgess said that she was ‘of the same tribe’ as Leo Tolstoy. Her writing shows an acute historical understanding as well as a piercing eye for time, place and occasion.

Born in Portsmouth to a naval family in 1908, she made an independent if penurious life for herself as a young woman, painting furniture for Peter Jones and reading film scripts for MGM. Her first novel was published in 1937. Stevie Smith was a bridesmaid at her wedding to Reggie Smith, a lecturer in the British Council, with whom she lived in Bucharest. After the war, she was at the centre of the London literary scene. A great number of the most famous writers of her generation were her friendsdespite her tendency to be mean-spirited to those writers who happened to be women and whom she regarded as having received more fame than herself.

Olivia Manning was a personality as idiosyncratic as any of those portrayed in her novels. So indeed was her husband Reggie Smith, BBC producer, self-proclaimed communist and life-long philanderer. Both indulged in affairs, but their marriage was sustained by Reggie’s unswerving support of his wife’s gifts. Between them, Olivia and Reggie provide this beautifully written, deeply personal memoir with many highly enjoyable scenes.

June and Neville Braybrooke enjoyed not merely the closest of marriages but also the closest of literary partnerships. They rarely spent a night away from each other; each rarely wrote a sentence without the other reading it.

Under the pen-name Isobel English, June published, at widely spaced intervals, three novels and a volume of stories, which, impeccably imagined and elegantly written, won her the allegiance of a small but enthusiastic band of readers.

Neville was a man of letters of the old schoolan adventurous magazine editor and publisher in his youth, a conscientious and perceptive literary critic in his later years.

Their work together on this biography extended over many years. When June died, it seemed for a while that Neville had lost the heart to continue with it. But eventually he resumed the task. On his own death, he had completed the book but had not yet revised it. Francis King, a close friend both of Olivia Manning and of the Braybrookes, undertook to prepare this edited version, with the assistance of June’s daughter and Neville’s step-daughter,Victoria Orr-Ewing.

The Balkan Trilogy
The Balkan Trilogy Excerpts
Wikipedia: Olivia Manning