A Review of Olivia Manning’s School for Love

school for love cover image

This novel is about Felix, a British boy whose mother has just died. Felix and his mother lived in Baghdad back when Iraq was a British colony, so Felix, whose father is also deceased, has to make a long journey home by ship at a time (early 1945) when berths on ships are reserved for service members, diplomats, and others who are directly working to bring the second world war to a close. He has a sort-of aunt in Jerusalem named Miss Bohun, and she offers to take him in while he waits for a place on the ship. Miss Bohun is a sort-of aunt because she and Felix are not biologically related. Miss Bohun was an orphan herself and was taken in by Felix’s paternal grandparents, so she grew up with Felix’s father, as a foster-sibling. Felix has never met Miss Bohun before, but he has heard his mother grumbling about her. Nevertheless, he is determined to forge a good relationship. Felix, whose age is not given but who seems about thirteen, is first and foremost a lonely, grieving child who desperately needs love. One might think that Miss Bohun, an orphan herself, would be sympathetic to Felix’s feelings, but you would be wrong. This is a British novel, after all, and treating orphans compassionately is just not something that is done in British novels.

Miss Bohun runs a boarding house, and she is also a “pastor” of a religious group called the “Ever-Readies.” When Felix arrives, he meets Frau Leszno and her son Nikky, who also live at Miss Bohun’s boarding house. Their status there is a bit unclear. Over time, we discover that Miss Bohun likes to use room assignments in her boarding house in manipulative ways. When Miss Bohun was looking for a place to live in Jerusalem, she met Frau Leszno, who ran this same boardinghouse but couldn’t afford to keep it going. Miss Bohun aggressively befriended her and offered to take over the boarding house, promising that Frau Leszno and Nicky could stay on as partners. Long story short, by the time Felix arrives, other tenants have moved into the more desirable rooms, while Frau Leszno is living in a shack in the backyard and Nikky is sleeping on a cot in the kitches, and Miss Bohun refers to them as servants. In Miss Bohun’s words, Frau Leszno and Nikky are “Polish Jews but they fled to Germany during some pogrom or other” – a remarkably insensitive thing to say in 1945 – and Miss Bohun has taken advantage of their vulnerability. Over time, we learn that this is typical of how she treats others.

At first the reader picks up on much more of this drama that Felix does. His young age and his grief understandably make Felix a fairly solipsistic character. He doesn’t mind being at the boarding house with Miss Bohun. There is a cat there – Faro – with whom he immediately bonds, and at first he accepts Miss Bohun’s party line that other people are always taking advantage of her. Miss Bohun charges Felix through the teeth for his room – so much so that the British consulate advises him to find lodging somewhere else – and rations things like water, electricity, and milk. Felix’s reactions to these deprivations are muted. He feels glum when he has to spend his days in a cold, dark room, but he doesn’t know how to assert himself enough to complain. He would almost certainly be diagnosed with depression if the novel were set in the present day, and of course depression is perfectly justifiable in Felix’s situation.

For a while I have had a nebulous sense that the books that are reissued by the wonderful New York Review of Books Classics series – or the ones I’ve read, anyway, maybe 12-15 out of hundreds in the series – have a certain quality in common. This is no small feat for a series that publishes books from dozens of countries and a wide variety of authors. When I was reading this book, it came to me that this quality might be phrased as “less intensity than similar books.” I know – this is not very effective bit of literary analysis. The word “intense” means different things to different people and doesn’t have a value judgment attached to it. Intense things can be good or bad, and this label is entirely subjective. So let me walk you through my thought process a little. Imagine Miss Bohun in a novel written by Dickens. First off, her name would be Miss Plumpfingers or some such thing, and she would have at least one speech impediment. She would still complain about people taking advantage of her so-called generosity while also being the model of stinginess, and she would still be the pastor of the Ever-Readies, but she would do these things while also being a comic masterpiece who totally overwhelmed every scene she was in. Some readers would undoubtedly prefer Dickens’ version of her character, while others prefer Manning’s subtlety. I fall somewhere between these two camps. I liked this novel, but I didn’t love it. It wasn’t difficult to finish, but I could just as easily have put it aside and picked up something else without regrets. I like a good overwrought Dickensian villain now and then, and I thought Miss Bohun as Manning wrote her could use a little more sturm und drang. But then I realized that Manning wrote this character the only way she could, given that Felix is her point-of-view character. At the beginning of the novel, Felix is clueless. He’s clueless because of his age, because of the tunnel vision caused by his grief, and also because he knows that Miss Bohun is the only relative he has who’s not back in England, and perhaps he does not want to look too closely at her treachery. He figures out how to live in her house without conflict, to accommodate her constant outrage, to be the wick in her gaslight, so to speak. To write the novel any other way, Manning would have had to be untrue to her point-of-view character’s essential limitations.

As it happens, though, the ending of this novel is great. About halfway through, Miss Bohun takes in a new boarder named Mrs. Ellis. Mrs. Ellis is an extremely young widow – maybe 18 or 19 – and she’s pregnant. Young as she is, though, Mrs. Ellis is not naïve. When Miss Bohun rations Mrs. Ellis’s milk, Mrs. Ellis contacts the milkman directly and arranges a separate delivery just for herself. When she requests certain foods that Miss Bohun refuses to buy, claiming they are too expensive, Mrs. Ellis announces that she will eat her meals elsewhere and stops paying the “board” component of her room and board. In other words, she refuses to play the game that the rest of the boarders are mired in. Felix adores Mrs. Ellis, whom he seems to see as both a love interest and his reincarnated mother, and while she keeps him at arm’s length she does share her thoughts on Miss Bohun’s character with him, and his understanding of his sort-of aunt becomes more nuanced. The most important think Mrs. Ellis does, though, is ask Miss Bohun what the Ever-Readies are ever ready for.

The answer is the second coming. Miss Bohun is the head of one of the many millenarian religious splinter groups that congealed in Israel in the twentieth century, believing that the second coming was close at hand. When Mrs. Ellis shares these facts with Felix, his understanding broadens, and Miss Bohun starts to become more like my made-up Mrs. Plumpfingers from a made-up Dickens novel – not because she has changed but because the perspective through which we are seeing her has been given the tools to see her for who she really is.

You may recall that earlier in this review I mentioned that Miss Bohun uses room assignments in her boarding house as a way to manipulate her boarders, but I never really followed up on how she does this. In addition to Frau Leszno’s outdoor shack and Nikky’s kitchen cot, the sleeping spaces include an undesirable attic room, two rooms of reasonable quality on the second floor, and the much-mythologized “front room,” the nicest of all, which Miss Bohun never rents out but constantly cleans, arranges, and redecorates. Every so often she drops hints that she is considering moving someone into the front room, and then everyone is on edge to figure out what that person has done to earn such a privilege (and when the move never happens, everyone is on edge again to figure out what the promised resident has done to lose Miss Bohun’s esteem). It is Mrs. Ellis who figures out the true purpose of the front room: it’s for Jesus. Like Elijah’s chair at the Passover table, no one is allowed to sleep in the front room, but Miss Bohun makes sure it is always spotless for the honored guest she suspects will be arriving any day now. Mrs. Ellis’s further research reveals that the financial backers of the Ever-Readies are paying Miss Bohun quite well for keeping the Risen Lord’s room available for Him 24/7, meaning that all the quibbling over pennies and nickels (or their equivalent in 1945 Jerusalem) has been unnecessary and ridiculous.

School for Love is a well-wrought example of the narrative technique called the first person/minor character point of view. In other words, Felix isn’t truly the protagonist. We think he is the protagonist because we see the action of the novel through his eyes, but really we are along for the ride behind his eyes, watching Miss Bohun come into clearer and clearer focus as the novel progresses. It’s true that Felix grows and changes (and that growth and change is one mark of a protagonist), but his growth is just a tool to allow us to see Miss Bohun better.

I liked this book and admire the mind that created it. I look forward to reading more of Manning’s work, and I plan to keep working on my theory about what the NYRB Classics books all have in common. I don’t think I’ve put my finger on it yet.

This entry was posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Olivia Manning, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to A Review of Olivia Manning’s School for Love

  1. badkitty1016 says:

    I’ve only read a couple NYRB books but I tend to agree that there’s something about them: lack of intensity works as a starting point to thinking about it. The ones i’ve read have been very well written and engaging, but they have this general sense of calmness about them, and maybe lack of intensity says it best.

  2. The muted crescendos allow time for the reader to think – an advantage in these days of information overload. I’m in the middle of writing a blog post on silence and space in writing, and had overlooked Olivia Manning so thank you for the reminder. It’s lovely to see such a comprehensive review of one of her books that I haven’t read. Do try the “Fortunes of War” books (Balkan Trilogy) which were also carefully adapted by the BBC in the 1990s.

    • lfpbe says:

      Thanks for the suggestion–I would love to read more of her work. I look forward to checking out your post on silence and space too.

  3. Will ping back (quietly).

  4. Kat says:

    You articulate exactly what I think about NYRB books. It’s hard to generalize, and I love the Viragos they republish, but am underwhelmed by many of their choices, though whether they are bad translations or simply the lesser work of a famous author (Leonora Carrington’s Down Below), who knows?

    • lfpbe says:

      Interesting – I don’t know Down Below, but your thought that they publish the lesser works of great authors is a good one. I think I like the idea and appearance of the NYRB Classics more than I like actually reading them.

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