School For Love by Olivia Manning – #1951Club

School For LoveI wish I could remember who bought me School For Love by Olivia Manning… I know that I’ve had two copies at different times, and currently have one, but other than that its history is clouded in the vagaries of my terrible memory. Anyway, it’s been on my tbr for a while – as has Manning more broadly, though I have shied away from the Balkan Trilogy because anything that comes in a trilogy seems like too big a commitment to make to the uninitiated.

I started School For Love with absolutely no knowledge of what it was about (having not read the blurb or the introduction). It came as something of a surprise that it was set in Jerusalem, and that there wasn’t a school in sight. Instead, recently orphaned Felix has arrived at the house of a distant sort-of-relative, where he is being offered a place as a paying guest. Felix is young, devoted to his late mother, and rather lost in this confusing 1945 world. Miss Bohun seems like a Godsend, and he is grateful for the place in her household – which also has eccentric Mr Jewel in the attic, a maid, a sort-of servant (Frau Leszno), and that servant’s son – Nikky, who is almost always described as handsome whenever he is mentioned. Later, a Mrs Ellis also joins the house – a glamorous woman (in Felix’s eyes), unconcerned with the mores and opinions of the house.

Oh, and a Siamese cat called Faro. (Incidentally – this NYRB Classics cover is so perfect that it’s almost unbelievable.) That’s also not the last time you’ll hear about Siamese cats in the 1951 Club…

Manning creates an astonishing character in Miss Bohum – because she is in many ways bad, but it is also impossible to view her actions too severely. She is a miser, clearly taking as much money as she can from her houseguests, while also pretending to be self-sacrificing and motivated entirely by kindness – indeed (and this makes her less wicked than she could be), she seems genuinely to believe these are her motivations. She can imagine slights and unkindnesses in those around her – while we also learn that she has subtly forced people out of the house, taking it over as her own when this was never the original intention.

The nuance of Manning’s depiction of characters also comes in showing them to us through Felix’s perspective. Not directly – the novel is in the third person – but his views colour all our understanding of them. And he spends much of the novel being in loyal agreement with Miss Bohun – unthinkingly, because she should be right about things. He feels cross on her behalf when she talks of people’s ingratitude; he accepts her edicts as gospel. Only as the novel continues does he – conflicted – begin to feel the scales fall.

I haven’t even mention Miss Bohun’s cult, the ‘Ever-Readies’. What a great choice on Manning’s part. I would have loved to see a little more about them, as she wrote very entertainingly about them, but I suppose it is part of the effect to keep them a bit cloaked and mysterious.

We don’t see very much of 1945 Jerusalem, so School For Love isn’t much of a case history of a time and place – instead, it is a character study, and a depiction of how a young, uninformed boy feels when transplanted from all he knows. It’s a little bit like The Go-Between, in the sense of an innocent seeing a world he doesn’t quite understand – more affected it than anybody could quite realise. The plot is really that: his gradual comprehension of the people around him, and the fall of the idol of Miss Bohun – but in a measured, quiet way. It is all rather beautiful and poignant, and vividly real.

My only real quibble with the book is its title – which does very little to evoke the content of the novel, and might well make somebody think they were going to read a rather different sort of story. It is explained, fairly late in the book – Mrs Ellis quotes part of a Blake poem:

Look on the rising sun: there God does live
And gives his light, and gives his heat away.
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning joy in the noonday.

And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love

And that is why she thinks of life as a school for love. It is one of many things that Felix learns, though not in the way that Blake describes. And what I learned is what a good novelist Olivia Manning is. The 1951 Club got off to a great start with me – I hope it’s also going great for you!

20 thoughts on “School For Love by Olivia Manning – #1951Club

  • April 11, 2017 at 10:06 am

    Please do give the Balkan trilogy a go, I’d love to read your take on it. I think Prince Yakimov is one of the most memorable characters ever written, I was utterly convinced by him. Although I haven’t read this book it sounds as if in Miss Bohun Olivia Manning has written a character as equally flawed, interesting and hard to dislike as Yakimov.

    • April 12, 2017 at 10:54 pm

      I think I’ve persuaded my book group to give it a go – the first one of the trilogy, at least! Miss Bohun might be slightly easier to dislike than Yakimov – but she’s certainly nuanced.

  • April 11, 2017 at 10:11 am

    This sounds like a fab read, Simon, and I’m glad your first 1951 book was good. The only Manning I’ve read so far is the Balkan Trilogy which I can highly recommend, despite the two main characters (the Pringles) being one of the most irritating pair I’ve ever read about. But her sense of place and her wonderful subsidiary characters alone make it worth reading. She’s such a good wrtiter!

    • April 12, 2017 at 10:56 pm

      I’m so pleased the 1951 Club managed to get her to the top of my reading pile. It’s really done great things for authors I’ve been meaning to try!

  • April 11, 2017 at 2:57 pm

    This sounds even better than I imagined when I picked it for the 1951 club. I first began Merry Hall and the way the week is shaping up, it looks like that may be the only one I will finish by Saturday. Perhaps School of Love will be a good airplane read? I hope so as I will probably be taking it with me on Sunday….

    • April 12, 2017 at 10:57 pm

      It could well be – it’s certainly short! (And isn’t Merry Hall a complete joy?)

  • April 11, 2017 at 3:28 pm

    I also read School for Love! I really enjoyed it, and I also highly recommend the Balkan Trilogy (if you buy the omnibus edition it’s rather unwieldy, but none of the individual books is terribly long. I also have The Levant Trilogy which isn’t nearly as long.

    I like your comparison with The Go-Between. I did notice that there wasn’t nearly as much about Jerusalem itself as I had expected. I got more of a sense of what was happening to the refugees more than a sense of the place. I hadn’t much thought about how long it took for people to get back home — I did read a good nonfiction book about the aftermath of the WWII called DeMobbed by Alan Allport but that’s really focused on soldiers after the war, not really about civilians.

    • April 12, 2017 at 10:58 pm

      It could be fun to read this alongside a more in-depth non-fiction. In some ways, this needn’t have been set in Jerusalem at all, need it?

  • April 11, 2017 at 4:48 pm

    School for Love will be my next read for the #1951club. ( so skimmed your review -saving it for later). My review of They Came to Baghdad comes out tomorrow and I’m currently reading Tempest-Tost by Robertson Davies.
    I have been re-reading The Balkan trilogy and I love it I reviewed the second book The Spoilt City yesterday funnily enough, and await the arrival of the third book from eBay. I understand you being put off trilogies but The Balkan trilogy is so well written and immersive – I recommend it.

    • April 12, 2017 at 10:59 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation – I will have to get over my trilogy issue and get onto it!

  • April 11, 2017 at 5:30 pm

    Both you and Jacqui write so convincingly and fondly of this book that I am compelled to search it out. I have read Olivia Manning’s two trilogies (Balkan and Levant) and found them very readable and also with a good understanding of even the more subtle political nuances and influences of the period.

    • April 12, 2017 at 11:00 pm

      I’d be really interested to hear how this compares. And if you can get hold of the NYRB edition, do – it’s lovely.

  • April 11, 2017 at 7:22 pm

    Another novelist to add to my list!

    • April 12, 2017 at 11:00 pm

      It keeps growing, doesn’t it?

  • April 11, 2017 at 8:40 pm

    I enjoyed this one a wee while ago but not as much as her Balkan and Levant trilogies which are really excellent.

    • April 12, 2017 at 11:00 pm

      If they’re even better, then I’m very excited!

  • April 12, 2017 at 10:22 am

    Lovely review Simon, but I am biased as I enjoyed this book very much. Agreeing with everyone above that you should get stuck into The Balkan Trilogy.

    • April 12, 2017 at 11:01 pm

      Thanks Helen! I am definitely encouraged by all these comments in favour of the Balkan trilogy.

  • April 18, 2017 at 9:28 pm

    Simon, I believe the NYRB edition was part of a package from some Library Thing Elves the Christmas before last. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I enjoyed it too, possibly the same copy 😉. I agree the cover is perfect!

    • April 21, 2017 at 11:01 pm

      Dee! Of course! Well, if a little elf does happen to wander past, tell them how grateful I am and how much I enjoyed this book.

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