I 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!