Friday 12 March 2021

A Balkan story by Mary Hoffman

As you may be tired of hearing, I moved house in December (yes in midwinter, in the middle of a pandemic and just before Christmas). Our books and CDs went into storage until we could get shelving installed. This has happened over the last few weeks and the books have started coming home; we are having them delivered in three batches, of which the third (CDs) arrived this morning.

Naturally, being us, we had brought with us crates of “emergency books and CDs” which have kept us going (thanks Hilary Mantel, Susanna Clarke and numerous crime writers for your long and/or absorbing works). But when the publicity department at Windmill Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House) got in touch to ask if I would like review copies of Olivia Manning’s Balkan trilogy, I jumped at the chance and they have helped me through many a week.

I first read these three books in the 1980s, when of course I also watched the Fortunes of War series on TV, starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh as Harriet and Guy Pringle. That comprised both the Balkan and Levant trilogies in a masterpiece of compression, but Windmill have dropped the omnibus title and re-issued the first three books under their original titles: The Great Fortune; The Spoilt City and Friends and Heroes. The first book came out in 1960 but begins on the way to Bucharest in autumn 1939. It wouldn’t have counted as an historical novel then but it does now.

Harriet and Guy have married in the summer, after knowing each other for a matter of weeks and are now on a train to Rumania, where Guys teaches English for the British Legation, unable to enlist as he has terrible eyesight. The first two books are set in Bucharest, where the young couple adjust to marriage, war and the complex political situation around them. All the books are told in the third person but very much from Harriet’s point of view and it is a very particular one. 

She knows no-one but Guy in this city which is so alien to her, but he has been teaching there for a year. There is an annoying, ever-present Rumanian student called Sophie, who had wanted Guy to marry her to give her a British passport and is thwarted by his suddenly being rendered no longer nubile. There are other students with many claims on Guy, other Legation men, like Inchcape and Dobson, and a British White Russian prince, Yakimov, who will be important throughout the trilogy.

Harriet soon realises that her relationship with her new husband can never be exclusive; he is all things to all men (and women), relentlessly gregarious, hopeless about time, cowardly about confrontation, unable to think through the consequences of his generous gestures. But everyone loves Guy and Harriet is no exception.

I was struck this time round by how Harriet has nothing to do in the first two books. She meets friends for coffee and cakes or dinner and goes for walks but her life revolves around when Guy is going to come home, like a patient dog. That makes Harriet sound pathetic, but somehow she is not. She is politically ignorant but very interested. And she’s a feminist, even though she wouldn’t recognise the term.

Soon after arriving Bucharest, the Pringles are told by a man called Woolley, who regards himself as the leader of the English colony, that “the ladies must return to England.” Harriet immediately asks who has given the order and Woolley prevaricates but tell her he has sent his own “lady wife” home “as an example.” Harriet’s reply, “I never follow examples,” is both true and a gauntlet thrown down in the face of all the stuffy old gammons she encounters.

The older men mansplain to her or ignore her; the younger ones fall in love with her. And Harriet can be soft-hearted, especially towards animals. It’s Guy who makes them take in first Prince Yakimov, who is a penniless sponger, and then more dangerously Sasha Drecker, his Jewish student whose wealthy father is imprisoned as a result of a German sting and who has deserted from the army. But Harriet, who does not shirk confrontation, lets them stay because they have nowhere else to go.

                                                                     Bucharest, Rumania

As the war progresses, there are shortages in Bucharest: nothing to buy in the market, nothing edible in the restaurants. Inchcape is attacked and badly beaten, the Pringles constantly worry about whether it’s safe to stay, Guy’s name is on a list of men wanted by the Gestapo.

After another poor dinner in a restaurant with a friend of Guy’s, they return to find their apartment ransacked and empty with no sign of Sasha (Yakimov had already decamped). The next day Harriet leaves for Athens and the second book ends with her meeting Prince Yakimov there. He has a sort of a job and a little money and Harriet surprises herself by being pleased to see him.

In Athens the pattern repeats itself. Guy comes to join Harriet and at first there is a lull, a sense of safety and plenty but, as Germany declares war on Greece, the truckloads of soldiers depart optimistically for the front and their broken survivors return. Guy is denied work by inferior men but is still always busy. It’s Harriet who has a job, working in the information Office. 

                                                            The Erechtheum in Athens
Food becomes in short supply. There is a heart-breaking scene when Harriet invites friends to lunch and has nothing to give them but potatoes. Thinking everyone has had enough, she puts the platter on the floor and a friend’s dog clears it in one swoop of his tongue. There is an anguished cry from the kitchen and Harriet is stricken with remorse; that could have been a meal for the servant.

Even Sasha turns up in Athens but there is to be no happy reunion, as he thinks the Pringles have betrayed him. That is typical Manning, to re-write what could have been a happy scene as a much more nuanced meeting between complicated individuals. The trilogy ends, as the second book did, with the Pringles escaping again, this time to Egypt, which is where the Levant trilogy begins. I do hope Windmill will bring those books out again too.

                                                                         Olivia Manning

(I should like to dedicate this review to Ronald Pickup, who played Prince Yakimov so brilliantly in Fortunes of War and who died just as I finished reading the Balkan Trilogy)


  1. My dear daughter-in law loved this trilogy, and your post has reminded me that on one of my shelves, I have the copy she gave me a couple of years past. I think at the time, I'd gone off the roguish hero, but now may be the right moment to enjoy it. Weren't Branagh and Thompson married themsleves at the time?

    Good wishes to all your bookshelves!

  2. Thank you for introducing me to this fascinating trilogy, Mary. I particularly like the concept of re-writing what could have been a happy scene as a nuanced meeting between complicated individuals - much more like real life!

    So glad to hear your bookshelves have now been installed and that you have been reunited with all your books. A house is not a home without books...

    P.S. Love the photo of the Erechtheum!

  3. Penny, they were! I wouldn't call Guy Pringle a rogue and for me the hero is very much Harriet. I think you should give them a go.

    Caroline, I think you'd enjoy them too, particularly the scenes in Athens.

    I've re-read the Levant trilogy since as well and they do on the whole stand the test of time.

  4. I don't know how I missed this post when it was published in March, Mary. Apologies for that. As you know I am currently reading the Levant trilogy for the first time. Of course, it also brings back many moments from the Balkan three. I agree, Harriet is very much the protagonist and one, I think, who you really want to journey alongside. That is part of the key to the readability of the books. She is fully-rounded as a character, compassionate and strong-willed. I had forgotten that Ronnie played Prince Yakimov in the TV series. I worked with him many moons ago. May he rest in peace. He was a very fine actor. I wonder why they never televised the Levant books, or did they? And I missed them.


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