We enjoy political incorrectness, but when we compiled our 100 Favorite Books last year, we did find it strange that less than a fifth were by women. Recently we got acquainted with the work of two women writers we wouldn’t have heard of if their novels had not been reissued by NYRB Classics. So we looked up the literary reputations of Elizabeth Taylor and Olivia Manning, and learned that they had been well-regarded in their lifetimes (they were contemporaries) but have fallen out of fashion. What would you prefer: living obscurity, or posthumous obscurity?
Elizabeth Taylor would probably have more readers today if she didn’t happen to share a name with the movie star. We knew of her novel Angel (1957)—the film adaptation by Francois Ozon costarred Michael Fassbender—but didn’t know she’d written it. As for Olivia Manning, our former publisher had recommended her Balkan Trilogy enthusiastically, but it took us a while to connect those books with Fortunes of War, the BBC series from the 80s starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh.
In the end we picked up their books because they were published by NYRB Classics, and because their covers feature cats. In Manning’s novel, the Siamese cat Faro is the young hero’s only ally. In Taylor’s, the spoiled Persian cats living in the anti-heroine’s ruined mansion reflect her state of mind.
Do you hate-watch certain TV shows so you can mock them and rejoice in their failings? We envy Elizabeth Taylor’s sharp, elegant prose so we can’t hate-read Angel, but we were rooting for the protagonist to fall flat on her face. Angelica Deverell is a shopkeeper’s daughter who lives in a fantasy world. She’s a monster—selfish, narcissistic, shameless, ilusyonada, qualities which help her become a wildly popular romance novelist. Critics rip her books to shreds, but the public laps them up. She becomes very rich, indulges her every whim (a grand estate, peacocks, expensive tacky furniture), and lands the man of her dreams.
Even as we loathe the woman, we have to admire her guts. Unlike her aunt and her mother, Angel doesn’t “know her place” or quietly “accept her lot in life”. She’s uppity, but she has the strength of her convictions.
Just when we think this horrible creature will get everything she wants, she encounters her true nemesis. Go self-sabotage!
The hero of Olivia Manning’s School for Love is Felix, an extremely naive English teenager who is shipped off to Jerusalem after the death of his parents in Iraq. It’s 1945, war is raging in Europe, and the city is crammed with refugees. Felix is taken in by his father’s foster sister, Miss Bohun, who runs the world’s most awful boarding house. Miss Bohun is the pastor of the Ever-Readies, one of the many religious groups that have hied off to Jerusalem to await the second coming. She keeps Felix in a state of malnutrition and actually overcharges for the privilege. Faro, the Siamese cat whom she keeps to control the rat population, becomes Felix’s confidant—cat and boy snuggle together to keep from freezing in that awful place.
Every time the hypocritical, miserly, self-righteous crone shows up we grit our teeth and wait for justice. Will it come? Will it be in the person of Mrs. Ellis, the charming young widow whom Miss Bohun regrets having invited to stay in the boarding house? Most importantly, will Faro be all right?
Manning’s prose is keenly observed and psychologically acute. We want more, so we’re finally going to take on Manning’s Balkan Trilogy. After the Balzac stories. And a Nancy Mitford novel or two.