This short novel has been on the Older Women in Fiction list for some time, years. On holiday in Sussex recently I spotted a copy in a second-hand bookshop, supporting the Roman Archaeology at Fishbourne. And, because I associate Olivia Manning with the rather fearful idea of double trilogies, I was surprised and pleased at how accessible it was. It cost me all of £2.
This is the 59th novel in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the link at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to those I have reviewed on Bookword Blog.
School for Love
At one level School for Love is a coming-of-age novel, as the central character is a 14- or 15-year-old boy. We are never told his exact age. His family was living in Iraq, but his father was killed in fighting there in the war, and soon after his mother died of dysentery. Felix has to travel from Baghdad to Jerusalem in the early days of 1945, where it has been arranged for him to stay with Miss Bohun until he can get a passage from Palestine (as it then was) to England. Miss Bohun is loosely related to his father by adoption.
The pension where he is accommodated has a very varied set of people living there. This reflects the movement of people through the Middle East during the war years. Frau Leszno and her handsome son Nikky are from Poland. They had been running the pension but got into financial difficulties. Miss Bohun arranged for them to stay on as servants, while she took over. There is old Mr Jewel in the attic, and later Mrs Ellis, a pregnant young widow, who take rooms. One room in the house is always kept empty, but ready.
Very much on his own in this adult household, Felix grieves for his mother and learns to think about a life without her. He observes the behaviour of the adults and is inclined at first to credit them with good motives. Gradually he learns that they mostly have mixed motives. He develops a kind of puppy love for Mrs Ellis, which at first she indulges, but then tires of. And he learns about how sex is viewed. And he learns to love the Siamese cat, Faro, who seems to be the only creature who pays any attention to him in all the world.
It is thanks to the scheming and comings and goings at Miss Bohun’s house that Felix gradually learns something that is encapsulated in the title of the novel: The School of Love. Mrs Ellis quotes Blake to him:
And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love … (166)
Felix asks her what the lines mean.
‘I suppose it means that life is a sort of school for love.’ (166)
Another major theme of the novel is that of the time and place: Jerusalem at the end of the Second World War. The hostilities end in Europe in the summer months that Felix spends in the city. People are on the move. And the young Palestinians are waiting to regain their country from the British Protectorate. Israel does not yet exist. The novel captures the sense of a year of change, and a year after which things will become very different in Jerusalem. There is a quiet theme of the destructiveness of British colonial power, and the uncaring behaviour of the administrators.
My interest was in the characterisation of Miss Bohun. She is almost a comedy villain, but not quite. For she does hurt people. As we see her through the eyes of Felix, we are at first inclined to treat her as slightly eccentric, but basically kind, as she has provided a home for him when no one else would. But a conversation about the rent and her treatment of Frau Leszno are early warnings for the reader.
When Felix first meets her he is struck by how tiny this woman is. He has arrived just after a snowfall and expresses his pleasure at the snow.
‘You wouldn’t think so if you had to do the housework.’ Miss Bohun moved ahead with irritable quickness so Felix could not keep up with her. She paused on the stairs. Her face – featureless, like a long egg, in the gloom: her hair the same colour as her skin – was turned towards him but Felix was sure she was not looking at him.
‘I’m so busy,’ she said. (10)
And she leaves him abruptly.
It emerges that Miss Bohun has many schemes for apparently doing kindnesses to people, but then exploiting them and kicking them out. She appears to be something of a miser, but generous when there is an advantage to her.
She teaches English to adults, while getting them to do jobs for her, like harvesting the mulberries. These scenes are among the most comedic in the book.
Among her most arcane occupations are the ‘Ever-Readies’. This is something of a cult that flourished in the Middle East, a cult that expected the second coming any day. It is for this purpose that Miss Bohun keeps her empty room. She holds some kind of office and is often just off to preach to the group she calls ‘my Ever-Readies.’
Gradually the reader, and then Felix, come to see that Miss Bohun is not a nice character. But as Felix gets ready to leave, she is prepared to let him take the cat and she is about to take in Mr Jewel again. Felix has managed to track down the old man’s inheritance, but Miss Bohun is taking the credit for this. Miss Bohun’s behaviour towards the very young Mrs Ellis, pregnant and alone, is quite terrible.
One explanation for Miss Bohun’s monstrous character is provided by Mr Jewel: no-one has ever loved her.
Born in 1908, Olivia Manning spent her childhood in Portsmouth and Ireland. In 1939 she was introduced to her husband, and they married and immediately left for Romania where he worked in the British Council. She spent the war years moving from Romania to Greece, on to Egypt and finally to Jerusalem where she spent three years. Their itinerant life was determined by the advances of the German and the Axis armies in the area. She fictionalised her experiences in the six volumes that make up The Fortunes of War.
She and her husband returned to London after the war where she continued to be a very prolific writer. She was always rather a diffident person and envied the recognition given to other writers. She died in 1980.
School for Love by Olivia Manning, first published in 1951. I used the Penguin edition from 1982. 192pp
A new edition was published by NYRB in 2009 which has a very lovely and fitting cover.
The Bookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here.
JacquiWine’s blog review can be read here. She describes Miss Bohun as ‘a manipulative monster’.
HeavenAli’s review refers to Miss Bohun’s behaviour as ‘monstrous’. You can find that review here.
Stuck In a Book blog also reviews this novel, here.
These three bloggers were contributing to the 1951 Club, featuring books published that year.