The subtitle of Deirdre David’s life of Olivia Manning, ‘A Woman at War’, has a resonant double meaning. She was, as we are repeatedly informed, a unique example of a woman novelist who wrote as well about war and battles as a man. But she was also at war with herself, with her colleagues, and, most enduringly and curiously, with her husband, the legendary R. D. Smith, known to all as ‘Reggie’.
Manning is rightly best remembered for her largely autobiographical novels describing the second world war, The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy, which gained an afterlife in a memorable 1987 BBC television series. These volumes cover Manning’s marriage in England in 1939, her journey to Romania where her husband was a young British Council lecturer, and their subsequent war-driven refugee wanderings to Greece, Cairo and Palestine.