The Doves of Venus and The Play Room – Olivia Manning

8 April 2011

Memory is a funny thing.

When I was in Bath last week I popped into the Victoria Art Gallery, which has a small but rather magnificent collection of works all arranged in one gallery. I had a lovely time strolling around (I must remember to share my three favourites with you all) until one particular work caught my eye…

I was instantly struck by a cascade of memories, some good but mostly bittersweet. It’s actually ‘Daisy Fairy’ by Peter Blake, but I just remember it as the cover of a novel that my best friend, Nichola and  I read over and over again in the summer of 1989, when we were fifteen years old.

Actually, there were two books that we obsessed about that summer (we’d gone crazy for Wideacre by Philippa Gregory, Green Darkness by Anya Seton and the video to the song Everywhere by Fleetwood Mac the year before) – I’d accidentally ended up with a subscription to a book club and having failed to cancel it on time, they’d sent me a bunch of Virago novels of varying degrees of interest. Angel by Elizabeth Taylor (no, not that one, the other one) was a huge favourite (everything I know about being a novelist, I learned from Angel) as was South Riding by Winifred Holtby but the two favourites were a pair of books with limpid miserable girls on the covers.

I never clocked the name of the author and in fact did not know it until about ten minutes ago, which is a bit embarrassing, but the stories remain with me still. The Daisy Fairy was on the cover of The Play Room (1969), which was our favourite of the two and told the story of a rather miserable and unpopular schoolgirl called Laura who feels trapped and restricted by the dullness of her everyday life. She hooks up with the popular girl at school, the blandly beauteous Vicky amidst a subtext of lesbianism and also hints of something happening with Vicky’s father before, as expected, tragedy ensues.

We loved it – I rather suspect that Nichola, who was tall and blonde and had an American step father which everyone thought was extremely glamorous at our little school in rural Essex, saw herself as the Vicky of our friendship and maybe she was right. Luckily for her she didn’t come to the same end as the Vicky in the book, but there was still this feeling that, ‘posh’ girl from the Big House I might well be, but I was socially a total reject in comparison to her.

As I stood in front of ‘The Daisy Fairy’ and thought about Nichola for the first time in decades, I remembered that we’d desperately wanted to make a film of The Play Room and had decided that Nigel Havers should play the creepy father. Poor old Nigel Havers. Interestingly though, while writing this post, I’ve found out that Olivia Manning actually wrote a script for a film version (with even more lesbianism by the sounds of things) but it was never actually made as they ran out of money! Maybe one day someone will rediscover it?

Looking back, the other book of the pair, The Doves of Venus (1955) was probably the better of the two and had spoke to me the most. It was about an arty but dismally naive girl called Ellie who escapes her boring life in a rubbish seaside town where her mother and sister rule the roost and openly despise her ‘bohemian’ ways, which they consider to be stuck up and superior. Ellie starts a new life in London, where she acquires a sleazy middle aged lover called Quentin, who she thinks is marvellous but is actually a right old slime bag while she works in a gallery, retouching furniture to make it look antique (or something like that, it’s ages since I read it).

Poor old Ellie lives a pretty miserable life, starving in a tiny bedsit and wandering the streets in a fug of loneliness while pining for the clammy touch of the unctuously vile Quentin. I loved Ellie for three reasons – 1. like me, she had red hair of such an apparently astonishing hue that people assumed it was dyed; 2. like me, she had aspirations to being ‘arty’ but without any actual talent to back this up and 3. NO ONE UNDERSTANDS ME, OH WOE. She could easily have been such an annoying character but I thought she was utterly loveable and later on, when I actually did move to London (at a rather more advanced age than Ellie when she moved there, but with as much life knowledge and preparedness) I thought of her as I skipped through parks and caught the bus back to my little room in Newington Green which cost more to rent for a month than the mortgage on our entire flat.

I love the bit at the end when Ellie realises that actually Quentin is a rat and her job is rubbish and London isn’t actually all that great and she runs through the streets and ends up outside the house of a young artist who really fancies her, but who she had previously ignored. ‘Help me,’ she says to him as she collapses against the bonnet of his car, and so he does. I loved that.

I didn’t know until tonight that both books were written by Olivia Manning, who wrote Fortunes of War, but now that I am armed with this information I am keen to read more of her books. I don’t think I will re-read The Play Room though…

What I’d really like now is for someone to come along and say ‘Wow, I read those too when I was a teenager and LOVED THEM. *high five*’

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