The reason why it is so

“Do you think I don’t love you?”
“You love everyone.”
“That doesn’t make me love you less.”
“I think it does.”

These four lines of dialogue, which appear halfway through Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War, convey the essence of a relationship that is both doomed and enduring, unique and ordinary. It’s the story of a newly married couple, Harriet and Guy Pringle, who meet and marry in London just before World War II, and spend their early married life, and the war years, first in Romania, and then in Greece and Egypt.

It’s late summer, 1939, just before Britain declares war on Germany. Guy Pringle is a young lecturer on English literature for the British Council. Within a few days of their hasty marriage, they travel to Romania, where Guy is to resume his teaching at the University of Bucharest. Harriet must accommodate herself not only to a conflict that increasingly impinges on their lives and eventually forces them out of the country, but to a marriage that pits two antagonistic personalities against each other. Guy, brilliant and outgoing, is relentlessly social, while Harriet is private, reserved, possessive of her husband but unable to claim his undivided attention. Both intimate relationship and personal safety are increasingly elusive.

“She had supposed this large, comfortable man would defend her against the world, and had found that he was on the other side. He made no concessions to her. The responsibilities of marriage, if he admitted they existed at all, were for him indistinguishable from all the other responsibilities to which he dedicated his time.”

At one point, Guy is preparing a lecture based on Coleridge’s assertion that, “A work of art must contain in itself the reason why it is so, and not otherwise.” Harriet asks, “Does life contain in itself the reason why it is so, and not otherwise?” and Guy responds, “If it doesn’t, nothing does.”

Although Manning’s story is close to that of her own life and marriage during the war years, Fortunes of War stands on its own and contains in itself the reason why it is so. Manning takes us not only into the intimacy of marriage, but into the battlefield. Her scenes of battle are as compelling as are her scenes of a marriage in which the battlefield is interior and one-sided. Near the end of the last volume, Harriet reflects: “In an imperfect world, marriage was a matter of making do with what one had chosen.”

Fortunes of War is made up of two trilogies. The Balkan Trilogy was published between 1960 and 1965; The Levant Trilogy between 1977 and 1981. Manning died in 1980, shortly before the last volume appeared in print.

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