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Where the Heart Is

A 1951 novel parses the meaning of home

Elizabeth Gumport
February 03, 2009

“I don’t want fame when I am dead,” the novelist Olivia Manning once complained to a friend. “I want it now.” Manning, whom enemies nicknamed Olivia Moaning,” was infamous for wanting to be famous. She publicly rued every critical oversight: never a solo review in the London papers, never a Booker, never a Whitbread, never even a place on their shortlists.

Now, 29 years after her death, NYRB Classics has reissued Manning’s 1951 novel School for Love. It seems, initially, an odd selection. A coming-of-age story set in Jerusalem during the final days of World War II, School for Love is a sweet little book, and was well received upon its publication in England. But the NYRB edition will not so much reacquaint American readers with Manning as introduce them to her for the first time: the novel has never before been published in the United States. The question isn’t why Manning—Anthony Burgess called her “the most considerable of our women novelists,” and compared her sweeping depictions of love and war to those of Tolstoy—but why School for Love, and why now?

Like many of her novels, School for Love was shaped by Manning’s wartime experiences. In 1939, Manning married Reginald Smith, a member of the British Council. Nine days after the wedding, Smith was dispatched to Romania, and Manning followed. The next year, the Germans seized the country and the couple fled from Bucharest to Athens; from Athens, they moved to Cairo, and then to Alexandria, and then to Jerusalem.

It was in Jerusalem that Manning suffered a miscarriage. After their loss, Manning and her husband traveled to Cyprus. “I am angry with the world,” she wrote in her account of the trip. Cyprus, she thought, would be a reprieve from the hostile, greedy Arabs and Jews who surrounded her in Jerusalem. Though her biographers hasten to assure readers that the document is “highly subjective,” paranoid, and “overshadowed by her recent tragedy,” Manning’s bitter words are unmistakably those of someone who identifies as a foreigner, someone who believes her unhappiness is born from living in a land that is not her own.

For American readers accustomed to the Middle Eastern conflicts that flicker nightly on the news, School for Love might serve a kind of educational purpose: this is what the world we see on television used to look like; this is Jerusalem just before Israel declared independence. But it’s Manning’s understanding of our desire to belong, and the fears that accompany this desire, that justify this novel’s selection as the one by which she will be represented to a new generation of readers. Her other novels warp with age—even The Balkan Trilogy, her most popular work at the time of its publication and the one for which she remains best known, seems today more artifact than art, like some peeling mural in a museum that fascinates mostly as a panoramic portrait of a lost world. But to read School for Love is to feel that the past has not passed.

The Palestine Mandate, passed by the League of Nations in 1922, expressed support for a “national home for the Jewish people”—not merely a “state” or “nation,” but a “home,” a shelter you own, a place where you belong and a place that belongs to you—and you can hear these words echo throughout Manning’s novel. The destruction wrought by our desire for a home is surpassed only by the depth of that desire, which burns in the dark, animal corners of our hearts. The questions Manning asks are the questions we ask today: how do we justify our possession of a place, and what happens when two people call the same house “home”?

School for Love begins with the teenage Felix Latimer’s arrival in Jerusalem after the death of his parents; he has not been “home” to England since before the war. The orphan has been entrusted to the care of Miss Bohun, herself adopted as a child by Felix’s grandparents and now minister to her flock of “Ever-Readies,” who believe the Second Coming is imminent. (Though she rents out most of the rooms in her house to boarders, Miss Bohun keeps one free in case Jesus needs somewhere to sleep when he returns to earth.)

Though stingy, self-righteous Miss Bohun is no comfort to Felix, he trusts in her innate goodness—until the arrival of the lovely, recently widowed Mrs. Ellis. Mrs. Ellis is expecting a child and intends to take over the house in the autumn (or so she tells an enchanted Felix), and he is welcome to stay on. When Mrs. Ellis calls Miss Bohun “a joke,” Felix is transformed: Mrs. Ellis’s judgments become the reigning judgments; her tastes determine Felix’s. But eventually her dazzle begins to diminish, and in the end Felix feels for her only compassion: what seemed to be wisdom was only the bitterness of a girl nearly as young and lonely as he is.

When Mrs. Ellis learns that Miss Bohun does not intend to leave her house and in fact plans to evict her, the two women fight. Felix hears a slap. Mrs. Ellis falls—or is she pushed?—down the stairs. That Felix does not see who slapped whom is critical: there is no clear villain or victim. Miss Bohun is no longer the governing angel of his thoughts, but neither is Mrs. Ellis.

Felix’s struggle for independence—to think and act wholly for himself—mirrors another: during the first miserable days at Miss Bohun’s house, Felix thinks his life is like “the Jerusalem winter,” something to be “suffered and got over.” The simile gives Felix’s personal journey allegorical heft: the self is like the state, and the story of the former is also the story of the latter. If you want to understand people, Manning suggests, a single person is a good place to start.

Indeed, the impulse to see everything in School for Love as an allegory is strong. But it’s hard to pin down Manning’s intentions: does she want us to interpret the Jewish woman driven out of her home as a symbol of the Arabs who left Palestine? Or does the person who displaces her represent those who would deny Israel’s right to exist? One thing might symbolize another, or maybe its opposite; we’re never sure. By thwarting our efforts to sort the characters in School for Love into neat, discrete categories, Manning forces us to recognize similarities and shared longings often overlooked, and to sympathize with those who appear undeserving of compassion.

Miss Bohun’s house dominates Manning’s novel both visually—long paragraphs are given over to the movement of sunlight across Felix’s wall, or the luster of a cat’s fur—and structurally, as the rotation of boarders through various bedrooms gives the plot its shape. Many of those boarders consider themselves dispossessed owners, whose claim to the property has been unjustly compromised. Mrs. Ellis makes one such claim. The Leszno family, for whom the most important possession was a home,” makes another. Polish Jews who fled Europe, they have lived in the house since they first arrived in Jerusalem, and originally took Miss Bohun in as a tenant. Miss Bohun, who pays the rent, promised Herr Leszno she would care for his family, but after his death she began to take in boarders, banishing his wife to the servants’ quarters and their son to a cot in the kitchen. They’re too proud, Miss Bohun complains to Felix: Frau Leszno should be grateful but instead she’s terribly insolent. Miss Bohun insists that she has no choice but to turn her out.

Until the very end, Frau Leszno maintains that the property is rightfully hers. On the same page that she calls herself “a servant in another’s house,” she cries, “Never do I leave my home!” One building, two different words, their meaning worlds apart.

But the implications of Miss Bohun’s claim on the house—that there are many ways in which something can belong to someone—deepen in light of a similar claim made by Felix. During his time in Jerusalem, he becomes attached to Faro, Miss Bohun’s elegant Siamese, and decides to bring the cat back to England with him. He does not ask permission. He simply informs Miss Bohun of his decision, and offers her a sum of money. When Miss Bohun refuses payment, Felix feels no particular gratitude: Miss Bohun had given him nothing. Faro, because he had always loved her, had always been his.” How long we want something matters, but so does how badly we want it, and why: history makes one claim, and the heart makes another.

The house, in any case, does not belong to Mrs. Ellis, or the Lesznos, or Miss Bohun. The owner, to whom Miss Bohun pays rent, is an Arab.