A blog for everything bookish

Sunday 12 April 2015

School for Love by Olivia Manning

I’ve had School for Love sitting on my shelves for a mere eternity, after having bought it on impulse on a recommendation from a trusted source. Years passed. The shelf grew dusty and the book has had time to yellow before I eventually stuck it on my TBR list and it finally saw the light of day. What a shame it took me so long.

Image result for school for love olivia manningSchool for Love tells the story of Felix, a boy living in the Middle East during World War II. His father, a soldier, has been killed and when his mother dies from typhus he is left an orphan. This is how he ends up going to live with his Aunt, Miss Bohun, who lives in Jerusalem. Miss Bohun is not a blood relation, but was adopted by his father’s family as a child. In all his life Felix has never been to see her, and all he knows about her is that his mother never wanted to visit her. Why, he didn’t know or understand.

There is a reason, of course. Miss Bohun is one of the most appalling, mean and reprehensible characters I have ever encountered in literature. If there is no other reason to read this book, the dreadfulness of Miss Bohun is it. She is truly memorable. When Felix arrives, he is welcomed by Miss Bohun who almost immediately begins to discuss expenses. Felix can stay with them, she says, but his share of the cost will be eleven pounds. Immediately we know something is awry, as the vulnerable Felix notes when catching a glimpse at the list of shared household expenses, “She did not hand him the paper but, peering at it over her arm, he noticed she had put Telephone and Kerosene down twice. He did not like to mention this.” It is this ‘not liking to mention’ things that Miss Bohun so neatly relies upon and exploits.

Living in the house with Miss Bohun is another women, Frau Leszno, who appears to be a servant, her son Nicky and an old man, Mr. Jewel, who lives in the tiny attic room. Frau Leszno is extremely hostile to Felix and it’s apparent that there is some conflict between her and Miss Bohun, a suggestion that the house is in fact Frau Leszno’s but somehow Miss Bohun has engineered things so that she is in control. Nicky, too, is quite ambivalent to Felix. The loneliness and austerity of their living conditions are almost unbearable, except for the presence of Faro the cat, who becomes the sole repository of affection for Felix in the house.

School for Love is a classic coming of age story. Felix’s trajectory is quite familiar; having come from a situation of extreme naivety, he is forced to grow up quickly and take responsibility for himself. He begins to make his own judgements, heavily influenced by the arrival of Miss Ellis who comes to live in the house when both Frau Leszno and Mr Jewel are unceremoniously ousted by the terrible Miss Bohun. Felix finds himself entranced by Miss Ellis, who is a pregnant widow and extremely pretty and who, in Felix’s words, “When Miss Ellis spoke he suddenly, with the instinct of youth, of a creature with unblemished eyes, recognised truth, truth, truth, and he knew that truth was the thing he wanted.”

But it is the awful Miss Bohun that really makes this book. Miss Bohun with her ‘charitable’ acts, her commitment to the ‘Ever Readies’ a religious group whose sole aim is to prepare for the end of days. In the house there is an ever-present power struggle, initially between Frau Leszno and Miss Bohun, and then between Miss Ellis and Miss Bohun, the conclusion of which is surprising and I won’t reveal it here. Miss Bohun sees herself as a charitable person, yet she uses her position to seek out and dominate vulnerable people like Felix and Mr Jewel, takes them in with her initial kindness then gradually exploit them. As described here as she explains her ‘arrangement’ with Frau Leszno:

“’Our first arrangement was that we held everything in common. She supplied some pieces of furniture, it is true, and I supplied others. But if she chooses to be petty and lay claim to the things she provided – well, she must just take them with her. I don’t doubt something will be found to take their place.’ Miss Bohun’s voice became cheerful as she talked. ‘I find that my troubles always sort themselves out. You can’t do better than trust in the Lord. I don’t know of any occasion when God has failed to look after me. Faith is a wonderful thing. Since I’ve found it, I’ve never had a day’s illness and as for money – well, money seeks to grow on trees! I used to be such a nervous ailing sort of girl! I used to dread the future with nothing but my own little private income – a mere two hundred pounds a year – but how wonderfully things have worked out for me.’ There was in Miss Bohun’s tone something exultant that held Felix amazed.”

She is the ultimate manipulator, taking people in then gradually taking them to pieces. Yet there are many questions about her behaviour: is Miss Bohun knowingly terrible, or does she truly believe she is doing people good and all her good fortune comes from her belief in God and her commitment to the Ever Readies? Does she truly believe she takes the destitute and offers them salvation, only to have her ‘gift’ unappreciated? These are the questions that Felix wrestles with, as he watches Miss Bohun and her machinations unfolding. Can a person truly care for others when they truly believe the world is destined to end? Does Miss Bohun really believe in the twisted logic she espouses?

Whatever the answer to those questions, the journey is fascinating. I was honestly appalled by Miss Bohun, the level to which she would sink whilst seemingly believing in her goodness was hard to comprehend. Yet there are people like Miss Bohun out there in the world, doing terrible things in the name of charity and salvation. The veil gradually drops from the innocent Felix’s eyes. Can he escape from her grasp, or will he too find himself inadequate to the challenge of Miss Bohun?

School for Love is an excellent book, engaging, funny, appalling (I’ve used that word a lot, but it’s very appropriate) and clever. It is the story of a women who has not loved and what that lack of love has done to her; it is a story of power, control and manipulation. It is a story about growing up, about the nature of ‘wickedness’ and what that really means in the real world. It has one of the most memorable characters I have ever encountered, skilfully played out on a canvas so tight you can feel the tension just waiting to break. 

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