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School For Love (1951)

par Olivia Manning

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Orphaned, friendless and bewildered, young Felix Latimer comes to war-time Jerusalem to lodge with Miss Bohun, one of the most redoubtable (and ridiculous) of comic horrors in English fiction.

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Published in 1951 this novel tells the story of Felix an orphan from England who is sent out to a distant relative who has a house in Jerusalem. Felix a young adolescent arrives full of insecurities to live in a boarding house near the old town run by Miss Bohun. It is 1944 and Jerusalem was still under British mandate, but as the world war was coming to an end both Arab and Jewish communities were becoming apprehensive of what would happen next. Felix is largely unaware of the bigger picture as he grows up in the seclusion of Miss Bohun's establishment amongst other poor refugees.

Olivia Manning arrived in Jerusalem in 1943 and spent three years their with her husband, she worked as a press assistant with the Jerusalem Post and then with the British Council and so was well placed to write a novel about the experiences of refugees or itinerant workers. It was a period when house owners or managers expected to be able to employ servants and Miss Bohun's Misboon house had the Lezno family (jews escaped from Poland) living in and paying for their keep by working. Felix arrives in winter to a cold house and an unfriendly household. He worshipped his mother who had recently died and disruptions to his schooling had made him naive and lonely and the first part of the book describes his difficulties in adapting to this new and foreign household. His only friend is Faro: Miss Bohun's siamese cat. The cold winter gives way to spring and Felix's boredom is alleviated by the arrival of Mrs Ellis a young woman whose husband has been killed in the war. Felix's year of growing up sees him move from being a child who blushes at the mere presence of Miss Ellis to wanting to become her friend and even her protector.

Towards the end of the book when Felix has learned more about how adult people behave towards each other Miss Ellis tells him about a poem she remembers and when Felix asks her what it means she says:

"I suppose it means that life is a sort of school for love"

She might have added that it was also a school of hard knocks where experience is hard won. Felix is the pupil; he must come to terms with Miss Bohuns hostility towards her boarders which is a result of her penny-pinching and her manipulating of the rooms to let. Miss Bohun is also a religious leader of a sect known as the Ever Readies (they are ever ready for the second coming) and she prides herself on her good works and is occasionally kind towards others. Felix asks one of the other boarders if Miss Bohun is wicked and he replies:

"Don't use that silly word Felix, Of course I don't. She's absurd and tactless and a busybody, probably no worse. She belongs to a generation that seems to combine thinking the worst of everybody with trying to do the best for them. I expect she's awfully innocent."

Felix must also come to terms with Miss Ellis whose battles with Miss Bohun make Felix a sort of piggy-in-the-middle. He does not know who to trust or who to love, their mood changes leave him confused and he also has much to learn about the Lezno family.

The year in Jerusalem is a bildungsroman for Felix and Misboon house is a world within a world. Mannings description of the household is full of atmosphere and when the occupants venture outside she portrays their excursions into a more exotic world with a feel for its different environment. I found it a gentle story, but readers today may find it a little too optimistic. It is well written with excellent characters and observations, well worth reading and so 3.5 stars ( )
1 voter baswood | Oct 16, 2020 |
Yet another NYRB publication that I ended up loving. It's been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years because it just didn't sound that interesting, but it turned out to be just my kind of book.

The novel takes place in Jerusalem just after WWII. A young boy, Felix, arrives to live with Miss Bohun, a distant relative, after his mother dies of typhoid. His father had already died in the war. Miss Bohun is an elderly woman who is quite a piece of work. She's a member of the "Ever-Readies" a second-coming religious group but she is also one of the cheapest, stingiest people you'll ever meet - of course having excuses for every one of her penny-pinching ways. She runs a boarding house (charging Felix his "fair share") and rotating tenants according to how she can make the most money and feel best about herself for helping the unfortunate. Miss Bohun isn't all bad, though, which is what makes this such a lovely book. She definitely has some redeeming qualities (I think) or at least she's amusing to read about. The other boarders all have their own stories and Felix's interactions with them form the book. The city of Jerusalem and the various people who find their way there during and just after the war are also an important part of the story.

The best relationship in the book is Felix and the cat he befriends, Faro. This thread added a really nice touch to the book.

After reading this, I'm very interested in reading Manning's Balkan Trilogy which is I think her best known work. This was another great read to justify my constant NYRB purchases; they don't just look good on the shelf, they have almost all been great books to read as well! ( )
  japaul22 | Jul 7, 2019 |
School for Love is a beautifully written coming of age novel, set in Jerusalem towards the end of World War Two. Felix Latimer is a boy (we’re never told exactly how old; I assumed fifteen or sixteen, although there were moments he seemed younger) who has recently lost his mother. Told in the third person, we see everything through Felix’s eyes. While hostilities continue, he is unable to return to England – where he’s not lived for several years anyway. Felix had been living in Baghdad with his mother, about a year before his mother’s death, Felix’s father was killed by Iraqi forces. Now Felix is alone, his loneliness and total bewilderment is touchingly portrayed by Olivia Manning, a boy who has had the rug pulled out from under him. As a last resort, it was arranged by friends of his mother’s, for Felix to go to a distant relative in Jerusalem. Miss Bohun an older adopted sister of his father and a woman his mother had never wanted Felix to visit. As Felix arrives in Jerusalem, there is snow on the ground, though he is assured it won’t last too long.

Miss Bohun turns out to be quite a character – one beautifully rendered by Manning, complex and endlessly infuriating, she feels like a character who must have been drawn from life. Felix arrives at the house Miss Bohun runs as a kind of inferior boarding house – friendless, grief-stricken, not knowing what to expect.

“Miss Bohun was so unlike his mother, and, for some reason, he felt sure that when she had raised her eyes and looked at him she had somehow expressed disappointment in him. Perhaps she had imagined he would be older, or younger, or better-looking, or a more unusual sort of boy. Anyway she retired now into her own thoughts, eyes hidden, and he gave his attention to the meal of grey, gritty bread and tasteless tea. Then he heard a slight movement beside him. He looked down and cried out involuntarily in delight. As the bars of the fire had grown red, a Siamese cat had come out towards the warmth. It looked a sad little cat, as lost as himself, and his heart seemed to swell with relief at the sight of something – something he could love.”

Miss Bohun is hardly a warm, welcoming presence – she is in constant conflict with Frau Leszno and her son Nikki who work and live in the house. Like the rest of the house, Felix’s room is cold and unwelcoming, while Miss Bohun keeps an empty front bedroom, spick and span for some mysterious purpose, while the old Mr Jewel lives in the attic. Later, when Mr Jewel has been removed to the hospital – a new tenant; Mrs Ellis is installed and Miss Bohun moves up to the attic. Mrs Ellis is a very young widow, Felix can’t help but be enchanted by her.
Living in her house, eating her food and relying upon her for the only home he has, Felix is often uncomfortable by Miss Bohun’s frankly monstrous behaviour. Compelled by his reliance on her to legitimise her treatment of others, Felix clearly needs to see it as completely normal. Miss Bohun is miserly, desperately deluded, she suspects everyone of cheating her, and sees herself as a long-suffering paragon of virtue. Having bullishly taken over the house from its previous occupant; Frau Leszno, the Polish refugee, has been reduced to the role of a servant living in tiny, servants’ rooms. Miss Bohun, appears to honestly believe, that she has done the poor woman a great service.

Miss Bohun keeps fierce hold of the household purse strings, making savings where she can (substituting deep fried aubergine for fish!) Always calculating ways of making her money stretch, she manages to prise almost all Felix’s monthly allowance out of him, refuses to buy from the black market and successfully plots to get Mr Jewel out of the attic so she can have it herself.

Much of Miss Bohun’s time is taken up with a religious group known as the ‘ever-readies’ – whose exact purpose she seems shy of explaining to Felix at first – yet in time we discover it is all to do with the second-coming.

In the midst of the chilly atmosphere of Miss Bohun’s house, Felix finds companionship in Mrs Ellis, who couldn’t be more different from Miss Bohun, and who opens his eyes to his relative’s true character. With her scarlet, pointed finger-nails, she frequents the cafes and bars in the city – and in following her around – Felix finds himself entering a world he doesn’t entirely understand. He is a child still, in so many ways, clinging to the memory of the life he led with his gentle mother.

“A bleak atmosphere, like that which preceded the going of Mr Jewel, haunted the meals, but now it was not Miss Bohun who controlled the discomfort. Mrs Ellis had shut herself off in a silence that seemed to put Miss Bohun completely at a loss, Once or twice, perhaps attempting to test the surface of this frost, Miss Bohun had repeated tentatively and unconvincingly, remarks like: ‘Well, here we are! Just a happy family!’ or ‘One day, Mrs Ellis, we really must have that cosy chat in my room,’ but Mrs Ellis made no sign that she had heard. When she did not come in to meals, Miss Bohun would sometimes say to Felix, meaningfully: ‘Mrs Ellis seems to be sulking about something. So childish of her. It spoils everything, we could be such a happy family.’”

Felix continues to visit old Mr Jewel in the hospital – though stops short of telling him about the attic. Taking lessons from Mr Posthorn, Felix’s life is spent entirely with adults. There are few pleasures – he loves to go to the cinema, but the money he gives Miss Bohun leaves him with practically no pocket money. Soon however, the war will end – and a passage arranged for him back to England.

This is a deeply touching novel, the portrayal of Felix, growing up yet not quite grown up enough – coming to terms with his loss, and all at sea with the world around him, is breath-taking. Most impressive, however, is the extraordinary depth of character. Olivia Manning’s portrait of Miss Bohun is brilliantly unforgettable. ( )
  Heaven-Ali | May 29, 2017 |
Felix Lattimer is left orphaned in Baghdad when his mother dies of typhoid, and since it’s during WWII he can’t be sent back to Britain and the care of relatives. There is, however, a relative much closer – in Jerusalem. Mrs Bohun. So Felix is sent there. Mrs Bohun really is a piece of work – the blurb describes her as “one of the most reoubtable (and ridiculous) of comic horrors in English fiction”, and it’s true. The actual plot – Felix interacts with the other residents of Mrs Bohun’s house, is too immature to see what is really going on, and, well, things happen – is more or less incidental. The old working class man in the attice ends up in hospital, and his room is let to a young and pregnant widow. Mrs Bohun’s attitude changes to the first, and then the other, but it’s all in character. Manning is a good writer and worth reading, but this is a slight piece. Its setting is interesting, and that setting is handled reasonably sensitively, albeit with the patrician sensibilities of a British expat from the first half of the twentieth century. While Mrs Bohun appears quite horrific in some respects to modern sensibilities, I suspect time has sharpened that edge. Manning doesn’t deserve to be forgotten – she was an excellent writer during her day and her books are still worth reading today. ( )
  iansales | Jul 15, 2015 |
Nice easy read, with a killer ending; a slightly exotic setting and a great cast of characters. It's not going to blow your socks off, but there's probably no better way to spend a lazy rainy day. ( )
1 voter stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
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Nom de l'auteur(e)RôleType d'auteurŒuvre ?Statut
Manning, Oliviaauteur(e) principal(e)toutes les éditionsconfirmé
Smiley, JaneIntroductionauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé

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Orphaned, friendless and bewildered, young Felix Latimer comes to war-time Jerusalem to lodge with Miss Bohun, one of the most redoubtable (and ridiculous) of comic horrors in English fiction.

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