Published in 1960 before Procter & Gamble’s beloved potato chip treat found its way into our arteries, Olivia Manning named her husband and wife protagonists The Pringles. Once you pop, the questioning of marriage as an institution don’t stop.
Set in the early days of WWII, The Balkan Trilogy follows newly married Guy and Harriet to Bucharest, Romania where Guy teaches at a college. As political and emotional tensions build, Manning fleshes out the Pringles: flawed individuals who married after 3 weeks of courtship and had no idea what they were in for. Harriet is headstrong, analytical, and bigoted. Guy is idealistic, kind, and sort of an idiot when it comes to people nearest him.
When we’re not watching Guy and Harriet quietly resent each other, the story follows Yakimov, a destitute Russian Prince and running joke who lives beyond his means and weaves himself into the young couple’s lives through continued imposition. He is more of a caricature than a character, and contrasted against Guy and Harriet, who Manning takes far more seriously, her treatment of him and his displacement comes off as somewhat condescending.
Harriet takes Guy very, very, VERY seriously because she is married to him and it is the 1940s and that’s exactly what she is expected to do. Through the eyes of sharply observant Harriet, Manning picks up on the minutia of unspoken human interaction in the Pringles’ dynamic. Extremely sensitive to the behavior and psychology of those close to her, Harriet’s awareness carries the book stylistically.
Despite her sensitivity to those immediately around her, Harriet lacks empathy for those not in her circle and can be a real asshole: “As they passed among the peasants, Guy and Harriet smiled to reassure them, but their smiles grew strained as they breathed-in the peasant stench. Harriet thought: ‘The trouble with prejudice is that there’s usually a reason for it,’ but she knew better than to say this to Guy.” Yeah, you probably shouldn’t say that to anyone, Harriet. Maybe instead of focusing on how you are right to hate their stench, you should focus on the system that requires them to live in the daily squalor that slightly inconveniences your walks through the Calea Victoriei or wherever.
The war in Europe aggravates the war at home. As the difficulties in their marriage mount and their personalities polarize, you begin to wonder whether these people ever should have married.
Unlike Harriet, Guy would recognize his contribution to the greater societal problem, and that’s the kind of thing he spends most of the books doing. However, Guy is awful in other ways: “[Harriet] had once accused him of considering her feelings less than anyone…Surprised, he had said, ‘But you are myself. I don’t need to consider your feelings.'”
While Harriet respects Guy for his idealism, she resents how his concern for larger society obstructs their relationship. Guy often neglects and ignores her in favor of work and what seems to not only be humanitarian efforts, but his need for constant attention from multiple sources. This antinomy increases Harriet’s aversion to activism and politics in general.
The war in Europe aggravates the war at home. As the difficulties in their marriage mount and their personalities polarize, you begin to wonder whether these people ever should have married. Harriet is 22 and Guy is 23 when the story starts. We meet them as newlyweds, only having known each other a matter of weeks, and so this is the opposite of a movie that ends with the male and female lead finally kissing for the first time on a mountaintop. This book starts like a month later when the romantic leads are already fight-crying. The Balkan Trilogy is a potent immunization against popular romance narratives that sell the chase then quickly end.
What struck me was how much being newlyweds then seems to resemble a committed 20-something unmarried relationship now: The ongoing struggles that come with managing a bond that close with another human, the slow realization that you don’t know much about the person you once thought you understood completely. Despite the formal documentation of Guy and Harriet’s status as a couple, the relationship itself remains fragile.
While Manning’s trilogy does offer a lot of insight into the difficulties of shackling yourself to one person until you die, it doesn’t have a lot of female characters. Sometimes you get the sense Manning doesn’t really like women all that much. She was certainly not a feminist, and once wrote of the Women’s Movement, “[t]hey make such an exhibition of themselves. None can be said to be beauties. Most have faces like porridge.” And then there’s this passage where Harriet and her friend Clarence are talking about Virginia Woolf: “‘…her writing is so diffused, so feminine, so sticky. It has such an odd smell about it. It’s just like menstruation.’ Startled by the originality of Clarence’s criticism, Harriet looked at him with more respect.”
Yeah. Super original, Clarence.
Most of the book isn’t weird menstrual criticisms of Virginia Woolf. But most of the book is definitely about one female character’s relations to all the men who surround her, and their dealings with each other.
Though it may fail to consciously acknowledge societal issues relating to women’s rights, through Harriet’s personal perspective, the book contains plenty of insights on the marginalization of women at the time. Most of these insights occur as the war intensifies, creating major strain for both Guy and Harriet while she grows increasingly disappointed in their marriage: “Unmarried, she had been a personality in her own right. Married, she saw herself coming in, if at all, somewhere in Guy’s wake.”