Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 22, 2015

The Middle Parts of Fortune, by Frederic Manning

The Middle Parts of FortuneI was in two minds about how to classify the authorship of this book. Wikipedia tells me that Frederic Manning (1882-1935) was an Australian poet and novelist, but in the introduction to Frederic Manning’s  The Middle Parts of Fortune Simon Caterson tells us that Nettie Palmer rued that Australia could not really claim him.  This was presumably because although he was born and educated in Sydney, Manning settled permanently in the UK in 1903 when he was 21, enlisted with British forces in WW1 and died in England in 1935.   However, it does seem to me that he has an Australian sensibility.  I suspect that no Englishman of his class in his era could have written with such authenticity about life in the ranks during the Great War.

The Middle Parts of Fortune was first published in an anonymous limited edition in 1929 under the authorship of ‘Private  19022’.  Manning’s authenticity includes some lively dialogue in the … a-hem … vernacular , so much so that an expurgated edition entitled Her Privates We was published in 1930.  Having read the reissued original published in the Text Classics series, I cannot imagine how this pruning could have been done without ruining the book, but it was apparently a runaway bestseller.

I suppose that’s because by then, people were reflecting on ‘the war to end all wars’, and wanted to try to understand what it was like.  And this book is superbly written, conjuring the perfect balance between courage and fear; suffering and acceptance.  Unlike Robert Graves (Goodbye to All That) and the poet Siegfried Sassoon, Manning’s perspective is not that of the English public school officer class; through his central character Bourne, he shows us a philosophically-detached participant-observer in the ranks.  For although identified early on as ‘officer class’ because of his education, speech and bearing, this Bourne prefers ‘the anonymity of the ranks’.  Manning was uniquely positioned to portray this point-of-view because he had failed to get his commission in 1914 because of drunkenness and resigned a second attempt to serve as an officer in 1917 for the same reason.  So he spent spent most of his war in the ranks and saw action on the Somme and at Ancre.

Simon Caterson’s introduction notes that Manning’s tone is different to his more famous bitter anti-war contemporaries, and that the world of the novel is one where horror is normal.   But it is not unremitting horror; there are not many scenes on the front line and the men spend more time parading, marching to new positions, scrounging food and sometimes female company in the villages, and dealing with dirt and squalor.  There is a vivid scene in which Bourne, allocated the task of pulling a Lewis-gun, injures his foot when the men holding it back from the rear to prevent it from running into him as they move down a slope, lose concentration – and the step of the gun tears through his boot and into his heel.  He marches on, and then spends hours on an overcrowded train, as of course he must, but at the end of the day he needs to deal with it:

When they had found their stables for the night, Bourne took his boot off and examined his heel; his sock was hard with dried blood and the wound itself looked dirty, so as there was a light showing in the house, he thought he would try for some hot water to bathe it, and he knocked persuasively at the door.  It was opened by an old man with a patient, inquiring look on his face.  When Bourne, speaking lamentable French, explained his need, he was invited to enter, and then made to sit on a chair, while his host brought some hot water in a basin and insisted on bathing the wound himself.  When it was clean he went to a sideboard – the room was a kind of kitchen-parlour – and brought out a bottle of brandy, pouring some into a cup so that Bourne’s heart rejoiced in him; but the old man only took a strip of clean linen, which he folded into a pad, and after saturating it with brandy, he once again took up Bourne’s foot in his capable hand, and squeezed the linen, so that the brandy fell drop by drop onto the broken flesh. It stung a little, and Bourne, sceptical of its healing power, would have preferred to take it internally; but against the old man’s voluble assurances that it was três* bon pour les plaies, he could find nothing to say.  Finally his host took up what was left on the linen pad and placed it over the wound, and Bourne drew a clean sock over it.   He always carried an extra pair in his kit, but it was a mere chance that they were clean.  Like most of the men he had dumped everything that was not necessary, even his spare shirt and underpants; for when a man has to carry nearly three stone of kit and equipment on the march, he becomes disinclined to take much heed for the morrow, and prefers to rely on the clean change provided at the divisional baths, in spite of the uncertain interval.

By the time the treatment was complete, Bourne’s gratitude had left him almost bankrupt in the French language; but the old man increased his obligations by giving him a cup of steaming coffee, well laced with that sovran remedy for a torn and swollen heel, and they talked a little while.  He could not persuade his host to take any payment, but he accepted a few cigarettes, which he broke up and smoked in his pipe.  He was alone in the house, Bourne gathered, and he had a son who was at the front.  His only other relation was a brother who was a professor of English at a provincial university.  These two facts seemed to establish a degree of kindred and affinity between them, and when Bourne left to sleep in his stable he was invited to come in again in the morning.  (p. 47-8)

* The text spells très with a circumflex which in French was apparently historically used as a marker for vowels followed by consonants such as ‘s’.  I hadn’t come across this before and thought it was a publisher’s typo or a spelling error by Manning in the original.

As one who has spent a little time in small French villages off the tourist trail, I found that this scene resonated strongly with me later in the book when Bourne comes across villages entirely destroyed by the conflict.  I don’t think I’ve ever read any French literature about the immediate post-war period and how these devastated villages and their way of life were rebuilt, if indeed they were.

The Middle Parts of Fortune is an absorbing novel, but it’s soul-destroying too.  As I progressed towards the end of the book, I knew that the trio of Bourne, Shem and 17-year-old Martlow, and the officers these soldiers admired, could not reach the final pages unscathed, so I read with a kind of dread of the inevitability that gives the book its authenticity.  And in the aftermath of reading, I found myself thinking, what is the point of reading about this appalling human suffering when we seem to have learned nothing from it.

Author: Frederic Manning
Title: The Middle Parts of Fortune
Publisher: Text Publishing, Text Classics series, 2012, first published 1929
ISBN: 9781921922381
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Benn’s Books, $12.95

Availability

Fishpond: The Middle Parts of Fortune (Text Classics)


Responses

  1. I hadnt realised this was an Australian novel; I’ve only ever seen it as a Penguin Classic edition. I wonder if my dad has read this? It sounds like his sort of thing; hes a mini expert on WW1 and I always buy him books about it, particulalry if there’s an Australian slant.

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    • I don’t really know whether it counts as Australian … but anyone who’s interested in WW1 would probably like it. But bear in mind that the censored was also published as Her Privates We (which is how it’s titled in 1001 Books) so he may have already read it under that name.

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  2. Thank you for this review Lisa. I’m reading one of the most voluminous Australian soldier diaries at the moment. There is a lot of marching from place to place, being billetted behind the frontlines and encounters with local villagers. Your account of the book and the extract resonates with what I’m reading.

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    • I think you would find this interesting because of the way Manning represents the philosophical detachment of the men, their acceptance of how things were without necessarily understanding what was going on or the reasons behind it.
      But then, I guess you are up to your ears in reading and don’t need any suggestions for more!

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      • You are right about my reading pile! However, at the moment I am making a priority of war fiction as well as WWI non-fiction, so this book is something I might squeeze in somehow. I’m particularly interested in how authors write about the war, how they capture the truth but also how they engage their readers. Sounds like Frederic Manning does this well. I wonder if it really matters what nationality the author is? War is ultimately about humanity irrespective of the national or ethnic clothing of those affected by it.

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        • I don’t think the nationality matters in terms of assigning authorship, but I do think that Manning had an instinct for egalitarianism which was missing in British culture at that time (and maybe still today, I don’t know). And that instinct for egalitarianism informed what he thought and what he wrote: it gave him respect for what men in ranks did and believed, and that shows in what he wrote.
          Alex Miller, writing in the introduction to Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet for the Folio edition that I reviewed, talked about how that egalitarianism was a distinctive feature of Australian life until comparatively recently, but we have forgotten how important it was.

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  3. […] the unforgettable WWI novel The Middle Parts of Fortune which thankfully Lisa has reviewed at ANZ Litlovers. Hopefully her review will lead to more readers of Manning’s thought provoking […]

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