Ethel Mannin wrote. A lot. By her own declaration, Sunset over Dartmoor (1977), the final chapter of her autobiography, was her 95th. She wrote so many books that even though the “By the Same Author” page in Dartmoor lists 41 novels, along with many other titles on “Politics and Ethics,” “Short Stories,” “Travels and Memoirs,” and “Child Education,” the list still ends with “Etc.” (there were at least four more after Free Pass to Nowhere (1970)).
She got an early start. Before marrying at 19 and having a daughter (her only child) a few months later, she had already begun to produce serialized romantic novels at the price of one guinea for every 1,000 words. (These books are on top of the other 95.) And by the age of 30, she’d had enough practice to feel quite comfortable publishing an autobiography, Confessions and Impressions (1930).
Confessions was one of her most successful and popular books, going into multiple printings and being reissued a few years later as an early Penguin paperback. Its success owed much to the novelty of Mannin’s scandalous confessions, such as falling in love with one of her female teachers, enduring the abuse of another (psychopathic) teacher who refused to let her pupils use the toilet and kept them hostage until they wet themselves and were duly punished, and having several affairs, including one with an unnamed man so distraught over their break-up that he committed suicide. Heady stuff for its time.
But, at the same time, Confessions and Impressions offers an early clue to the secret of Ethel Mannin’s success as a word producer and failure as a writer. For the “Confessions” section of the book amounts to about 40% of its content, while the “Impressions”–a collection of somewhat shallow and gossipy sketches of various writers and celebrities she was acquainted with. Noel Coward she thinks “the most electric person I had ever met;” Rebecca West is “small and provocative, rather like a lovely naughty child;” Radcliffe Hall, then notorious for her novel of lesbian love, The Well of Loneliness, is “the definitely masculine type of woman, but not by any means in that tiresome and unattractive sense suggestive of police-women or tomboyish daughters of county families.” She shares confidences about William Gerhardie told to her at one of Rebecca West’s cocktail parties: “Oh, did he offer to seduce you? He did me. He said it would make me a better writer.” At the time, English readers must have lapped this up, but it all seems pretty silly and musty today, as do her pontifications on Freud and her declaration that (remember, she’s only thirty), “I have lived richly and fully because out of abundant vitality, physical, mental, emotional, I have never been afraid to give myself to life.”
And she went on to prove herself right by packing in enough experiences that, less than ten years later, she produced a second volume of autobiography, Privileged Spectator (1939). During the Thirties, she wrote another couple dozen books, including the pretentiously (and, in truth, just barely) experimental Ragged Banners: A Novel with an Index (1931) (yes, it did have an index); another, Linda Shawn, based on A. S. Neill’s pioneering work at his Summerhill boarding school; a highly critical account of life in the Soviet Union, South to Samarkand (1936); Common-sense and the Adolescent (1937) an advice book calling for greater liberality in the treatment of teenagers and their struggles with sexuality and identity. She said good-bye to the carefree, bohemian lifestyle of the Twenties after spending the pring of 1932 on Majorca, which she found “infested by every kind of foreign undesirable, durg addicts, dipsomaniacs, crooks, idle rich, and every kind of parasite.” She also found time to become active in the Labour Party–and then, when disillusioned with that, the Independent Labour Party. She raised funds for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War alongside Emma Goldman and married Reginald Reynolds, a Quaker, writer of political tracts and satirical poems, and one of Gandhi’s primary representatives in the U. K.. She also bought a house, Oak Cottage, outside London, where she hosted figures ranging from Goldman in the Thirties to Iraqi dissidents in the Sixties.
Although her travels were more restricted during the Second World War, her writings were not, and her production carried on unimpeded by Blitz, blackouts, or rationing. As a pacifist, Reynolds was less than popular with the authorities, and he spent a few weeks in Exeter prison for the felony of riding a bicycle without a headlight (in the middle of the morning) as well as several rounds in hospital for his weak lungs and heart.
Always on the side of the underdog, Mannin’s principles occasionally landed her in a awkward position. In 1944, a prison inmate–a German national and fervent supporter of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF)–wrote to ask for a few of her books, having devoured all he could find in the prison library. She wrote a few letters in support of his case, but was startled when the man appeared, paroled, at Oak Cottage and insisted that he be hired to serve as her secretary. Mannin didn’t really need a secretary but was reluctant not to help the man out on his new path. So she found herself hosting a still-rabid Fascist with few secretarial skills, who still liked to wear his BUF uniform shirts around the house, who sulked for days after Mannin said she didn’t care for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and who couldn’t even be trusted to write a simple letter correctly. She would hand him a letter from some group inviting her to speak, saying, “Just say I am very busty and have no time.” He would then “type a very neat letter–using all his fingers, very correctly–to say that Miss Mannin had better things to do that waste her time speaking to a lot of nincompoops at a literary society, and if anyone was interested in Miss Mannin’s ideas they could jolly well read her books. Yours faithfully.” When asked to rewrite it, he stormed off. “He was extremely temperamental,” she notes. To her great relief, the man announced one day that he needed to move on “to better himself.” In later years, she had another mixed experience with a charity case when she and her husband “adopted” Frank Stanley, who had broken into their house and been sent up on a charge of burglary. He also turned out to be well-meaning but proved to have an unfortunate residual interest in violence, criminal intrigues, and rough trade.
Brief Voices (1959) covers the longest period of all her autobiographies, from the outbreak of war in 1939 to Reynolds’ sudden death, while on a speaking tour in Australia, in 1958. It set a pattern for all her remaining memoirs, providing a relatively superficial and stand-offish account of personal matters (her daughter, for example, is mentioned only a few times per book and usually not by name), synopses of her travels and the books they produced, and assorted chapters of reflections on then-current events and the decline of manners, morals, politics and art. All of which, she takes for granted, will be of interest to her readers. After all, as she concluded in the introduction to Brief Voices, “A writer’s life should have a special quality of interest because of the intense awareness brought to it.” ‘Nuff said.
After the war, Mannin seems to have latched onto a formula guaranteed to keep her production rate high. She would travel to a country, usually as a guest of the government or some cultural organization, often being led around to see schools, hospitals, museums, great civil construction works, sometimes giving talks herself. From this experience, she could easily produce at least one travel book and, with the local color she’d absorbed, at least one novel. In a few cases, she doubled her output. And so, after a trip to Burma in 1955, she wrote Land of the Crested Lion (1955) about her travels and then the novel,
The Living Lotus (1956), about a current case of a white girl taken in by a Burmese family and raised as a Muslim, and the contest when her parents attempted to repatriate her.
In the 1960s, she became greatly interested in the Middle East. A long trip through Iraq and Kuwait in 1963 produced A Lance for the Arabs (1963) and the novel, The Road to Beersheba (1963), which she saw as a pro-Palestinian counter to Leon Uris’ huge pro-Israeli best-seller, Exodus. She returned to Jordan in 1965, producing The Lovely Land (1965) (travelogue) and The Burning Bush (1965), also favoring the Palestinian cause.
She entangled herself in the messy politics of the Middle East. Gaining a very favorable view of General Abd al-Karim Qasim, who–though an autocrat–did more to advance democratic and social welfare issues while Prime Minister in Iraq until he was violently overthrown in a Ba’athist-led coup during Ramadan in 1963. Afterward, Mannin was a sympathetic support of Iraqi liberals, and developed a close friendship with Khalid Ahmed Zaki, head of the Iraqi student movement in Britain, who was later killed while leading a guerrilla group in the marshes outside Basra. And her pro-Palestinian stance often placed on the unpopular side of a public argument, particularly after the Palestine Liberation Organization began to adopt more violent tactics to advance their cause.
As with her wayward charity cases, so does Mannin’s unrelentingly earnest pursuit of what she believes right sometimes puts her into an unwittingly comic light. In Stories from My Life (1973), she devotes a whole chapter, “Young Man in Parma Violet Shirt,” to an account of an “astonishing young man” she observes on an evening train from Leeds to London:
He was astonishing because he was incredibly handsome and different. What on earth was he doing amongst all those business executives, paunchy and middle-aged for the most part, short-back-and-sides, brief cases, dark lounge suits, the lot? The young man with his thick, dark longish hair, he dark-skinned Latin good looks, his splendid parma violet silk shirt freely displayed across his broad shoulders, his jacket above him in the rack; this young man with the Ivor Novello profile and high forehead and sensitive intelligent face, totally absorbed in a book.
Never have I seen anyone so totally absorbed in a book. He sipped his gin-and-tonic, and later his soup, without ever taking his eyes from the page….
It was a big book, a fat book, and I wondered, inevitably, always interested in what people are reading….
I wondered what he had to do with Leeds; there was a repertory theatre, so perhaps he was an actor; there was a university, so perhaps he taught….
… not since General Abd al-Karim Qasim of Iraq had I seen a man possessed of so much charisma. He wore no wedding ring and I wondered if he was married, or had a mistress; he did not suggest homosexuality….
I had two hours and forty minutes in which to study him and speculate about him, and since he never once looked up from his book I could do it unremittingly as he read.
But he left the train and strode away, and I did not accost him, and I crossed the dreary concourse of King’s Cross and went down into the tube, and I felt stricken; you could almost say bereaved….
… That book … I was so sure was the key to his personality.
Finally, she asks a librarian friend to look up the title and send her a copy of the book she’d seen the man reading with such fascination, and she has the chance to discover for herself:
I began to read, to review-read, rapidly; and within the first few pages was pulled up short by a passage of what was to me a quite startling degree of pornography. I skimmed on for a bit, but it seemed only an interminable series of the most explicitly detailed sexual episodes. I sent it back by return of post, telling myself bleakly, that, well, anyhow now I knew.
And still she traveled. Of her trip to the U.S., she totes up the output: “It produced a travel book, An American Journey (1967), and two novels with California backgrounds, The Lady and the Mystic (1967) and Bitter Babylon (1968), and was the last big journey I did, and I shall do no more.” Last, that was, except for short trips around England (England for a Change (1968), England at Large (1970), and England My Adventure (1972)). And that one to Italy (An Italian Journey (1974)).
And she took time to fill in what she must have considered the gaps between Confessions and Impressions and Privileged Spectator with Young in the Twenties (1971). Though she freely admits that, in the Twenties, she was “young and uppity” and foolish and light-hearted in a way no longer possible: “We were gay; not a doubt of it. We laughed a lot, we danced a lot, we told each other risqué stories–there are no such stories nowadays, for when all is permitted how be risqué?” Considering how liberal, radical, and uncompromising Mannin’s politics were, she does manage, as the years go on, to do a remarkable good imitation of a Tory old fogey: “We who were young in the Twenties are intensely aware of the Seventies’s scene because we have no part in it–nor want any.”
In 1974, Mannin packed up and sold Oak Cottage, moving to a smaller house in Teignmouth in Devon in southwestern England to be nearer to her daughter. She managed two write two more novels (Kildoon (1974) and The Late Miss Guthrie (1976)) before starting on her “final chapter of autobiography” and last book, Sunset over Dartmoor.
In structure, Sunset over Dartmoor stays true to Mannin’s long-worked formula. Part I, “Farewell to Oak Cottage,” takes us through the process of selling Oak Cottage and settling into her bungalow in Teignmouth. It is some of the least interesting writing I have ever read:
Then there was a young-middled-aged couple, pleasant enough, but I recorded in my journal, “but I don’t think they are serious.”
… then a couple came with a name that I wondered about–was it perhaps Italian? It could even be Arab. It proved to be Egyptian ….
Then there was a tall bearded man, an architect, and his wife; they admired the garden, but what they felt about the house I have no idea.
… Then a Swede offered thirty-seven thousand cash for the house without seeing the inside!
Then a doctor and his wife, who thought the garden “fantastic.” They rang back in the evening to ask if they could come again at the weekend with her mother. They were young-middle-aged; trendy.
With writing this trivial, could anyone care about the potential buyers who came to look at her old house? Oh, but then there is the move. Or not: “The Big Move wasn’t the ordeal I had expected it to be….” By page 37, she has completely lost any pretense of having something interesting to say about her experience. And so we move on to Part II, “Devon: The Local Scene,” which is nothing more than six chapters of local color and history unrelieved by any character, fine observation or humor. I skimmed through it to get to the final part, “Sunset Reflections.”
Now, one would think–certainly I assumed–that after ninety-five books, world-wide travels, two marriages, numerous affairs, and over seven decades of experience, Ethel Mannin would have packed as much depth and perspective into these final chapters as she could. She does at least start out big, which a chapter on, “An inquiry into belief in ‘God.'” Given that she was, for most of her life, an avowed skeptic who felt affinity to some tenets of Buddhism but refused to embrace any religion–even though she wrote several novels with strong religious stories–you might think this would be an opportunity to offer insight into her own beliefs and how she came to understand them. Instead, it really is nothing more than a survey of how various religions and religious thinkers she has known have tried to define the word, “God.”
Not surprisingly, she stays with this theme with her next chapter, “A reflection on some misused terms,” which include everything from “race” and “anti-Semitism” to “have a nice day” and “at this moment in time.” It’s the stuff of a bored editorial writer on a slow news day. Later, we get to share in “Some reflections on the contemporary scene,” where we are informed that, “We live in an age of dehumanized sex, and of violence at all levels, social, political, sexual, personal.” “For the young it may be challenging and exciting,” she acknowledges, “but for the old it is depressing and alarming.”
On the final page of this, her final book, Mannin concludes that, “… without the material and psychological relaxation of this retirement I might not have felt moved to set them [these reflections] down. Whether it has been a good thing to have done this is for the reader to decide.” I regret to say that for this reader, it was not a good thing.
There’s a saying on the Internet to the effect that, “Content is King.” Sadly, by the time she reached the end of a staggering quantity of books, one has to say that Ethel Mannin couldn’t tell the difference between content and material. Sunset over Dartmoor could have been the summing up of a remarkable career and life. Instead, it was the last lap of a writer who’d already run too long and was just going through the motions she’d drilled into her muscle memory through sheer repetition.