Biography Frederic Manning

Frederic Manning

photo of Frederic Manning
  • Time Period1882 - 1935
  • Place
  • CountryAustralia

Poet Biography

Frederic Manning (22 July 1882 – 22 February 1935) was an Australian poet and novelist.

Born in Sydney, Manning was the son (one of eight children) of local politician Sir William Patrick Manning. His family were Catholics, of Irish origin. A sickly child (asthma), Manning was educated exclusively at home. As a teenager he formed a close friendship with Arthur Galton, a scholarly man who was Secretary to the Governor General. Galton went home to England in 1898, taking Manning with him, but Manning returned to Australia in 1900. In 1903, he finally settled in the UK.

Manning continued to write. In 1917 he published a collection of poems under the title Ediola. This was a mixture of verse predominantly in his former style alongside war poems heavily influenced by the imagism of Pound, which deal introspectively with personal aims and ideals tempered in the crucible of battle. He contributed to anthologies, for example, The Monthly Chapbook which appeared in July 1919 edited by Harold Monro, containing twenty-three poems by writers including John Alford, Herbert Read, Walter De La Mare, Osbert Sitwell, Siegfried Sassoon, D. H. Lawrence, Edith Sitwell, Robert Nichols, Rose Macaulay and W. H. Davies alongside Manning and Aldington. He wrote for periodicals, including Criterion, which was produced by T. S. Eliot.

Poetry did not pay, and so in 1923 Manning took a commission from his publisher John Murray to write The Life of Sir William White, which was a thorough, workmanlike and deadly dull biography of the man who, as Director of Naval Construction, led the build-up of the Royal Navy in the last years of the nineteenth century. Galton had died in 1921, which not only left Manning effectively homeless, but also lacking a forceful directing influence in his life. He lived for much of the time at the Bull Hotel in Bourne, apart from a short spell when he owned a farmhouse in Surrey. At this time he was friendly with T. E. Lawrence, then serving in the RAF at Cranwell, some twenty miles (a motorcycle ride) from where Manning was living. In 1926 he contributed the introduction to an edition of Epicurus's Morals: Collected and faithfully Englished by Walter Charleton, originally published in 1656, published in a limited edition by Peter Davies.

As the 1920s progressed and confidence started to return, the artistic community was increasingly looking back at the war. The demand for written material started to grow. The big catalyst was the play Journey's End written by R. C. Sherriff which first appeared in 1928. Davies urged Manning to use his undoubted talent in conjunction with his intense wartime experiences to write a novel. In an effort to capture the moment, Manning had to work rapidly, with little opportunity for second drafts and revisions. The result was The Middle Parts of Fortune, published anonymously by Peter Davies in a limited numbered edition of about 500 in 1929, copies of which are now rare collectors' items. The book is an account in the vernacular of the lives of ordinary soldiers. The central character named Bourne is the filter through which Manning's own experiences are transposed into the lives of a group of men whose own personal qualities interact in response to conflict and comradeship. Bourne is an enigmatic, detached character (a self-portrait of the author) who does not survive to the end, but leaves each of the protagonists alone with their own detachment, privy to their own thoughts.

This was a potent brew, forcibly written, too forcibly for what were seen as the sensibilities of the contemporary readership. An expurgated version was published by Davies in 1930 under the title Her Privates We. There is a quote from Shakespeare at the start of each chapter, and this particular reference occurs in Hamlet. In Act 2, Scene 2, there is a jocular exchange between Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

Guildenstern: On Fortune's cap we are not the very button.

Hamlet: Nor the soles of her shoe?

Rosencrantz: Neither, my lord.

Hamlet: Then you live about her waist, or in the middle of her favours?

Guildenstern: Faith, her privates we.

Hamlet: In the secret parts of fortune? O, most true; she is a strumpet.

There is quite clearly a sexual connotation, a negative one, albeit subtle. The original publication of this edition credited authorship to "Private 19022", possibly a simple desire for anonymity or possibly a further pun on "private soldier" and "private parts". Manning was first credited with authorship by name posthumously in 1943, but the original text was published widely only in 1977. Amongst the voices raised in praise were those of Arnold Bennett, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound (who cited Manning as a literary mentor) and T. E. Lawrence, who claimed to have seen through the anonymity and recognised the author of Scenes and Portraits. Be that as it may, Scenes and Portraits was re-published by Peter Davies in 1930, and Manning lived out his life basking in the afterglow of what is widely regarded as one of the very finest novels based upon the experiences of warfare.