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In Victory, Defeat: Olivia Manning’s Balkan and Levant Trilogies and Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour

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posted on 2023-03-14, 23:29 authored by Hawcroft, Frank

Olivia Manning's Balkan and Levant trilogies (1960-65, 1977-80) and Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy (1952-61) are sequences of historical novels set during the Second World War. This thesis compares and contrasts these sequences as conservative fictional voices from a period of social and literary transition. My first chapter discusses how ideas of heroism and sacrifice prove outmoded and unsupported by institutions during the war. Particularly in Waugh's trilogy, but to a lesser extent also in Manning's sequence, models of heroism taken from past texts—such as colonial adventure stories—are shown to be inadequate. Heroism is only possible on a small scale and involves moral compromises. The second chapter considers the treatment of being English outside England. Depictions of foreign countries are considered in the context of the fading of the British Empire and British global power. Colonial life is attractive in a nostalgic sense but is problematic in the present. Episodes about Jewish refugees in both sequences are discussed as symbolising defiance of the entropy of imperial decay as well as attempts to find post-imperial models for intervention. The third and final chapter examines the uses of literature and culture in the novels and how they hint at ways out of the historical binds discussed in the first two chapters. Literature and the teaching of literature have a propagandistic function but also subvert this function by offering escape from the realities of wartime. I also touch on the connection between literary creativity and the subversion of gender roles. I argue that while these sequences construct a generally negative perspective on social changes during the war, this is not unchallenged by subversive undercurrents such as these. The conservative Catholic morality of Waugh's trilogy contrasts with Manning's willingness to raise questions about gender, class and colonialism, but in both authors' works the war is presented as a time in which initially optimistic ideals and hopes are disappointed, while the validity of these ideals in the first place is also questioned.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies


Stafford, Jane