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Manning, Frederic (1882–1935)

by Laurie Hergenhan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Frederic Manning (1882-1935), novelist and poet, was born on 22 July 1882 in Sydney, fourth son of native-born parents (Sir) William Patrick Manning, financier and politician, and his wife Honora, née Torpy, both of Irish descent; his elder brother was (Sir) Henry. A lifelong asthmatic, Frederic was educated privately except for six months at Sydney Grammar School. Aged 15 he went to England with his tutor Rev. Arthur Galton, a friend of Matthew Arnold and Lionel Johnson, who had come to Australia as private secretary to Governor Sir Robert Duff. Some two years later Manning returned to Sydney, but, uninterested in business or the professions, pursued a literary career in England from 1903. He lived with Galton, from 1904 at the vicarage at Edenham, near Bourne, Lincolnshire.

With occasional visits to London (where all his works were published), Manning lived a retiring, leisured and scholarly life, steeping himself in the classics and assisted by a small allowance from home and later an interest in a Queensland sheep station run by a brother. Through Galton he had the entrée to select literary circles, including that of Olivia Shakespeare, friend of W. B. Yeats and mother of Ezra Pound's wife Dorothy. He published a narrative poem, The Vigil of Brunhild, in 1907 and Poems in 1910, and was principal reviewer for the Spectator in 1909-14.

Manning's first prose work, Scenes and Portraits (1909), a collection of short historical fictions in dialogue or monologue form, explored the idea that there are 'only two religions … [that] of the humble folk, whose life is a daily communion with the natural forces and a bending to them; and the religion of men like Protagoras, Lucretius and Montaigne, a religion of doubt, of tolerance and agnosticism'. Manning's theme sprang from a deep sense of isolation, suffering and transience of human lives. The book won him considerable attention from such writers as Max Beerbohm, E. M. Forster, T. E. Lawrence and Pound.

After failing an officers' course, Manning enlisted as a private in the King's Shropshire Light Infantry in 1915 and served in France on the Somme. On 30 May 1917 he was commissioned second lieutenant in the Royal Irish Regiment of Foot, but ill health prevented further active service. That year he published a third volume of poetry, Eidola, which included some war poems. After Galton's death in 1921 he lived much in Italy. He published a commissioned biography of Sir William White, designer of the first dreadnought, in 1923, and an edition of Walter Charleton's Epicurus's Morals in 1926. His friend (Sir) William Rothenstein described him as having 'the worn look, as of carved ivory, due to constant ill-health … and the sensitive intelligence one finds in men of fastidious habits'. His only hobbies were horse-racing and book-collecting. Friends, including Lawrence and T. S. Eliot, found his conversation 'extraordinary for its learning and charm'.

His sensitively speculative cast of mind underlies Manning's most enduring work, the war novel published anonymously under the pseudonym, 'Private 19022', in 1929 as The Middle Parts of Fortune and the abridged version next year as Her Privates We. It was regarded as one of the outstanding English war novels by Forster, Lawrence (who discerned Manning's authorship), Arnold Bennett, Ernest Hemingway, Peter Davies (his friend and publisher) and Eric Partridge. The novel concerns the life of men in the ranks of an English battalion in France, both in and out of action, and is based largely on Manning's own experiences as a 'ranker'. It depicts a temporary release from isolation through a heightened form of comradeship and is a kind of acceptance of war, despite its suffering and horrors, as a heightened form of the reality of all human lives.

Soon after returning from an eighteen months visit to his siblings in Australia, Manning died on 22 February 1935 at Hampstead, London, and was buried in Kensal Green cemetery beside his lifelong friend and literary hostess, Mrs Alfred Fowler. He died a Catholic, albeit an unorthodox one. Eliot wrote that Manning lacked the prerequisites for a reputation in his own time, 'a considerable body of writing and a range of acquaintance', not only because of his ill health and lack of ambition, but because his passion for perfection could be self-destructive. Nevertheless his aesthetic perfectionism, combined with his humanism, earned him posthumously a distinguished place in English and Australian literature, for he can be seen as belonging to both.

A pencil sketch of Manning by Rothenstein is in the Mitchell Library.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Rothenstein, Men and Memories (Lond, 1932)
  • W. Rothenstein, Since Fifty (Lond, 1939)
  • H. Klein (ed), The First World War in Fiction (Lond, 1976)
  • London Gazette, 29 June 1917, p 6495
  • Australian Quarterly, June 1935, p 47
  • Criterion, Apr 1935
  • Reveille (Sydney), 1 Apr 1935
  • L. T. Hergenhan, ‘Frederic Manning: a neglected Australian writer’, Quadrant, Spring 1962
  • L. T. Hergenhan, ‘Novelist at war: Frederic Manning's Her Privates We’, Quadrant, July-Aug 1970
  • Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 12, no 2, 1977
  • L. T. Hergenhan, ‘Two expatriates: Frederic Manning and James Griffyth Fairfax’, Southerly, 29, no 1, 1979
  • London Magazine, Dec 1983–Jan 1984, p 54
  • L. T. Hergenhan, ‘Ezra Pound, Frederic Manning and James Griffyth Fairfax’, Australian Literary Studies, with checklist, May 1984
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8, 12 Jan 1938, 25 Oct 1978
  • Manning papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Laurie Hergenhan, 'Manning, Frederic (1882–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/manning-frederic-7476/text13029, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 30 August 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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