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date: 15 June 2021

Manning, Rosemary Joy [pseuds. Sarah Davys, Mary Voyle]free

(1911–1988)

Manning, Rosemary Joy [pseuds. Sarah Davys, Mary Voyle]free

(1911–1988)
  • Clare L. Taylor

Manning, Rosemary Joy [pseuds. Sarah Davys, Mary Voyle] (1911–1988), author and headmistress, was born on 9 December 1911 at Rodwell Lodge, Weymouth, Dorset, the only daughter among four children of Thomas Davys Manning (1868/9–1943), a doctor, and Mary Ann Coles (1869–1960/61), a nurse and social worker before her marriage. Manning describes her childhood in this 'overwhelmingly masculine family' in her autobiography A Corridor of Mirrors (1987). She was educated first at a school in Dorchester Road, Weymouth, and then at Camberley, her father having moved the family to Sandhurst in the early 1920s after he had had to resign his practice, following a scandal with an employee. Manning was then sent to a boarding-school in Devon until 1930. At school she wrote and produced several plays and had ambitions to be a writer. The school is fictionalized as Bampfield in her novel The Chinese Garden (1962); in her autobiography she recounts a 'very damaging' affair with her housemistress and her first 'ludicrous, hamfisted attempt' to commit suicide, aged seventeen (Manning, 62).

In 1930 Manning read classics at Royal Holloway College, where she was a rebellious student. On graduation with a second class degree in 1933 she got a job as a shop assistant in an Oxford Street department store and was living with her mother, who had recently separated from Manning's father; during this time she studied shorthand and typing, and after two years she left her job to become secretary to a brick salesman in Westminster. She wrote little in her twenties and, with the exception of a 'gloomy sonnet on suicide' that was printed in the New Statesman, she did not attempt to get her work published (Manning, 92). During the 1930s her political affiliations were socialist and she became increasingly unhappy in her work. She suffered a nervous breakdown and was unsuccessfully treated at the Maudsley Hospital by a series of doctors who were hostile to her lesbianism. By her own account she was 'rescued' by her former headmistress, who offered her some teaching work. She thus embarked on a thirty-five-year teaching career that she later saw as a 'desperate retreat' which cut her off from her creativity as a writer (Manning, 111–12).

Her interest in left-wing politics led Manning towards the ‘progressive’ movement in education at a small school in Sussex, where she had an affair with the art teacher. After an unhappy period at a school in Ascot she went into partnership with a friend in buying a small day school in Hertfordshire in 1943. In 1950 they moved to north London to take over a long-established girls' preparatory school. Manning prided herself on giving the arts, especially music, an equal footing with other subjects; she saw herself not as a scholar but as a 'sharer and populariser' (Manning, 132). After two or three years in Hampstead she began to explore both writing and her sexual nature, which she kept hidden throughout her career as a teacher and headmistress. Influenced primarily by Rilke, her writing career began with a clutch of short stories published in the Cornhill and the novels Remaining a Stranger (1953) and A Change of Direction (1955), which were written under the pseudonym Mary Voyle and later disregarded by Manning. She often described her fiction as autobiographical and she certainly used her writing to explore issues emanating from her closeted position as a lesbian. Indeed her work is a strong contribution to the genre of women's confessional writing. Look, Stranger (1960) is a moral, if stylized, account of irrational fears towards the outsider, in this case a woman suffering from epilepsy. In the roman à clef The Chinese Garden (1962) Manning represents with candour the atmosphere of repressed sexual desire between schoolgirls in an atmosphere of hypocrisy and betrayal.

After a five-year relationship came to an end in April 1962 Manning made a second and nearly successful attempt to kill herself. She used the sleeping pill Luminal, which she had secured through a friend over twenty years previously, 'as a protection in case Hitler was victorious' (Davys, 16). She was saved when a suicide note that she had posted to a friend arrived sooner than she expected. Two months later The Chinese Garden was published to rapturous reviews but nothing could console Manning for having failed to kill herself. She embarked upon A Time and a Time (1971) shortly afterwards; it is a moving and darkly witty account, first published under the pseudonym Sarah Davys, of her love affairs with women and of her failure to commit suicide, which she ascribed to 'the combined forces of the Post Office, the law and I suppose, fate' (Manning, 139). A Time and a Time is perhaps the best summation of Manning's character as self-professed 'clown and melancholic'. Later, in Man on a Tower (1965), she explored the destructive nature of introversion and isolation in the artist, while in Open the Door (1983) she followed the losses that fracture the lives of a group of archaeologists. She was also an accomplished writer for children of both reference books and fiction, which included Green Smoke (1962) and other stories in the Dragon series.

Later in life Manning lectured in evening classes on subjects such as heraldry and symbolism, and in the 1970s she became interested in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and feminism. She came out as a lesbian at the age of nearly seventy, in an ITV programme early in 1980. In her candid autobiography A Corridor of Mirrors she explores her development as a writer and as a lesbian with her characteristic wit and tendency towards self-deprecation. A Time and a Time was reissued under her own name in 1982 and she hoped that her work would illuminate the lives of many lesbians who were forced to live a similarly veiled existence in the first half of the century. Towards the end of her life she was living in Dorset and London; she died of cancer in 1988 on 15 April at her home, Devey Cottage, Pembury Grange, Tunbridge Wells.

Sources

  • R. Manning, A corridor of mirrors (1987)
  • S. Davys [R. Manning], A time and a time: an autobiography (1971)

Wealth at Death

under £70,000: probate, 5 May 1988, CGPLA Eng. & Wales