I have read a couple of Diana Athill’s later memoirs, Yesterday Morning (2002) and Somewhere Towards the End (2008). They were wonderful and I have been meaning to read more of her work for ages. Her short stories published by Persephone books are particularly on my radar. I came across this lovely old edition of Instead of a Letter in a second hand bookshop – I love these old dust-jackets.
Instead of a Letter, Diana Athill’s first work of autobiography was written when Diana Athill was only in her 40s, published a year after her first volume of short stories. Since then, she has written several more volumes of memoir, including one quite recently. Considering that Athill didn’t write these in any kind of chronological order I can’t see it matters which order one reads them in, as each book does seem to have a different focus. Born in 1917 – she will be celebrating her 99th birthday just before Christmas.
Diana Athill was born into a wealthy, aristocratic family, and brought up in the Norfolk countryside. Having worked for the BBC before the war, she later worked in publishing and as an editor, working with many very famous literary greats.
In writing this memoir when she did, Diana Athill, was trying to discover something about herself, and crucially about what her life had been for. It was a question which had been prompted by the memory of her maternal grandmother.
“By the end, pain and exhaustion had loosened her grip on life so that when she ‘recovered’ yet again from a heart attack she would whisper, ‘why doesn’t God let me die?’ but for a long time she was afraid of what was happening to her. She was afraid of death, and she was sorrowful – which was worse – because she had much time in which to ask herself what her life had been for, and often she could not answer.”
She is, as ever, uncompromisingly honest. This is a woman, who the reader instantly feels right at home with, someone will a brilliant understanding of herself, and the ability to examine herself with unflinching honesty.
Although this memoir begins when Diana is a child, it is not a childhood memoir (Yesterday Morning is her childhood memoir – and is brilliant). Instead of a Letter takes us from those years when Diana was living in the country with her family, to her happy times at Oxford in the 1930s through to those darker days after the Second World War, as she recovered from a terrible heartbreak. It is this relationship which is at the heart of the novel, and which was brought suddenly and unexpectedly back to her on a chance visit to an Oxfordshire village.
“ ‘Good evening… Oh, my God, it’s Paul’s girl!’
‘Maggie, you recognised me!’
Maggie held my arm for a moment after kissing me, looking as though she might cry, while I stood there feeling a curious internal vertigo. It was almost twenty years since I had last gone through the narrow door into the taproom of the Plough at Appleton, a small village about ten miles from Oxford; almost twenty years since Maggie and I had seen each other.’
When she was in her teens, a young man named Paul was brought into her home to help tutor Diana’s brother for his public-school entrance exam. Paul was only four years older than Diana, though the age gap never seemed very big at all. Diana fell in love with the mere idea of him. When the real Paul turned up Diana found in him all she could have dreamed – and more.
“I wrote to a friend of mine: ‘The tutor’s come and he’s a perfectly marvellous person. He’s got brown eyes and fair hair and I suppose he ought to be taller really but he has got broad shoulders and a good figure, and he’s country and London at the same time. He would be at home anywhere. He’s very funny and reads a lot, but he isn’t a bit highbrow. We took a boat up the stream yesterday, through all that tangly bit beyond the wood, like going up the Amazon, and he made up a tremendous story about who we were and what we were doing. He knows more about birds than anyone I know, but he dances well, too.’ ”
Paul, first more like a brother, eventually became the centre of her world, and she invested almost everything in him. The war separates them, and Diana must content herself with infrequent letters and a long-distance relationship before she becomes an RAF wife. Paul’s dissertation of her is devastating, more so perhaps as she never gets the chance to forgive him.
This memoir perfectly evokes the times in which Diana Athill lived as a young woman, the people she writes about emerge from the pages fully formed. Athill beautifully recreates her greatest love story from which she seemed to emerge a wiser, sadder woman, but one who knew herself, in a way, perhaps not all of us do. She writes in a very un-embarrassed way about her various brief sexual relationships and the abortion she felt she had to have. After the war, saw her begin working with André Deutsch with whom she was to have a long and successful association. Later Diana was to find true happiness when she discovered writing for herself.
This is a wonderful book, in which we see the devastation of a loss, and the redemptive power of finding one’s true self in creative work.