A Memoirist Who Told Everything and Repented Nothing

A Memoirist Who Told Everything and Repented Nothing

When she died at a hundred and one in January of 2019, Diana Athill had publicly chronicled both ends of her long life in a series of nine memoirs. The first of these, “Instead of a Letter,” was published in 1963 and recently rereleased in the U.S. as part of the NYRB Classics series; it recounts her jolly, upper-class English childhood on the family estate of Ditchingham, in Norfolk. The last book that she wrote, “Alive, Alive Oh!,” came together in her “darling little room” at the Mary Feilding Guild, in Highgate, London, a garden-set home for the elderly; it’s a high-spirited, recalcitrant account of “waiting to die” at ninety-six.

Athill was the sort of character who ought to have seen her obituaries before she went. First, because she would have bewitchingly written off any high praise—the New York Times noted “her luminous prose, gimlet social acuity and ability to convey a profound sense of place”—with her brand of droll humor. (She refused burial at the Highgate Cemetery because of the cost: “I think being dead is an expensive business.”) And, second, because she would have enjoyed the evidence of how much her reputation had emerged; she’d worked behind the scenes for meagre wages and little adulation as one of the century’s great editors. In 1952, she became a co-founding director of the publishing house André Deutsch, and, until her retirement, in 1992, shepherded the likes of Philip Roth, John Updike, and Jean Rhys to publication. Athill wrote seven of her memoirs after leaving her nine-to-five, but, until that relatively late turn toward autobiographical mania, she knew her place. “We must always remember that we are only midwives—if we want praise for progeny we must give birth to our own,” she writes, in “Stet: An Editor’s Life.” We might not have known her had she not brought forth her own romping and exuberant litter.

Critics frequently used the terms “frank” or “candid” to describe Athill’s memoirs. But Athill doesn’t write as if no one is watching; she writes as if she’d never even imagined someone might watch, and therefore doesn’t have a scruple to hold on to. To describe honesty as her hallmark isn’t quite enough: that’s the least we can ask of our memoirists. What she is marvellous at is admitting, sans self-recrimination. In the early twenty-first century, the memoir has turned into a confessional, in a nearly religious sense. Writers go there to seek redemption, and to chart their evolution from naïve to knowing: no narrative is more marketable than metamorphosis. Athill doesn’t treat her foibles and losses—of love, of money, of caste, of certainty—as traumas, events that would define her life as troubled and scarring. Instead, she makes the case that being kicked out of Eden is good for the soul.

“I am glad that I have not inherited money or possessions,” Athill writes, striking a defiant note, in “Instead of a Letter.” Inheritance was never her due, though as a child she once counted the bodies that stood between her and the palatial Ditchingham estate. “It appeared that at least twelve people, seven of them my contemporaries, would have to die before I would have a claim, and I hardly thought I ought to pray for this however much I would have liked to.” Ditchingham belonged to her mother’s parents, who offered it out as the extended family’s seasonal home, where they spent long summers and holidays throughout her early life. The thousand-acre estate with a twenty-bedroom, fully staffed house granted the family security in their Englishness, as members of an élite and unquestionable class. Athill stresses that the experience of growing up with such surety turned Ditchingham into a cocoon, a secure location from which to launch a life, but also a place she would inevitably leave. “There I used to be,” she opines, “as snug and as smug as anyone.” From an early age, she knew that adulthood would exist elsewhere.

Athill’s joy in Ditchingham, the children’s after-tea appearance in front of the grownups in the drawing room and the horsemen wandering across the fields, is the bright marrow of her writing: it suffuses her later life, and her prose, with bubbling, fresh oxygen. But, in “Instead of a Letter,” she writes as if she’s relieved that she got away from the estate and its inhabitants. “Like anyone else they had their charms,” she writes of her family, but “physically, intellectually, and morally, they were no more than middling.” Yet they thought themselves superior beings: “Smugness is too small a word for what it feels like from inside. From inside, it feels like moral and aesthetic rightness; from inside, it is people like me, who question it, who look stupid, ugly, and pitiful.”

Hence her happiness that she didn’t inherit: staying on at Ditchingham for a lifetime might have trapped her in the same small, closed life. Her childhood remained blissful to her as she aged because it lived on in her memory but didn’t define her future. “Never to have broken through its smothering folds would have been, I have always thought, extremely depressing,” she writes. “But on the other hand, not to have enjoyed a childhood wrapped warmly in those folds—that would be a sad loss.” Cousins were saddled with managing the finances of an upkeep-heavy country pile, whereas she, the oldest child of a fourth daughter, absorbed the bliss of the place but not the narrowness.

Ditchingham wasn’t the only inheritance that Athill would forgo. At thirteen, her mother told her that they’d “lost” their money, but what she meant was that they’d spent it all. “My parents felt they were living austerely because we ourselves looked after our ponies and they had not kept on their own hunters,” Athill writes, dryly. She recounts her mother telling her that “the really bloody thing about being poor is that if you leave something on the floor when you go out, you know that it will still be there when you get back.” Along with her two younger siblings, the family had been living in a well-staffed, six-bedroom house in Hertfordshire since her father had retired from the Army. Financially, they fell out a window but landed on a mattress—Athill’s grandparents rented them Manor Farm, a house on the estate, for cheap. A governess cost too much, so Athill was sent to Runton, a girls’ boarding school on the North Sea, and then up to St. Mary’s College at Oxford, in 1936.

When Athill was twenty-two, her future disintegrated again. She’d been engaged for two years when her fiancé, a Royal Air Force pilot named Tony Irvine, was deployed to Egypt. Then his letters suddenly stopped. She discovered in rapid succession that he’d married someone else while abroad and then been killed in action. “A long, flat unhappiness” set in, her sense of her own value collapsed, and her twenties were filled with broken-off relationships with incompatible men. “By the time I had reached my thirties,” she writes, toward the end of “Instead of a Letter,” “I was convinced that I lacked some vital quality necessary to inspire love.” At age ninety-nine, she explained in an interview, “there was a basic, underlying sense of failure—and it came from the very simple thing of having been brought up expecting to get married.”

“How did I get this way?” is one of memoir’s primary questions. Typical culprits are poverty or abandonment, sometimes a remarkable, indelible catastrophe. Cheryl Strayed’s mother died when Strayed, the author of “Wild,” was in college: she calls it her “genesis story.” Dani Shapiro, the author of five memoirs, starts her autobiographical path in “Slow Motion” with the story of her parents’ tragic car accident. Even Joan Didion reached new heights of cultural resonance with “The Year of Magical Thinking,” her memoir of the year following her husband’s death. The modern memoir is the proving ground for our national obsession with trauma, a place to gawk at whoever comes through the emotional meat grinder with the good sense and talent to finesse their damage into a redemption song.

Athill’s early life is her major subject in “Instead of a Letter” and “Yesterday Morning,” and an inescapable touchstone in her other writing. After her first memoir, Athill saw the advantage of disclosure: once she “dug out and thought about” her failure, “it vanished.” But she doesn’t pass off heartbreak as a blessing in disguise, or her subsequent successful career as a silver lining. Her abandonment was more like a signpost, something that pointed her to a brambly but invigorating path. “I am obviously a recoverer,” she explained at ninety-eight. Athill’s troubles fit the mold of the memoir of suffering, but her unruffled attitude doesn’t. Perhaps it was her distance from her youth—she published “Instead of a Letter” at forty-five, and the rest of her work in her sixties and beyond—but more likely it was a matter of character. “I believed,” she writes, in “Somewhere Towards the End,” “and still believe, that there is no point in describing experience unless one tries to get it as near to being what it really was as you can make it, but that belief does come into conflict with a central teaching in my upbringing: Do Not Think Yourself Important.” Despite placing herself at the center of her memoirs, Athill still couldn’t imagine herself as worthy of any special attention.

Pleasure was far more interesting to her than damage. In 2008, the Daily Mail profiled Athill with the headline “Confessions of a Promiscuous 90-Year-Old.” The publication of “Somewhere Towards the End,” with its breezy descriptions of her woefully evaporated sex drive—it “had always seemed central to my existence”—was excellent fodder for a tabloid. She had documented her sex life for years, in nearly all her memoirs. But now Athill obtained a sudden late-in-life fame. (The book won the National Book Critics Circle Award and generated reams of reviews and interviews.) Photos of her, with her snow-white hair and velvety, folded skin, fomented interest in a nonagenarian who would “run through all the men I ever went to bed with” instead of counting sheep.

Her jilting at twenty-two fast-tracked Athill to a free and easy relationship with sex. She writes repeatedly, in “Instead of a Letter” and “Yesterday Morning” and “Somewhere Towards the End,” about finding a book by the birth-control advocate (and eugenicist) Marie Stopes, with its diagrams and “clear descriptions of sexual intercourse,” in the Ditchingham library: “I had stumbled on The Answer.” If at age twelve she had known what masturbation was, she “would certainly have indulged in it. . . . Not having a strong practical bent, I did not invent it.” She writes about her sex drive to a degree that often requires italics: “I knew that it was one of life’s best pleasures, and that I was going to start enjoying it the minute I was old enough.”

Athill had expected her relationship with Tony Irvine to last her lifetime. After he vanished, what she most wanted was “a lover who had a nice wife to do his washing and look after him if he fell ill” so that she could “enjoy the plums of love without having to munch through the pudding.” After Oxford, she moved to London, and lived in bedsits like one of Muriel Spark’s working girls; unlike most, when the Second World War concluded, she didn’t return home or marry. Instead, she did whatever she wanted. About one married boyfriend, Felix, she says, “Our relationship was pure cinq-à-sept. . . . Neither of us ever set foot in each other’s daily life.” She edited the autobiography of the Black Panther Hakim Jamal and then ended up having an affair with him. (He was later murdered and became the subject of her memoir “Make Believe.”) In several memoirs, she writes about her two abortions (one nurse told her, “It is entirely up to you if you want to murder your first child,” to which Athill replied, “Yes, it is”) and her nearly fatal miscarriage at forty-three. In an essay about the experience, she adds the coda, “The truth is that in forty years I have hardly ever thought about it, and never with anything more poignant than painless speculation as to how it would have turned out.” She never regretted the life she kept—her own.

The memoirs after “Instead of a Letter” spill over with her breezy and angst-free accounting of her sex life. Athill’s philosophy was that fidelity is a faulty mechanism on which to base a relationship. Later, she lived for decades with the Jamaican playwright Barry Reckord and, after their intimate relationship was over, invited his new girlfriend to move into their apartment. “Most of the people I knew had been bedding each other for years without calling it a sexual revolution,” she writes, nonchalantly, of the nineteen-sixties and seventies. She didn’t see herself as countercultural, or part of a movement. She wasn’t aiming to be unconventional; she simply found that the sexual and relational satisfaction she received was worth the price of nonconformity.

Working in publishing was another way to live, happily, outside the strictures of her time. After her retirement, she published “Stet,” which she deadpans as “the story of one old ex-editor who imagines that she will feel a little less dead if a few people read it.” It’s a pile of contradictions: Athill frequently conveys her own laziness (which kept her from agitating for better pay for women in the office, from ever owning a home, from taking on her share of the André Deutsch business—“I loathed and still loathe responsibility”), but it’s obvious from her meticulous memory for real-life and fictional plot twists that she vigorously, brilliantly doted on language and narrative. The picture that emerges is that of a busy editor, pencil in hand, her head bent over the page to keep office politics out of her line of sight. She rejects the notion that single women ought to be married to their careers: “The working breakfast, and taking home work at weekends . . . were to me an abomination.” Here was a woman who’d found the elusive balance, or dismissed the idea entirely.

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