My good friend Corie recently lent me a pile of books which included Diana Athill's 1962 memoir Instead of a Letter. I hadn't heard of Athill, who has had a long career as a editor and publisher in England, but I've definitely heard of the authors she has worked with, including Jean Rhys, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, and Simone de Beauvoir. While she has written several other memoirs, this one, her first, doesn't focus on her publishing career. Instead, it tells the story of her growing up, her young adulthood, and her relatively lonely life up until her early 40s when she writes the book, all of which hinge on a devastatingly failed relationship.
Athill grew up in a well-off family in East Anglia that didn't have nearly as much money as it used to, but still had its name and a big family estate in the country. She was always a big reader, but never that interested in school. Still, the family decided she would go to Oxford and when she was 15 they hired an Oxford undergraduate to come tutor her and her siblings. This was Paul, and Diana fell in love with him before she even saw him. Her adolescent admiration turned into friendship and later a mutual love. They slept together, went to parties and pubs, and eventually, when Diana was herself at Oxford, they got engaged. Paul joined the Royal Air Force and went off to spend a year abroad while Diana finished up school. They had a passionate correspondence which suddenly stopped on Paul's end. Diana kept sending letters -- pleading ones, angry ones, questioning ones, but he didn't write back. For two years. And when he did, it was a cool letter requesting that she release him from their engagement because he was going to marry someone else.
This confusing and cruel treatment would be a blow to anyone, but particularly so to a passionate young woman who had seen her life goals as marrying Paul, being a military wife, and having children. Her confidence was shocked and her ability to enter into another open and trusting relationship was hurt. Even more so when Paul dies in the war and she never gets to confront him or ask him why.
The book goes on and Athill gets a job at the BBC, meets her friend and publishing partner André Deutsch, travels, reads, thinks, and eventually starts writing. The back of the book (and honestly, my description of it above) makes this sound like it is about nothing but her relationship with Paul, whereas the book is really much more philosophical and self-reflective than that. Athill has obviously spent a lot of time thinking about her personality, her actions, and her desires, and that thoughtfulness is spread thickly amongst the anecdotes and happenings of her youth.
While Athill's experiences as a young woman are unique, very British, rather upper class, and happened in the 1930s, her descriptions of adolescent longing, sexuality, intellectual exploration, and family dynamics are relatable and universal. The book has a distant, well crafted tone that is missing from many memoirs (which today tend to be much more flashy and winky), which made it relaxing and enjoyable to read.
I'd definitely like to check out more of Athill's autobiographical work, including her most recent book Somewhere Towards the End about her old age. Here's to classy British ladies of letters!