Instead of a Letter
It is with shame and regret that I admit to my failure to attend the book club’s discussion of this memoir. I could have done with their help with this, as I have not experienced such revulsion and grudging admiration in tandem before, at least when reading.
First published in 1963, when Athill was in her early forties, this covers her life to that date unevenly, with lingering descriptions of the various houses she was brought up in and the Norfolk Broads, with whole decades of her adult working life truncated to a few pages. As the author is still living in London, no mean feat having been born in 1917, I have no desire to put the boot in by hauling this memoir over the coals of modern contextual reading, partly because I am hardly a paragon of political correctness either. Her curiosity for foreign lands, self-deprecation in relation to her intellect and her gimlet turn of phrase are all admirable. The image of the author sinking into apathy having had her heart broken is delivered with a cool lucidity that is both enviable and universal. She loves her family, friends, nature, and of course books. Her love of beauty is rewarding to her, instilled at a young age by the kind of aunt that everyone should have, and sustains her through spates of inertia, as she describes them.
The scene introducing her decision to abort her lover’s child in her late twenties is also completely fascinating – from the sly description of the hideous woman in the consultation room to her decision not to keep the child, despite her desire to be a mother, for practical reasons and in order not to harm her parents. Life in England fifty years ago for an Oxford-educated upper middle-class woman portrays a defiant non-glamour – the BBC, bedsits and vacant promiscuity – that nonetheless entertains, as her life was so completely of her own making.
She goes from living with a mother who is quoted as having said: “the really bloody thing about being poor is that if you leave something on the floor when you go out, you know it will still be there when you get back,” to a boarding school where she survives by developing a deeply OCD method of naming small inanimate objects and by maintaining ‘a private stable of symbols’ in order to stay in touch with the outside world. The former makes you realize she could be a lot worse, the latter makes me wish I had done that.
Throughout is her balancing of sex against love. She describes a bull she used to stare at as a child: “He was sex as well as violence, and we were in awe of him”, and takes this to a terrifying reverie as a teenager: “If a stevedore” – why a stevedore? I am sure I have never met one – “if a stevedore would come and rape me at this minute, I would let him.” As long as you’re sure. Her first lover kindly explains ‘all sexual relationships were basically the pursuit of an essential thrill which, in its purest essence, could only be found in rape.’ He drops the theory after a year, and her virginity is his. There is a sense of detachment in her subsequent liaisons, despite her honesty and liberation in instigating them, that chills the reader.
She adored being an Oxford student, drifted into the BBC, founded several publishing companies with Andre Deutsch and there found her metier – her competence is clear despite her professed ignorance. She settles into a life full of words, travel and friends rather than solitude, ending on a positive note. It is hard to shake the feeling of her cold blue gaze falling on something ugly, however, and gutting it in the same fashion as she does an enthusiastic companion in Bath Crescent:
A man who was walking me home one night said, ‘It’s like going into a church,’ and I was speechless for several minutes in outrage at hearing my own feelings put into such clumsy words.
So the moral of the story: get it exactly right, or remain alone and suffer no disappointment. Write that down.