In Somewhere Towards the End, the memoir about old age that won her the Costa Biography Prize in 2008, the esteemed publisher-turned-writer Diana Athill reveals that she wrote her 1967 novel, Don’t Look At Me Like That, because her publisher had ‘nagged’ her to. ‘In those days,’ she explains, ‘anyone who wrote anything at all good that was not a novel was constantly badgered with, “And now when are you going to give us your novel?”’ Not that Athill herself ever pursued this particular approach: ‘I couldn’t see any sense in it. There were plenty of people around who were damn well going to give us their novel come hell or high water, anyway.’ Having been one of the company’s founding directors and shareholders, Athill spent over fifty years working as an editor at André Deutsch Limited, the small but prestigious publishing house that opened its doors in 1952. They might have published some of the twentieth century’s greatest fiction writers – Margaret Atwood, Marilyn French, Molly Keane, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, V. S. Naipaul, Jean Rhys, Philip Roth and John Updike included – but this clearly didn’t mean that their slush pile wasn’t just as depressing as that anywhere else!
It was Athill’s identity as an editor, rather than as a writer, that defined much of her life. At least until she retired, when she was seventy-five, in the early 1990s. Don’t Look at Me Like That – which has been out of print for many years, but has just been re-issued by Granta Books – was one of a small cluster of books that Athill wrote and published in the 1960s, launching her career as a writer, even if it then stalled for the next two decades. Her debut, An Unavoidable Delay, which appeared in 1962, was a collection of short stories. She followed this, a year later, with her first memoir, Instead of a Letter (1963), and she gave us her novel four years after that. After which, there was a silence of nineteen years, until her second memoir, After a Funeral – her account of her friendship with the Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali, who was plagued by depression and committed suicide in Athill’s flat in 1969 – was published in 1986. It was only when Athill retired just a few years later, that the books started to come thick and fast: Make Believe (1993), in which she related her relationship with the Black Panther (and ex-lover of Jean Seberg, and cousin of Malcolm X) Hakim Jamal; Stet (2000), a memoir of her life as a publisher and editor, which includes a handful of virtuoso extended portraits of some of the writers she worked with, most memorably Jean Rhys and V.S. Naipaul; Yesterday Morning (2002), an account of her ‘very English’ childhood and her family’s story; Somewhere Towards the End (2008), her break-out hit about the realities of old age; Instead of a Book: Letters to a Friend (2011), the missives, written and sent over the course of thirty years, to the American poet Edward Field and his partner Neil Derrick; Alive, Alive Oh! (2015), a collection of (previously published) essays; and finally, A Florence Diary (2016), the journal she’d kept while holidaying in Italy in August 1947, published for the first time but with a freshly written introduction by the author.
Writing in Somewhere Towards the End, she admits that although Don’t Look at me Like That turned out to be ‘quite a neat little book’, parts of which were very pleasurable to write, ‘as a whole, it was such appallingly hard work that I swore never again’. She kept her word. When she died at the impressive age of 101, earlier this year in January 2019, she was famous as a memoirist, not a novelist. ‘I lack the kind of imagination a novelist must have: the ability to create characters and events and even (in cases of genius) whole worlds,’ Athill confessed. Instead, for her depiction of her fictional heroine Meg Bailey she drew rather heavily on her own first-hand experiences of being a young, unattached woman working in London in the 1950s.
In fact, if Athill hadn’t decided to give it another go putting pen to paper after she’d retired, most likely it wouldn’t have just been her novel that languished overlooked, but all her works from the 1960s, including her eye-opening first memoir. There are myriad reasons why books – however excellently written – fall out of print. Especially those that are often ahead of their time, something that Instead of a Letter certainly was. In his introduction to Life Class: The Selected Memoirs of Diana Athill (2009) – which contains Yesterday Morning, Instead of a Letter, Stet and Somewhere Towards the End – Ian Jack reminds readers that when Instead of a Letter was first published in the early 60s, memoir wasn’t an established genre. And trying to track down a copy of Athill’s book twenty-odd years later proved a difficult task.
Today, memoir is one of the most popular non-fiction categories around, not to mention one of the most malleable. The last couple of decades have seen it mutate in ways undreamt of sixty-odd years ago when Athill was first writing. There’s the misery memoir, the grief memoir, the illness memoir, even the bibliomemoir. But, with its candid, almost confessional narration, and its eschewal of broader historical facts and dates in favour of a frank rendering of Athill’s own intimate, subjective experience, Instead of a Letter really was something of an anomaly at the time. Looking back across her entire body of work today, this truth-telling is characteristic of all of Athill’s writing. ‘I believed’, she explains in Somewhere Towards the End, ‘and still believe, that there is no point in describing experience unless one tried 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.’
Athill was born in 1917. Her father was an Army Major, a man who ‘lived above his income, modestly and anxiously, from the day he was married’. Her mother’s parents resided in a grand house in Norfolk, ‘with twenty bedrooms, standing in a large garden and park with a thousand acres of land round it’. It was Beckton (the name she gives it in Yesterday Morning and her other books, though its real identity was Ditchingham Hall) that ‘conditioned our lives and bred our smugness’:
Everything important in my life seemed to be a property of that place: the house and the gardens, the fields, woods and waters belonging to it. Beauty belonged to it, and the underlying fierceness which must be accepted with beauty; animals belonged to it, and so did books and all my other pleasures; safety belonged to it, and so did my knowledge of good and evil and my wobbly preferences for good.
This was a world of pleasure and plenty, kept running by a Downton Abbey-like rostra of staff: ‘a head gardener with two men under him, two grooms, a chauffeur, a butler and a footman, a cook and a kitchenmaid with a scullery maid to help them, a head housemaid with two under-housemaids, and my grandmother’s lady’s maid’. Athill’s grandmother’s existence was that of the now all-but bygone world of the English gentlewoman: ‘a simple, rhythmical life, in which she was only concerned with the management, not the execution’, of daily tasks. ‘Even the cold was a matter of pride’, Athill recalls in Instead of a Letter, certain hardships providing evidence of inherent, inherited privilege: ‘Warmth did not rate as a necessity, since it was held to be the opposite of fresh air and therefore unhealthy, so everyone was crippled by chilblains from November to February.’ That she often found her sponge frozen solid in the morning was something that warranted boasting about to her friends.
Yesterday Morning is full of recollections of idyllic summer days spent roaming Beckton’s grounds, but for all the delights it offers, it’s Beckton that also provides the young Athill with her first understanding of her position in life, both as the daughter of parents with no money of their own (during the course of her childhood, when their finances became particularly dire, the family moved into a farmhouse on Beckton’s estate), and as a woman in a man’s world. In Instead of a Letter, the young Athill remembers realizing for the first time that when her grandmother dies, the ownership of the house and estate will pass to her son, Athill’s uncle, not to herself, regardless of how strongly she believes it should. During this first flush of comprehension of the broader mechanisms at work in the world, the prospect of having to earn her own living leaves the child genuinely frightened of what the future holds: ‘It would surely be difficult and disagreeable, and, because the norm of existence was life at Beckton, it would be unnatural.’
Unnatural is as fitting a term as any to describe the life Athill went on to lead, in that the choices she makes continually push against the conventions of her upbringing, class and gender. Not, however, in any form of self-conscious rebellion. (Though she admits she was ‘an imperfectly informed but convinced socialist, pacifist, and agnostic’ by the time she left school, having been jolted ‘out of conformity with my family’s mores’.) She went up to Oxford in 1936, to read English at Lady Margaret Hall, an experience that, when writing about it twenty-five years later, she describes as ‘the best three years of my life.’ During this time, she got engaged. Her fiancé was five years older than her, a young man she names Paul in her books (his real name was Tony Irvine), whom she’d known since she was fifteen when he – then an Oxford undergraduate himself – had come to Beckton to tutor her brother during the holidays. As a young, impressionable teenager – ‘horses and sex’ were the only things ever on her mind – she had already fallen in love with the abstract idea of Paul before he had even set foot in her home. ‘If he had been ugly or shy or snubbing I might have fallen out of love again when he appeared’, she admits, ‘but he was none of these things, so within two days the lines of my life were laid down’.
Paul was a pilot in the RAF, and shortly after he and Athill got engaged, he was posted to Egypt. Still at Oxford, and living a life there that she loved, Athill was dubious about what awaited her as an RAF wife so far away from home, but before any concrete plans were made, war broke out. Athill threw caution to the wind, now desperate to marry Paul, but he was transferred, which meant they had to wait. He sent her two more ‘long, alive, loving letters’, then was silent for two years. The next time he got in touch was to ask her to release him from their engagement because he was about to marry another woman. Athill was devastated. That he died shortly thereafter – on a mission in Greece, in 1941 – only compounded the loss.
Despite the relative briefness of its duration, Athill’s relationship with Paul lies at the heart of Instead of a Letter. She’s a tender twenty-two when he jilts her, but it’s a rejection that haunts her for the next twenty years. ‘A long, flat unhappiness of that sort drains one’, Athill writes, ‘substitutes for blood some thin, acid fluid with a disagreeable smell’. It isn’t just that she’s lost the man she loves, and with him the future she’d imagined for them both together, her confidence also takes a cruel and hefty knock in the process. She wonders whether her father’s indifference towards her possibly paved the way for such momentous rejection. ‘Whatever the reason for it’, she concludes, ‘there was a flaw of some sort in me which split under the impact of my abandonment by Paul and ran through all my subsequent relationships with men until I believed that I had come to an end of them’. Not that she gave up on the opposite sex completely, but her entanglements were predominantly sexual rather than romantic. For a very long time she was mired in pain; it was, she unequivocally confesses, ‘for many years the most intense emotion I could conceive of’.
If I’m giving the impression that Instead of a Letter is an exercise in self-pity, I’m doing Athill a great disservice. That mantra, drummed into her from a young age at Beckton – Do Not Think Yourself Important – still holds sway over the woman in her mid-forties who’s writing the book. And, although Athill does write about the misery of these years in blunt, unflinching detail, Instead of a Letter is actually an account of how she found her way back to happiness. Rather remarkably though, and bucking all expectations, it wasn’t a new lover or the prospect of a second chance at marriage and children with someone else that eventually offered Athill a much-needed lifeline back to the world of the living, but rather writing.
After coming down from Oxford, Athill moved to London, where – like many graduate women – she worked at the BBC for the duration of the war. To begin with, she lived in bedsits, hence how she so effectively conjures up that dingy, lonely world in Don’t Look at Me Like That. ‘The things I needed least often could be left in my suitcases on top of the narrow whitewood closet, and papers and my few cooking utensils could be kept in cardboard boxes under the table at which I both wrote and ate,’ explains the novel’s narrator, Meg. ‘There was a gas ring standing on an asbestos mat for my cooking, with a notice saying no frying, please pinned to the wall above it.’ It’s a fairly wretched existence. ‘After I had boiled an egg for my supper and got into bed with a book, the radio purring in my ear and the reading lamp throwing a circle of light on the ceiling, I told myself that I felt snug enough’, Meg says of her first night in her new digs. ‘But was I going to spend every evening like this, forever?’ Meg is quickly offered a reprieve in the form of a room to let in a bustling, friendly house in Fulham, the home of a woman called Lucy that a mutual friend of theirs, Tinka, sets her up with. ‘I’ll call her if you like – if you don’t mind living in bedlam, that is,’ offers Tinka. What kind of ‘bedlam’ exactly, asks Meg? ‘Oh, kids and absconding husbands and Polish lovers and things,’ Tinka tells her. In Somewhere Towards the End, Athill briefly mentions the three children that her cousin Barbara had to bring up by herself after she and her husband separated. Athill lived with Barbara for many years, renting the top floor in her house near Primrose Hill, thus it makes sense to assume that Lucy’s domestic situation was inspired, at least in part, by Barbara’s. Not that the ‘NW1 novel’ – as Athill describes the genre – was an unknown milieu. Once Meg moves to London – the earlier sections of the novel take place in the Home Counties vicarage where she grows up, and then Oxford, where she attends art school – the novel morphs from something akin to Rosamond Lehmann’s Invitation to the Waltz to something much closer to the early works of Margaret Drabble. Indeed, in Somewhere Towards the End, Athill explains how ‘cross’ she was when the publisher Weidenfeld & Nicolson ‘captured’ Drabble: she ‘hit off the kind of people and situations familiar to me so exactly that I longed to publish her as well as read her’.
Of leaving her own bedsitting days behind her and moving into her first flat-share, Athill describes discovering a world of ‘delicious freedom’ compared to the restrictions of ‘single-room living’. Now she could give parties! It was at one of these that she first met André Deutsch. Born in Budapest and educated in Austria, Deutsch settled in Britain in 1939. The two began a half-hearted and ultimately unsuccessful love affair, but after this fizzled out they quickly ‘slipped into a friendship of a curiously intimate nature […] nearer to the fraternal than anything I had experienced within my family’, Athill explains. They were the same age – twenty-six – and perfectly matched in terms of artistic interests and political leanings. When, after the war ended in 1945, Deutsch decided to set up a publishing house of his own – this first venture was named Allan Wingate (Deutsch’s father had written to his son from Hungary, ‘urging him not to use his own name, on the grounds that English people would think he was German and would resent him’) – he asked Athill to join him. The enterprise was plagued with financial problems, but they both hugely enjoyed the work. In Stet, Athill describes her duties as ‘to read, edit, copy-edit, proofread, and also to look after the advertising, which meant copy-editing and designing as well as booking space after André had told me which books he wanted advertised in which newspapers, and had given me a budget’.
The most important book Allan Wingate published was Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, in 1949, which caused a furor because the editor of the Sunday Times, having coming across the review copy lying around the office, was so offended by its contents, he took to the front page of his paper to declare it so vile a book ‘no decent man could leave it where his women or children might happen to see it’. Athill and Deutsch spent that Sunday completely appalled, desperately trying to get Desmond MacCarthy – then the most influential reviewer in London – to declare the novel ‘not obscene’. But, when they arrived at the office on Monday morning, they were astonished to find orders ‘pouring in’. Not that a bestseller could solve their money worries. After only a few years, the company went under, but there was no question regarding what to do next. ‘There was nothing we could possibly do but start another publishing firm,’ Athill recollects in Instead of a Letter. The second time round Deutsch gave the new venture his own name, and thus, in 1952, André Deutsch Limited was born. Athill’s wary of identifying herself as a fully-fledged ‘career woman’ by this point, not least because it’s a life she’s fallen into rather than doggedly pursued, but she does describe herself as ‘at least a woman who had found a career’. Later, in Stet, she elaborates a little, explaining that this distinction has everything to do with her mindset. ‘Although for all my life I have been much nearer poor than rich’, she explains, ‘I have inherited a symptom of richness: I have a strong propensity for idleness.’ As such, she lacks the drive we associate with the figure of the ‘career woman’. She has no head for figures, is not a good salesperson, nor a good negotiator, and if she has money, all she does is spend it. In short, she lacks all the qualities that make a good publisher. Thus, despite her involvement in André Deutsch since its inception, she describes herself as an editor, since the editing is both what she’s good at and the only real element of the job she cares about too. Yet, to her it always remains ‘a daily occupation’. One that ‘brought in enough money to live on and which was almost always enjoyable’, but by no means an all-encompassing identity. Indeed, Athill always regarded home as ‘much more important than office’, and she was never ashamed of valuing the former above the latter: ‘that, to my mind, is what everyone ought to do’.
Given she was working with some true literary greats, it makes perfect sense that Athill would regard writing prose as ‘something of which I had rarely thought except as an enviable gift possessed by others’. All the same, in January 1958, she began writing stories of her own – the first of which was inspired by an odd encounter one morning in Regent’s Park, when she initially mistook a man who stopped to speak to her for her friend Marcel, a diamond-polisher from Johannesburg. Finding herself preoccupied for the rest of the day with recollections of Marcel, that evening when she got home, she began to write about him. It wasn’t a particularly successful enterprise, but the inspiration behind it – ‘the energy, the feeling of something bubbling up inside me’ – didn’t leave her, so she began to write about another man she knew, someone Marcel himself reminded her of. This was when ‘it happened’: ‘“By God,” I thought with jubilation, “I know what I’ll do: I’ll write about him, and I’m going to get it just as it was.”’ By the end of the year, she’d written nine stories, one of which won first prize in that year’s Observer’s short story competition. ‘There would be an agreeable sort of itchy feeling’, she writes in Somewhere Towards the End, explaining her early creative process, ‘a first sentence would appear from nowhere, and blip, out would come a story’.
Writing Instead of a Letter was an equally organic, pain-free process: ‘I put paper in my typewriter and this time it wasn’t a blip, it was whoosh!’ Whether writing about harrowing experiences in one’s life is an act of catharsis and renewal is a question often asked of memoirists, and Athill is crystal clear on this point. Once Instead of a Letter was finished, ‘the sense of failure had vanished for good and I was happier than I had ever been in my life’. So too, her next two books – After a Funeral and Make Believe – were inspired by events she described as ‘traumatic’: ‘I plunged straight into “writing them out”, as what seemed to me the natural and certain way of riding my mind of distress.’ Publishing these books wasn’t really the point; it was the writing itself that mattered. Indeed, it was only on the urging of friends that Athill decided to pursue publication at all. Make Believe, she writes, sat undisturbed in a drawer for sixteen years before it made it into print in 1993.
Fairly early on – specifically by the time she’d finished Instead of a Letter – Athill was already ‘sure that writing was what I liked doing best’, and thus ‘hoped more of it would come to me’. Yet, by the time she retired, she explains in Somewhere Towards the End, ‘I hadn’t written anything for a long time because it was a long time since anything had happened to me that needed curing.’ Her next batch of books, from Stet onwards, thus had to find their inspiration in a different, and, as it turned out, happier source. Both her memoir of her publishing years, and the book that followed, Yesterday Morning, that of her childhood, were exercises in fond recollection. As with her previous work, she wrote primarily in order to please herself – and to stave off boredom, now she no longer was at work all day – doubting the commercial viability of what she was doing. A new variation of that old mantra from her childhood was ringing in her ears – ‘This stuff is interesting to me, but why should it interest anyone else?’ – combined with her instinct as a publisher, which told her that her work had little broad appeal. It turned out that she was wrong; Granta eagerly bought both the books, alongside a new edition Instead of a Letter, but it was her next title, Somewhere Towards the End, that would catapult Athill to fame.
‘Book after book has been written about being young’, Athill writes at the beginning of Somewhere Towards the End, ‘and even more about the elaborate and testing experiences that cluster around procreation, but there is not much on record about falling away’. A skeptic might call her decision to probe this under-excavated subject a canny move. But not even someone with as much publishing experience as she had could have predicted the book’s popularity. Indeed, she expressed her own incredulity at the book’s success. ‘When I was younger and worked in publishing’, she told me in an interview, ‘you couldn’t publish anything on old age and death for love or money. Booksellers just wouldn’t consider it. I took it for granted after years as a publisher that old age was a very unpopular subject.’
Two distinctive elements accounted for the book’s success. Firstly, there’s the obvious joie de vivre that infuses the pages. Gone is the Athill of the early chapters of Instead of a Letter, or even the woman trying to make sense of life’s traumas in After a Funeral and Make Believe. The Athill now writing is one who’s fully embraced the joys of life. An object lesson she learned in no small part from her friendship with Jean Rhys, a woman who demonstrated ‘how not to think about getting old’, in that it was a prospect that filled her with nothing but ‘resentment and despair’. Secondly, there’s the frankness with which Athill writes about her experiences. This is nothing new, of course. As early as that first short story, prompted by her recollections of her friend Marcel, her intention was always to ‘get it just as it was’. Like many great writers, she’s propelled by a desire to tell the truth. It was also what drove Rhys, for example. ‘Her creed – so simple to state, so difficult to follow – was that she must tell the truth: must get things down as they really were,’ Athill notes in her majestic portrait of the older writer in Stet. Although a feature central to Athill’s writing from the very start, it’s still somewhat unexpected to encounter such outspokenness when it comes to a portrait of increasing decrepitude.
Athill delves right in though, describing the failing of her sex drive and the loss of her identity as a ‘sexual being’, something that had ‘always seemed central to my existence’. She writes openly and honestly about her final two sexual relationships. The first with the Jamaican playwright Barry Reckford, whom she met when she was forty-four, when he was still married to someone else, a woman he later left, after which he and Athill set up home together. They lived together for nearly thirty years, though their relationship was only sexual for the first eight or so, after which their ‘companionship’ became ‘more like that of a brother and sister than lovers’, allowing them each to pursue romances with other partners. Reckford’s much younger girlfriend actually moved in with them for a couple of years, a ménage à trois that seemed ‘odd’ to some, but suited the three of them perfectly. Their time together was ‘some of the happiest I can remember’, Athill confesses. Around the same time, Athill – who was then approaching her sixties – also embarked on a new relationship, with a man she names Sam, and whom she credits with prolonging her sex life that little bit longer.
It’s worth noting that writing about the sexual life of pensioners wasn’t the first taboo Athill had broken. Back in Instead of a Letter, for example, she describes with forthright, unashamed gusto an appalling encounter with a ‘frightful’ woman doctor she consulted back during the war after falling pregnant. The doctor pours scorn on Athill’s situation. ‘You will suffer in every way if you terminate it,’ she tells her patient, her eyes ‘sharp with calculation’:
‘It is, of course,’ she went on slowly, ‘entirely your own business. It is entirely up to you if you want’ – she paused a moment to throw the verb into relief – ‘if you want to murder your first child’ – and she watched me.
It’s testament to Athill’s fortitude that she isn’t troubled by this experience. Instead, it absolutely makes up her mind that she must find an abortionist as soon as possible, which she does, and never regrets her decision. Although societal norms are changing, even today there’s still an awful lot of tiptoeing around the subject, so Athill’s no-nonsense attitude is a breath of fresh air. ‘It still seems to me that it is absurd for abortion to be illegal,’ she writes. ‘I do not believe that something not conscious can be “murdered” – the distinction between preventing life and putting an end to it is, to me, a clear one.’
That Athill never had children has come to define her in a decidedly more interesting way than many women in her position. She’s a far cry from the figure of the traditional childless spinster, thwarted by life. As Lena Dunham put it, writing in the New York Times on the occasion of Athill’s death, ‘Perhaps her greatest legacy was her refusal to cede to societal expectations as she carved out a persistently unusual world for herself in which the demands of femininity – marriage and children, specifically – were rethought and redefined.’ Younger women need older role models like Athill; she’s still the exception that proves the rule.
Athill did become pregnant again later, when she was in her forties. At first, she assumed she’d have another termination – although gainfully employed, she never made much money, and the fact she and Reckford (the father) weren’t yet living together also had some bearing on her decision – but then, she reconsiders and decides to keep it. The same thing happens to Meg in Don’t Look at Me Like That and, in an inverse of Athill’s earlier grueling experience with the awful doctor, the novel draws to a close with a highly-charged argument between the pregnant woman – newly inspired to keep the baby, regardless of the ‘appalling responsibility’ this will entail – and another woman, Norah, the ex-partner of one of Lucy’s other lodgers. As Norah lambasts the stupidity and selfishness of Meg’s decision, this only makes Meg did her heels in further, all the more determined to have the baby, regardless of the sacrifices she’ll be thus forced to make.
Back in the real world, though, motherhood was not to be. After a few happy weeks, Athill miscarried, nearly losing her own life in the process. In the titular essay of Alive, Alive Oh! she describes the gruesome experience of beginning to haemorrhage: the ‘thudding gush, the sensation that a cork had blown’. Yet, once again subverting the reader’s expectations, what we might expect be a story of loss and grief is actually one of life-affirming joy. ‘Not having died’, she writes, ‘was more important to me by far than losing the child: more important than anything’.
In 2009, Athill moved into a retirement home in Highgate where she spent the final decade of her life. When I interviewed her in 2012, she told me that far from sitting around twiddling her thumbs, she was forever being deluged with requests for interviews, appearances and writing commissions. Her name had long been known in publishing circles, but the kind of fame she was now dealing with went far beyond London’s literary scene. In continuing to write about her life – though now in decidedly shorter pieces, essays and book reviews; she was too old, she told me, to work on any further full-length books – she dispelled plenty of myths about assisted living. She wrote gleefully, for example, about the ‘luxury of being free of domestic worries and knowing that kind care is available if one needs it’. ‘The Decision’, an essay included in Alive, Alive Oh!, contains a delightful anecdote about planting a bed of roses, an activity that needed a group of the home’s residents, some for the brains, some for the brawn. Hilariously, when it actually came down to it, most forgot to turn up, ‘something only too likely to happen at any event in a home for old people’, she wryly notes. Which left her and two ninety-four-year-olds, one of whom was ‘nearly blind’, to go it alone. ‘One good thing about being physically incapable of doing almost anything’, she concludes wisely, ‘is that if you manage to do even a little something, you feel great’.
Someone once told me that they think there’s an age at which we’re each of us at our best. Not in the sense that we’re at our physical peak, or even our most successful, but there’s an age that suits us best, like a bespoke suit or a beautifully cut dress. For Athill, without question, this was old age, something I think she would have agreed with. ‘I’m quite a late developer,’ she told me that time in 2012. ‘I never thought I was at all good-looking, but people say I’m a good-looking older woman.’ It’s not simply that she found such unexpected success as a writer so late in life – though this undoubtedly helped – but it’s clear that she also grew into her own happiness decidedly later than some. But once she’d embraced it, she really embraced it, living life to the full until the very end. That we all drank champagne and ate cake (the latter a nod to her sweet tooth) at her funeral couldn’t have been a more fitting celebration of a life well lived. What a turnaround though, for a woman who spent her twenties and thirties heartbroken and miserable, that she should become such a beacon of hope, contentment and happiness in old age.
Back when Athill was still in her forties writing Instead of a Letter, she looks ahead, wondering what she will answer if she lies on her deathbed asking the question ‘What have I lived for?’ All that she’ll be able to reply, she thinks, ‘is that I have written a little, and I have loved, and if I do not die until I am old, those things will have become too remote to count for much’. The collection of writing that she left behind is far more significant that these modest mid-life ambitions, and even though she did live a long, rich life, these things did remain significant until the end. In Yesterday Morning, she cites an urge to leave something of oneself behind as ‘one of the chief triggers of autobiography. ‘“But if I turn it into a book,” one feels, “there it will be.” Whether anyone will want to read it is up to them: at least it will be there for whomever does.’