Diana Athill

Diana Athill, recently interviewed by Alan Yentob for the BBC’s Imagine series, is a British literary editor and novelist.

Born in 1917, Diana was a founding member of André Deutsch Ltd. and remained a director until she was seventy.

She is the author of several books including After a Funeral and Make Believe, but is perhaps best known for her essay in autobiography, Instead of a Letter.

Here is an interview with Diana from my book, Speaking for the Oldie, first published by Quartet Books in 1994.

You had a comfortable, privileged family background with which you have been uneasy for most of your life. When did you first start to question the notion of privilege and what you call your family’s ‘smug assumption of superiority’?

At school, where I had a splendid old headmistress of the liberal tradition. She was determined to make her girls think and she used to leave newspapers of every kind on the table in the hall, and we were very much encouraged to read them. I was a child at a time when it was very difficult not to question what was going on. It was a time of the most awful depression and unemployment, and if you had any intelligence at all you began to ask questions. I never really felt uneasy at home because I always loved my parents dearly but I knew that I didn’t think the same way they did. I rather wish that I had rebelled, but in those days it was somehow unthinkable, so I just quietly slipped underground.

Your childhood memories are very rich and happy, and I have the impression from reading your autobiography that this derived at least in part from the comfort and security in which you grew up. Would you agree?

Yes, but I think that there were certain elements of insecurity. For example, my parents quarrelled a lot. Of course it would have been much worse if we had been living on top of each other in a very small house in some miserable place, but as it was we lived in the country with space round us, with nannies who were loving and comforting. When my brother and I were stressed a bit by my father and mother, I remember my governess telling us that our parents were both very nice people but they probably shouldn’t have married each other. And we accepted that as a kind of formula which steered us into a calm way of thinking about the situation. Things improved between them towards the end of their marriage. My mother – who had fallen in love with someone else but had been unable to leave because of the children – gradually came to recognise that my father was an extraordinarily nice person, an honourable and good man who hadn’t punished her for trying to bolt.

Your family displayed disdain and distrust of anyone who was not of their class, and you say how strange it was to be bound by ties of habit and love to people who were like that. Do you think it is ever possible to untie the bonds, to remove the early influences entirely?

I’m not sure that I do. It would have been interesting if I had been more openly rebellious, if I had simply taken friends home in spite of my parents’ disapproval on grounds of their colour, for example. But I used to think, what would be the point, because it would be horrible for everybody. It might have broken relations completely, but on the other hand it might have educated them into being less prejudiced than they were. I shall never know, but at the time I chose not to put too much strain on our relationship, because of my affection for them all.

You say that their attitude was at best comic, at worst repulsive. What effect did it all have on you in later life?

I suppose it gave me a prejudice in the opposite direction. As I grew up I automatically veered towards people who were of a quite different class and nationality. I have always got on better with people who are not Norfolk county.

Although you say you liked your father, it seems to have fallen short of love. Do you understand the reasons for this?

He was not a man who easily expressed emotion. He rarely hugged or kissed his children, and I think I picked up from my mother, without realising it, her reservations about him. I remember once when he was getting quite old, and he was beginning to suspect that he had a bad heart, he spoke to me about my grandmother who was very ill at the time. He mentioned death, and I imagined we were going to talk intelligently and without restraint, so I answered him in a way that showed I was interested in the subject; and he just froze. He suddenly realised he was much too frightened to talk about death. In the same way he was too shy to talk about love.

Your parents seem to have been physically incompatible… your mother hated sleeping with him. You sided with your mother in this unhappy situation. Why did you not feel sorry for your father? After all it must have been difficult for him…

Because if one goes back to one’s childhood one simply was at that time more instinctively on her side. I did come to feel very sorry for him, and after my mother’s death, when I was reading some of his letters to her, I could have cried for him. He was so unquestioning, and he apologised to her for being unattractive to her, which was dreadful because he wasn’t an unattractive man at all.

As you got older, you came to see your father as an intelligent and an agreeable man, and yet you never felt closely bound to him…why not, I wonder, and what effect did this have in your own adult relationships?

I honestly don’t know why we weren’t close, except that his work took him away a lot and we were more with our mother in our infancy. She was the physical presence, and in that sense easier to love. The obvious consequence was that if ever I fell in love it was always with someone as unlike him as possible; I never fell in love with anyone who had blue eyes, fair skin, fair hair, because I saw these features as unattractive. It was an instinctive thing, and it was a long time before I noticed it.

Sex was a distasteful subject in your family, and yet you seemed to have a strong interest in it. Do you think the two factors were related?

I don’t think so. My parents were too reserved about sex to be repressive about it, so one was free to read and so on. Largely because they were so reserved they left the whole subject alone; one wasn’t told it was revolting or anything like that, it was just something not talked about.

You seem not to have agonised much about giving up God and the Church. Why were they so easily dismissed, do you think?

Again because of the mildness of the background. It was the custom to go to church, and darling granny read us lovely bible stories which we enjoyed, but there was no great morality surrounding it. The chief thing one was told was that God loved everybody and understood everything, and whatever one thought, whatever one did. Go understood it. I remember thinking, well if God understands. He can understand that I don’t believe in Him. This nice kind English Christian God was not difficult to go against. Later on when I looked at the world and all the different stories people have told to try and explain themselves and life, each one struck me as more absurd than the last. Why should we, little grains of dust, know what is the truth? Why do we feel that we ought to know? How can we possibly believe that we are capable of knowing the meaning, whatever the meaning is, if indeed there is a meaning? It’s extraordinary how religious people say to me, ‘I don’t understand how you can live without a faith, because then there’s no meaning in life.’ What meaning are they talking about? To me it seems that one simply cannot hope to know how this thing we belong to works, but I don’t see why one should be depressed about that.

You went up to Oxford in 1936 and lived, in Stephen Spender’s phrase, ‘in the shadow of war’. How much did that occupy your mind?

You couldn’t pretend that it wasn’t going to happen. You could see it coming and we all went to meetings about it and thought about it. On the other hand university life carried on and we managed to have a lot of fun. My feeling was, get in as much good time as possible before it happens.

There is very little in your biography about what you thought about the war, how it affected you. Was that an accidental or deliberate omission?

For me the war was a period of great blankness; there wasn’t really much to say about it except in a flat and miserable way. If one wasn’t directly involved, one felt very dead about it. It would have been different if I’d been in the forces, but I was leading a quiet little civilian life in the BBC, knowing what was going on because I worked for the newsroom, but not influenced except by the dreariness.

You say that you owe to Oxford the fact that you were able to live through twenty years of unhappiness without coming to dislike life. What did Oxford give you to make that possible?

It gave me wonderful friends, it gave me an esteem and an understanding of achievement and intelligence. It gave me lots and lots of books, a good deal of self-confidence, but chiefly it gave me a comfortable sense that beauty existed in spite of everything.

In those days you were preoccupied by the thought of losing your virginity. Do you think that applied to most young women at Oxford in those days?

It certainly applied to most of my friends. The twenties had been the first sort of breaking loose period, and by the thirties we were able to have a love affair if we felt like it, instead of having to think about it.

But when the moment came it was a profound disappointment. Do you think that was inevitable in a sense?

It was not a profound disappointment, it was just not as good as I thought it would be; but I still knew it was going to be all right quite soon. ‘Profound’ makes it sound traumatic, but it was more a question of, oh yes, well never mind, we’ll soon get this going all right. Much more practical.

Would you say that the greatest satisfaction and joy of sex come from experience of life and love rather than the vigour and energy of youth?

Yes, I think I would, though I’m not sure whether many men would agree. I think that tenderness becomes a very important element as one gets older, but it may well be that we comfort ourselves by thinking this is the case. When I was younger I had affairs because they provided good sex, and I enjoyed them for that reason, and they certainly weren’t horrid because of that. But the times that I remember as important in my life are those when love was involved as well.

The person to whom you promised your love and your life was killed in the war, but before that he had broken of f your engagement – something from which perhaps you never fully recovered. Do you still think of that time now?

The fact that I wrote about Paul tidied up that time as far as I was concerned. I still regard it as the most important thing that happened to me, because it did dreadful damage to my self-confidence for a very long time, and to that extent it changed me quite fundamentally. But it doesn’t occupy my mind any more…the writing was very therapeutic.

You described your unhappiness as a ‘taint’ as well as a misfortune – you were somehow ‘diseased’ in other people’s eyes. That must have made things even harder to bear…

It was a horrible feeling – how much of it was subjective I don’t know – but it was dreadful. I felt I had been written off by everyone as a failure, utterly useless.

Do you think you indulged your state of unhappiness, that you were prey to self-pity?

No, I don’t. I think I did as much as I possibly could to pull myself out of it.

Do you think in cases of this kind the impact on women is much harder than it is on men?

I can’t say, because I haven’t known any man who has suffered a loss like that. Certainly in those days, marriage for a woman was equivalent to a job; it wasn’t just a love affair, it settled your future, you were to be so and so’s wife for the rest of your days. So when that fell away you had your future cut right off, as well as losing your man. No man would have been in that position.

Looking back, would you have preferred simply to have bounced back, or has the experience been, however painful, enriching in some ways?

Just bouncing back would have made it such a different experience. The fact was I had it, I survived it, and I feel lucky that not much harm was done to me in the long run.

How long was it before you stopped equating love with pain?

In the sense that I avoided falling in love, it was a very long time indeed. The next time that I was happy in a love affair was when I was in my early forties. I’d had affairs, but I had avoided commitments, and it wiped out marriage as far as I was concerned.

You say that for years and years the most intense emotion you experienced was pain. What would you say is the most intense emotion you experience now?

I have rather got out of the way of having emotions. There are lots of very agreeable things, like learning to draw and going to life classes, and other activities which are tremendously interesting, but I wouldn’t say I have intense emotions now. I’m contented in a quiet way rather than happy, but I did have about ten years of positive happiness, which is a long time in anybody’s life.

After the break-up there followed a period of promiscuity when as a comfort you slept with just about any man who asked you to … how do you think it was possible to go against your background and upbringing so fundamentally?

I honestly don’t know. All I can say is that I did, and I think a lot of people have done. Once you decide you don’t believe in what has been preached at home, then you’re free to do what you want to do. I don’t think it’s mystifying really. The world does seem to be divided into people who grow up following the patterns they are given, and people who grow up questioning them; and I was one of the latter.

Did the one night stand never lead to guilt, to feelings that one had behaved badly perhaps?

I suppose just occasionally, particularly if it was someone with whom it had been a great mistake. It’s difficult to remember, but occasionally one got into a silly situation simply out of being polite, not wanting to say no, and then one would feel bad. But I never really had much time for guilt.

You describe these brief affairs as ‘threadbare rags against a cold wind’. Were they really better than no rags at all?

Oh yes, no question about it. When you’re younger you need it. Now that I’m 76 the sexual impulse is no longer there – in fact several things have gone which before I couldn’t have imagined doing without in my life. For example, I can’t drink coffee any more, or wine or whiskey. Now that they disagree with me I have not the slightest wish to drink, not even if I am offered a beautiful malt whisky which was once my favourite tipple. And sex is rather the same. Once you stop wanting something you don’t mind not having it, and life becomes very much simpler and easier. There was an intervening time when I could see things falling away, and that was sad because all this had meant so much to me and had been so lovely, but once I was over the hump I felt free. If someone came along to make love to me now, I’d say, please go away, it’s not anything to do with me anymore. It is very peaceful.

But is it because the desire is no longer there?

Yes, and so you don’t want it. I know one woman who was much older than me and she used to say, oh what nonsense, one goes on having desire forever. Well, perhaps she did, but I think that she imagined that she ought to, whereas if you actually listen to your body, you just let it go…

When did your body tell you to stop?

It was a slowish process, but by the time I was at the end of my 60s I was clear of it. I had an Indian summer during my 50s and early 60s, but once it went, it went. I had a very attractive friend whom I loved dearly and hardly ever saw, and whenever he came to England it was always a delight to go to bed with him. And one time I thought, well, I don’t actually want to do this, that’s it over. That was in my mid or late 60s.

When you were 26 you met André Deutsch, a man who was to shape the rest of your life. You left your job at the BBC to join him in publishing… have you ever had cause to regret that decision?

Never. It was easily the most interesting and agreeable career I could imagine, although when I finally left it I was thankful to get out. Our kind of publishing was having such a terribly hard time. It was being battered from all sides. André had got out smartly before I did, and I remember his saying, ‘You know, it’s not any fun anymore.’ I had to go on because I hadn’t got any money, but in the years after André sold the firm it became worse and worse.

You were both very different in character, and yet you were strangely drawn to one another. Was this on the basis that opposites attract do you think?

I suppose it was. We worked well together because we both had quite different aptitudes. And it became one of those curious relationships, rather like in a family, when we were both very aware of each other’s shortcomings, but just accepted them.

You describe your intimacy as being more fraternal than anything else. Why do you think it did not develop in the normal way?

I really don’t know. André was very romantic as a young man, and I was very down to earth and realistic; I was annoyed by his romanticism and he was annoyed with me being practical. We didn’t fit in that way. Sexually we didn’t gel at all.

In due course you won the Observer short story competition, which seemed to give you a much needed boost…or do you think it would have happened in any case with the passage of time?

I don’t think it would have happened to quite the same extent. Winning that prize was a wonderful bonus. It really did give me such a push up.

As you recount it, as soon as you stopped actively searching for love, or expecting to be loved, you immediately fell in love and were loved in return. Was it really as simple as that?

It almost was. It wasn’t like a love affair to begin with, it was just great affection and great interest, and a feeling of how nice it was to have found someone to be with and go to bed with. It was much happier than any of my earlier experiences, because I never ever believed it would end.

Your work in publishing allowed you to meet all kinds of people whom otherwise you would not have encountered. Were you always aware of the dangers of vicarious living?

Although my sexual self-confidence had been damaged, I think that at bottom the security that came from childhood was always there, so that I never really felt that anybody else’s world was better than mine.

You became involved with an Egyptian writer who came to live with you and ended up some five years later committing suicide in your flat. Had your early painful experience with Paul equipped you in some measure to deal with the horror of that situation?

No, this was utterly different; it belonged to a separate part of my nature. During the time I knew Paul I would never have become involved with neurotic people – I would have been too frightened – whereas at a later stage I was definitely attracted to dangerous and damaged people. Twice I formed relationships with men who were a bit mad, and I found them extremely interesting. My own explanation of it is that some sort of frustrated maternal impulse was at work, and that made me want to take these people on and help them in some way.

You are known to believe that sex and the maternal impulse are very closely woven in childless women of middle age. Did you regard that as a weakness or did you feel that it opened up opportunities?

It opened up opportunities, but it certainly trapped me in some curious situations, though I don’t think I minded much.

Your relationship with Hakim, the black American friend of Malcolm X, is described in terms of a kind of madness. Would you say that falling in love is always a kind of madness to some degree?

I was really half joking when I said that about Hakim – I wasn’t enough in love with him for it to be a good example of madness. But I do think that falling in love tends to be neurotic, because it has very little to do with the person you’re drawn to; it has more to do with your own needs, your own hang ups. I’m very disrespectful of the idea of falling in love. People get into terrible messes because they get married to a person they’ve invented and then they are furious when the man or woman turns out to be different.

Have you ever been able to pinpoint what has attracted you to a man?

No, I think it’s entirely mysterious, and I’m very glad that there is still some mystery left in life. Apart from the fact that they’ve always been dark-eyed, dark-haired, sometimes dark-skinned, they’ve been very different people. When it clicks, one recognises it at once.

You speak of the alarming power of beauty in relation to Hakim. In what sense was it alarming?

I meant that if one had felt it strongly and had fallen in love with this person because of his appearance, one would have been lost, so to speak, because he wasn’t the person he looked. His looks would have led you into being obsessed with somebody who was not worth loving.

You were on the face of it an unlikely person to become involved in the turbulence and violence of other people’s lives. Was it partly the attraction of the world outside the safety of the publishing house?

Yes, it was seeing another kind of world, rather like reading some fascinating book. I was experiencing vicariously a completely different way of living, which expanded my own sense of life. I thought it was rather a good thing.

You have resisted the temptation to dress up the narrative in your books, even when it means you are placed in a less than flattering light. Why this break with convention?

If you’re going to write about an actual experience, there’s only one reason to do it, and that is to understand it as far as possible. If you’re going to be honest about other people, the least you can do is to try to be equally honest about yourself. If I had whitewashed myself I would have produced a very peculiar artefact which would have been of no use to anybody. I was never tempted to censor anything because at the time of writing I did not imagine that either book would be published – indeed they both went into drawers for about twenty years. They were written as exercises to deal with a sadness; in the end they were terrible things to have seen, these tragedies, and they were haunting and worrying. They were written as therapy, and I have felt slightly embarrassed about both of them ever since because they were not intended for publication.

Did the therapy work?

It has worked for me, and I think this is why I’m not writing now, because I have nothing I want to cure myself of.

In Instead of a Letter you describe the business of writing as ‘hardly more than a private satisfaction’. That makes it sound like a self-indulgence. Is it, do you think?

It is more something that I’ve been driven to. Self-indulgence sounds too much like fun, but it’s not particularly fun. It’s fascinating and totally absorbing, but I did it because I felt the need.

When one reads your books there is a element of shockingness about them. . . are you pleased with this effect?

I’m rather surprised by it…and yes, perhaps a little bit pleased.

Somehow your middle-class respectability, your quintessential Englishness makes the candour and detail of the writing all the more outrageous. Was this something you were consciously aiming at?

No, I was aiming at writing accurately. The important thing always was to try and get it the way it really was.

Did you ever come to feel embarrassed by anything you’ve written?

Not nearly as much as you would expect. My dear relations and friends think I’ve written shockingly embarrassing books, which sometimes makes me feel a bit shy, but then I think, well to hell with it, what can I do about it? Whenever I’ve had a temptation to feel embarrassed I’ve said to myself, look, you wrote the damned thing, you’d better stick with it.

You are prompted to write by the desire to make sense of something which has happened to you. Do you believe that your writing is in any sense instructive, that others can learn from your experience?

I would not have thought so, but the fact remains that I still get letters about Instead of a Letter from people who nearly always say that what I describe is so like what happened to them. They then go on to describe situations which sound to me completely alien. Indeed the most extraordinary people have claimed that their experiences are the same. Years and years ago I had a letter from a lovely lesbian dentist who had hundreds of miserable affairs, and I remember thinking, what makes her believe her life is similar to mine? But the fact is she did.

What are your views on marriage? Do you regret not having married?

No, not at all now. I’m perfectly content and have been for many a long year. I know in my own family some very happy marriages, and I think that if you have the luck to get into that kind of relationship, it must be the best there is. But very few people do.

Writing in 1963 you said: ‘It’s unlikely that I shall ever have a child.’ That sounded like an anguished thought at the time. Has it been a major source of regret?

It was at one time quite a serious source of regret, yes. But that’s died away. It’s eased over the years, and I waste no time thinking about it now.

Later in life you seemed to suggest that the people you fell in love with were rather helpless and vulnerable and in that sense were perhaps the children you never had. Is that still a theory?

Yes, it was a black period in my life, and it was certainly true of that time. But it was of shortish duration, and only a part of life.

You had abortions at an early stage. As time has passed have you ever wondered about the children they might have become?

The only one that I have wondered about is the one I intended to have, and that was miscarried. There was a time in my life when I decided I was going to have a child, regardless. This is one of the reasons why André remains such a dear friend. I remember telling him that I was going to have a child and that I probably would have to give up work. He asked me how I thought I would support a child without a job, but I told him I was worried that if I stayed on I might perhaps embarrass people. He said, ‘Anyone who is embarrassed can get out.’ And for that I will always feel very affectionate towards André. Sadly, when I had made up my mind to have a child, I was prevented by nature, not by me doing anything about it. And I have certainly thought about that child. From time to time, I wonder how old he or she would be by now, and all that sort of thing…but not with any great intensity of pain, I have to say…

Most women are distressed in some measure by the experience of abortion. Why do you think you escaped the trauma?

I really don’t know. The ones I did deliberately affected me not a bit; I was saddened only by the miscarriage. I think perhaps I’m a person without very strong maternal passions.

You looked back on your life at the end of Instead of a Letter and wrote, ‘I have not been beautiful or intelligent, or good, or brave, or energetic.’ Does that not strike you as extreme self-deprecation? Would you put things rather differently now?

Certainly I’ve not been beautiful, or brave or energetic, but I probably have been more intelligent than I suggested there. What I was trying to get at was that there was nothing in my life that one would say gave the world anything important. It was just an ordinary life, and yet one wasn’t disappointed in it. I was trying to get at what one likes about living, just living, as opposed to achievement. Usually we say, if one has achieved this, that and the other, life has been worth living. But I think life is worth living even when one hasn’t achieved. I still find it a bit mysterious that I think so, but I do.

When your grandmother was dying she asked what life had been for…how would you answer her question in relation to your own life?

I would answer it very much as I answered it to her really: it has been for just what it was, worth something in itself, part of the process of being. I shan’t ever think it was worth nothing.

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