Diana Athill

I first interviewed Diana Athill in 1986, for my book, Women, and here is what she said to me, under various topics:

Advantages and Disadvantages

I came into the market for jobs as the war was beginning, and there were very few men about, so automatically one ended up head of the department of the little thing I was in at the BBC. There weren’t any men around to be head of it. So there wasn’t the competition.


I think that the basic things were achieved before I was grown up. We had got the vote, and we had got permission, as it were, from society to earn our own livings. Those were the two vitally important things, and they’d been done for me before I started. Having those, it was up to us to manoeuvre our way through. Of course, there is prejudice against women: not exactly a thought-out prejudice most of the time, but simply an attitude, a solidarity of men that certain things belong to them – unthinking, unquestioning. And, of course, women are supposed to be second in command if they get anywhere up at all, and their job is largely supporting their men. You see it all the time. We’re just going to publish a book called Reflecting Men to Twice Their Natural Size, and any woman will agree that is what she is mostly doing when she is with men. And it’s very annoying that one’s fallen into that trap, one can’t avoid it. It’s not a deliberate political kind of persecution; it is conditioning. I think.

If you are in strong disagreement with a man and you argue as emphatically as you feel, you cannot help getting (this is conditioning) the feeling that he is thinking you are a termagant, he will put you down as strident or whatever. And you see yourself a little with those eyes, which is very annoying indeed. Because if you were completely confident, obviously you would say pooh to that. It gets easier as you get older. You become much more confident. At some level you are sacrificing you sexual appeal by coming up against him as though you were two men arguing, and there is something that makes you flinch from doing that. Whether it’s conditioning, or whether it’s a sort of instinct, I don’t know.

I think in England, you always come up against other things as well as sex or gender. You’re going  to come up against class and the way you’re brought up. I was brought up in a puritanical way. For instance, I was always told that men don’t like women who wear a lot of make-up. Well, not being a fool, I could perfectly clearly see that the girl who was wearing her lipstick put on well, got off much better than the one who didn’t, so I didn’t pay attention. But there was the feeling that you mustn’t be affected, mustn’t be seen to be trying to attract the attention of the other sex, because it was common, vulgar. Of course, you wanted to – everybody wanted to. Your grandmother or your mother, who was telling you this, wanted you to get married, but they wanted you to do it in a curiously hygienic and scrubbed English way, and that went rather deeper than one thought. I always felt that girls who evidently manipulated men by their charm or beauty were doing something rather wrong. Of course, men do it too. It puts me off a man at once if he puts on his charm too much: the sort of man who, when he comes into a room, is clearly always going to come on like that. I’ve always had a hostility towards that sort of thing.

I really can’t imagine being a man – I really can’t. I like being a woman, and I always have. There are certain tedious responsibilities that men have, like looking after the money, and if you hear someone creeping about downstairs, it’s the man who is the one who has to get up and go downstairs with a poker and hit him on the head, which I don’t want to do. But seriously, I just feel very comfortable being a woman.


The idea, that absolutely Victorian idea which went back further, that woman doesn’t really need sex but put up with it because men had to have it, already has changed so much. It goes back to the primitive thing, that even in the age of the pill, which is after all a totally artificial thing, each time a woman copulates with a man she could be landing herself with this completely new development: her whole life could change. Low and behold, she can have this responsibility of the child growing and having to deal with it, whereas the man can come and go. Because of that I don’t think you can help making a slight difference in your attitude to sex.

The misapprehensions about sex are not just Victorian and English. I republished once a little Chinese erotic book in which it was widely supposed that what women desperately want was an enormous organ in the man – a huge penis – and she was going to have a lovely time. Absolute nonsense, of course any woman could have told any man who asked. But the Chinese firmly believed that, way back, God knows when; and most English people, most men, still do believe it. Nobody ever asked women or women were too inhibited to say what they like. They went on like this, generation after generation.

When I was young, we were all quite sure we will soon going to go to bed with a man, but it had to be a man you were going to be in love with. We took completely for granted that we couldn’t really, we didn’t want to go to bed with anyone unless we were in love. I am beginning to think now that that was a cultural thing. Basically there is something in a young woman who could conceive that makes her want to find someone who will be there, looking after her if it happens, which will give her a slight wish to be more involved. But as one gets older, one ends up being quite masculine about such things. I know an awful lot of women who, if they want a man, they want a man. And I’ve known women – I wouldn’t do this because I’m so old-fashioned– Who say to a man, I want to go to bed with you, quite cheerfully. On the other hand, I always right from the beginning, recognised two possibilities for sexual involvement with the man. One was that one was going to love him and this was going to be the big thing, and the other was an authentic sexual flash – you know how it is sometimes. If that happened, that happened, and it didn’t matter whether I loved him or not; that was equally a good reason for going to bed with him. I thought that from about the age of eighteen I found it was true. I was quite promiscuous when I was young, but as long as it was authentic, it worked. I hated getting into the position that when one is doing something silly, like going to bed with a man to be polite to him or something. If you really wanted to, it was alright, I reckon. I didn’t have to be in love. If the authentic attraction was there, it could be just friendly, nice, enjoyable.


I had abortions at a very early stage and no sense that what was being terminated was a person. It was an evolution and of cells going on in my body that had reached only a very limited stage. I didn’t, it didn’t, yet know whether it was going to be male, female, what it was going to be. It didn’t seem to be a life, and it still doesn’t, strictly speaking. One could argue that, of course, it was, as a Catholic would, but I still think that’s rather an absurd argument, really I do. It was better for that child not to have ever developed into a person rather than being an unwanted child, which seems to me to be a very bad thing. I’ve seen a great many unwanted children and what happens to them. It certainly was not at all a traumatic thing for me, I’m sorry to have to report. It was sensible, it seemed to me. It didn’t distress me much at all.


Painting and music are both curious, because certainly I cannot be persuaded that most of the women painters I know are as good as the men, although there have been perfectly good professional women painters. And music, certainly, equally not. I think with the word they’re pretty equal, but not in other ways. Whether that is conditioning (it may well be) or whether it is something more profound I don’t know. On a simple level, when I have done extraordinary work and things like embroidery – artefacts which were taken for granted – absolutely wonderful stuff. In music women were very good performers, from way back. Half Mozart’s pupils were young women, and a lot of them he spoke of rather approvingly, They were obviously pretty good. And there have been wonderful singers, wonderful pianists, but they have not become great composers, as far as I can see. It is a curious thing, and I have no explanation. I know that, although I adore listening to music and listen to it a lot, it is Greek to me how you set about composing. I couldn’t begin to do it, so perhaps it’s the mathematical faculty that is more common in men than women. And there’s never been a case of that sort of extraordinary possession that clearly does happen to the great composer. He is a slightly mad being: someone whose head is completely full of it. You’ve only got to read Beethoven’s letters and notes. There’s never been a woman like that. Maybe women’s creative ability is so focused on birth and nurturing. I suppose words are more connected with ordinary life. Writing is talking, which is something one does anyway. A lot of women adore decoration, design, they’ve got visual sense. But musical composition seems to me a much more mysterious thing than any of the other arts.


I’m not at all sure that marriage ought not to be changed, that it ought not to be a renewable contract that you enter into for a period of, say, seven years, to be renewed at the end of that if you like, with built in clauses for the care of the children. That would seem to me to be a much more realistic thing than going through the motions of this is forever and ever. Again, it depends. I’ve known so many very good marriages, really happy marriages, but there, again, they would renew the contract, you see.

To most people, it’s pretty climactic, breaking up a marriage but even so it’s no longer the unthinkable thing, no longer a stigma. It’s no longer simply that you can’t imagine doing it. You see it happening or around you. I’ve never known anyone who did it easily. Usually people have gone into marriage meaning to stay there, And very rarely does the marriage break up easily. There is usually one wanting to hold on while the other wants to go. That’s why I think it is a good idea not to have it such a totally binding thing. I mean, have it absolutely blinding in its duties to each other, to the children, but not so lifelong. It would be much better.

When I was young, the thing that seduced me it was not practical success. I didn’t want him to be rich, but he had to be someone who was successful in that he was getting what he wanted out of life, that he was in control of life. And he had to give me the impression of being a rather happy person who could manage his own life. It could be a bit of a crook perhaps, but had to be on top, you know. I thought I couldn’t ever possibly love anyone who wasn’t like that. Then, as I got older, I began to be attracted by vulnerability and to fall for people who were obviously child substitutes to a certain extent. Then, thank God, I stopped falling in love, I began to dislike people. I think falling in love is a terrible business. It nearly always is slightly neurotic, something you are putting on to that person, not something that person has. A need of yours is embodied in that person, and what happens is that when the person turns out to be him or herself you resent it because you wanted them to be that imaginary thing. But once you’ve managed not to fall in love any more, its bliss. You just like people.

There is certainly a comfortableness you feel with your own sex, old women friends. I remember Ruth Samson, poor woman, once saying to me, I believe that the people one will miss most when one dies are not going to be ones lovers at all, but ones women friends. I’ve thought about that, and I think that it may be true. I have one or two women in my life from way back home I absolutely know as well as myself, and perhaps they are the people I am most easy with, far closer than the man I live with. I’ve got an old boyfriend I share my flat with. By now it’s hardly a love affair, it’s like family.


There is a precariousness over many years in your situation; you depend on keeping on man. If you’re out of that situation, it doesn’t apply. I’ve known some perfectly unjealous woman. The most erratic and jealous people I’ve known have been men, actually. I think silly women get jealous because their self-confidence is threatened. When the love is withdrawn, you think it’s going away; you collapse because you haven’t got what you feel makes you worthwhile. Once you’re out of that bind – a woman is able to earn her own living, do her own thing or feel confident in herself – I don’t think she is any more jealous than a man. And think of all those sensible shrewd French ladies allowing their husbands to have it off, knowing not to fuss. I think a lot of English people do it too, I just think they don’t talk about it so much. I think wisdom teaches you, whether you’re a man or woman, not to be jealous.

There is certainly more aggressiveness in most men, they are more willing to fall into aggressive attitude. I think men are pretty horrible in many ways, they really are quite violent, and women much less so. There are occasions when you really feel it. For instance, I went into a restaurant not long ago, and there was a rugger-club reunion or something going on and something like ten rather large man with slight grants in their voices. They were actually quite frightening to look at, you thought, yes, they’re really not a very nice kind of animal. If you got them individually, they would have been perfectly alright, I’m sure, but there was something rather frightening about them. Of course, women can be a little frightening, too, in that way. They can actually be much more damaging in some ways in a gang, in a gaggle. If you hear women talking in a girls’ gaggle, if they’ve got a little drunk they’re really slicing people up, but clearly there is no physical threat. Men there is the possibility there, always, always. And although the Guardian‘s women’s page attitude in which everyone then they talk about is quivering with fear of rape goes rather far, there is something in it. For instance, in my fairly limited acquaintance, I know three women who have been raped, one of whom was seventy. Two by burglars, and one by a nut who chased her upstairs in a hotel. I don’t know very many people, and three out of those few is quite a lot.

On that miserable subject of rape, quite a lot of men tried to say well after all, what about it? Whereas women know that it’s not sex that they’re talking about they know it is outrage aggression. And an awful lot of men, nice men who have never thought about doing it, think, why should anyone be so flustered just because some poor chap is desperate for it? It isn’t that, you see. Men don’t understand it, so they have a different attitude to their own violence, naturally. Men are sometimes more frightened of being emotional than women because they’ve been brought up: men don’t cry, you know, men don’t do this, men don’t do that. A nice warm person who’s been bought up easily and well, there’s very little difference in the emotions. I know men who adore their children, for instance, as physically, as warmly as any woman, because something in their upbringing has allowed them to do it.

I’ve known a lot of animals in my time. I am very interested in animal behaviour. I think we are all animals, and I do see a continuum. I know people who get so angry when you say this, they can hardly bear it, but I still feel it’s fair. I still feel that women – basically, at some quite deep level – is the creature designed to produce the infant, and the male is designed to be a bit more aggressive. I can’t help feeling that this is as true of people as it is of dogs, lions, cows, horses, to a certain extent. I don’t think it ought to necessarily to go on being true, because now we are conscious, we speak and we think, we can change it a bit as it goes on. But I’m sure it’s there, and I don’t think we can change it too totally. I think that’s pie in the sky, myself, to you believe you can. I really do think it can’t be done. I don’t see why it should be done.

Now, with her new book, Alive, Alive, Oh! published at the age of 97, to great critical acclaim, I thought the readers of my blog may find these early responses quite interesting.

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