A Memoirist Who Told Everything and Repented Nothing

From The New Yorker:

When she died at a hundred and one in January of 2019, Diana Athill had publicly chronicled both ends of her long life in a series of nine memoirs. The first of these, “Instead of a Letter,” was published in 1963 and recently rereleased in the U.S. as part of the NYRB Classics series; it recounts her jolly, upper-class English childhood on the family estate of Ditchingham, in Norfolk. The last book that she wrote, “Alive, Alive Oh!,” came together in her “darling little room” at the Mary Feilding Guild, in Highgate, London, a garden-set home for the elderly; it’s a high-spirited, recalcitrant account of “waiting to die” at ninety-six.

Athill was the sort of character who ought to have seen her obituaries before she went. First, because she would have bewitchingly written off any high praise—the New York Times noted “her luminous prose, gimlet social acuity and ability to convey a profound sense of place”—with her brand of droll humor. (She refused burial at the Highgate Cemetery because of the cost: “I think being dead is an expensive business.”) And, second, because she would have enjoyed the evidence of how much her reputation had emerged; she’d worked behind the scenes for meagre wages and little adulation as one of the century’s great editors. In 1952, she became a co-founding director of the publishing house André Deutsch, and, until her retirement, in 1992, shepherded the likes of Philip Roth, John Updike, and Jean Rhys to publication. Athill wrote seven of her memoirs after leaving her nine-to-five, but, until that relatively late turn toward autobiographical mania, she knew her place. “We must always remember that we are only midwives—if we want praise for progeny we must give birth to our own,” she writes, in “Stet: An Editor’s Life.” We might not have known her had she not brought forth her own romping and exuberant litter.

Critics frequently used the terms “frank” or “candid” to describe Athill’s memoirs. But Athill doesn’t write as if no one is watching; she writes as if she’d never even imagined someone might watch, and therefore doesn’t have a scruple to hold on to. To describe honesty as her hallmark isn’t quite enough: that’s the least we can ask of our memoirists. What she is marvellous at is admitting, sans self-recrimination. In the early twenty-first century, the memoir has turned into a confessional, in a nearly religious sense. Writers go there to seek redemption, and to chart their evolution from naïve to knowing: no narrative is more marketable than metamorphosis. Athill doesn’t treat her foibles and losses—of love, of money, of caste, of certainty—as traumas, events that would define her life as troubled and scarring. Instead, she makes the case that being kicked out of Eden is good for the soul.

“I am glad that I have not inherited money or possessions,” Athill writes, striking a defiant note in “Instead of a Letter.” Inheritance was never her due, though as a child she once counted the bodies that stood between her and the palatial Ditchingham estate. “It appeared that at least twelve people, seven of them my contemporaries, would have to die before I would have a claim, and I hardly thought I ought to pray for this however much I would have liked to.” Ditchingham belonged to her mother’s parents, who offered it out as the extended family’s seasonal home, where they spent long summers and holidays throughout her early life. The thousand-acre estate with a twenty-bedroom, fully staffed house granted the family security in their Englishness, as members of an élite and unquestionable class. Athill stresses that the experience of growing up with such surety turned Ditchingham into a cocoon, a secure location from which to launch a life, but also a place she would inevitably leave. “There I used to be,” she opines, “as snug and as smug as anyone.” From an early age, she knew that adulthood would exist elsewhere.

Athill’s joy in Ditchingham, the children’s after-tea appearance in front of the grownups in the drawing room and the horsemen wandering across the fields, is the bright marrow of her writing: it suffuses her later life, and her prose, with bubbling, fresh oxygen. But, in “Instead of a Letter,” she writes as if she’s relieved that she got away from the estate and its inhabitants. “Like anyone else they had their charms,” she writes of her family, but “physically, intellectually, and morally, they were no more than middling.” Yet they thought themselves superior beings: “Smugness is too small a word for what it feels like from inside. From inside, it feels like moral and aesthetic rightness; from inside, it is people like me, who question it, who look stupid, ugly, and pitiful.”

Hence her happiness that she didn’t inherit: staying on at Ditchingham for a lifetime might have trapped her in the same small, closed life. Her childhood remained blissful to her as she aged because it lived on in her memory but didn’t define her future. “Never to have broken through its smothering folds would have been, I have always thought, extremely depressing,” she writes. “But on the other hand, not to have enjoyed a childhood wrapped warmly in those folds—that would be a sad loss.” Cousins were saddled with managing the finances of an upkeep-heavy country pile, whereas she, the oldest child of a fourth daughter, absorbed the bliss of the place but not the narrowness.

Ditchingham wasn’t the only inheritance that Athill would forgo. At thirteen, her mother told her that they’d “lost” their money, but what she meant was that they’d spent it all. “My parents felt they were living austerely because we ourselves looked after our ponies and they had not kept on their own hunters,” Athill writes, dryly. She recounts her mother telling her that “the really bloody thing about being poor is that if you leave something on the floor when you go out, you know that it will still be there when you get back.” Along with her two younger siblings, the family had been living in a well-staffed, six-bedroom house in Hertfordshire since her father had retired from the Army. Financially, they fell out a window but landed on a mattress—Athill’s grandparents rented them Manor Farm, a house on the estate, for cheap. A governess cost too much, so Athill was sent to Runton, a girls’ boarding school on the North Sea, and then up to St. Mary’s College at Oxford, in 1936.

When Athill was twenty-two, her future disintegrated again. She’d been engaged for two years when her fiancé, a Royal Air Force pilot named Tony Irvine, was deployed to Egypt. Then his letters suddenly stopped. She discovered in rapid succession that he’d married someone else while abroad and then been killed in action. “A long, flat unhappiness” set in, her sense of her own value collapsed, and her twenties were filled with broken-off relationships with incompatible men. “By the time I had reached my thirties,” she writes, toward the end of “Instead of a Letter,” “I was convinced that I lacked some vital quality necessary to inspire love.” At age ninety-nine, she explained in an interview, “there was a basic, underlying sense of failure—and it came from the very simple thing of having been brought up expecting to get married.”

“How did I get this way?” is one of memoir’s primary questions. Typical culprits are poverty or abandonment, sometimes a remarkable, indelible catastrophe. Cheryl Strayed’s mother died when Strayed, the author of “Wild,” was in college: she calls it her “genesis story.” Dani Shapiro, the author of five memoirs, starts her autobiographical path in “Slow Motion” with the story of her parents’ tragic car accident. Even Joan Didion reached new heights of cultural resonance with “The Year of Magical Thinking,” her memoir of the year following her husband’s death. The modern memoir is the proving ground for our national obsession with trauma, a place to gawk at whoever comes through the emotional meat grinder with the good sense and talent to finesse their damage into a redemption song.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

Ditchingham Hall. (2022, April 20). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ditchingham_Hall. Photographer – Stephen Richards, CC BY-SA 2.0 (Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0)