Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

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Catalogued: ‘Instead of a Letter’ // Diana Athill

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 Athill, Diana. 
 Instead of a Letter: A Memoir / by Diana 
     Athill. - London: W.W. Norton & Co, 1962

Instead of a Letter is the first book by British editor/publisher Diana Athill, who was born in 1917; edited the likes of V.S. Naipaul, John Updike and Jean Rhys; and and wrote several subsequent memoirs after this one. I’d read one of her previous memoirs—Stet, about her life in publishing—before this one, which dealt more with Athill’s childhood (growing up rich in the English countryside), her first love (who goes off to war, ignores her for two years and then writes to tell her he’s engaged to someone else; not a spoiler, b/c that’s on the book jacket) and her early years on her own.

Her prose is just gorgeous—also very precise and slightly formal, in the manner of, say, Virginia Woolf—and I think one of her special talents is putting into words ways of thinking that I’m sure many people share but couldn’t describe as well. Her other is for honesty: Athill never spares herself in describing things, you know? If anything, she’s harder on herself than you think maybe she should be (okay, so she wasn’t too jazzed about the War Effort; I’m sure not everyone else contributing was either, but Athill, in this memoir, seems to almost believe its a unique shortcoming in herself).

What I found most interesting about Athill’s descriptions of her flaws or proclivities, though, is that there’s really strong evidence to support an interpretation that Athill went through a long period of clinical depression, and suffered from ADHD. And when I say ‘there’s strong evidence to support,’ what I really mean is, reading it, I kept thinking HOLY FUCK Clearly This Woman Is Depressed and Has ADHD. I’ve read a lot about (and have firsthand experience with) both of these things, and many of her behaviors and actions and emotions, as she described them, could have been lifted directly from the DSM-IV. If this were a book written by someone weened in today’s climate—even if it were a novel, but especially as a memoir—depression and ADHD would be splashed prominently across the back cover, if not mentioned in a subhead. And there’s no way in hell our protagonist, or our author, wouldn’t have mentioned them in the course of describing their effects.

But Athill—writing in the early 1960s about events that took place in the 1940s and 1950s—doesn’t pathologize her condition once. The woman spent nearly 10-years in a funk in which her only solace was sex with random men (experiences which she initiates in order to feel something but quickly detaches from once the going gets good; “I would split in two on these occasions, one half going obediently and easily through the routine, the other watching with an ironic amusement”), reading and living vicariously through others—and yet it’s never called ‘depression.’ She’s a terribly disorganized procrastinator who has trouble completing tasks or working on anything that doesn’t ‘positively’ interest her at any given moment, all things she chalks up to her ‘lazy’ or ‘frivolous’ disposition. I don’t want to make any judgments here—there’s something a little to pat about making this some sort of referendum on Psychiatry in Our Time; but it is somewhat fascinating, in comparison.

Anyway, I’ll leave you with a few quotes, so you can get a taste (because I really do recommend you pick up an Anthill book, whichever one). On her grandmother:

Intelligent herself, happy to send two of her girls to Oxford when it was still uncommon, and proud of any success her female grandchildren might achieve in unwomanly careers, she yet insisted that women’s minds were inferior to men’s. There was some kind of ambiguity at work here, for although masculine superiority was never questioned, the climate of my grandmother’s house was markedly feminine and her daughters’ husbands always seemed to be slightly on the fringe of it. On a subject suitable to men—war, politics, a question of local government, the appointment of a clergyman to a living—she would turn to a son-in-law in formal deference: ‘I have been wanting to ask you—ought I write to the bishop…?’ but if she intended to write to the bishop, that was what she would do, whatever the son-in-law said. It was not that the deference as false, but perhaps it was paid to a figure too masculine, too infallible to exist.

On college:

To me Oxford became a game at a time when play was life. The play young animals, their pouncing and stalking and wooly wrestling, is serious. It is learning, without which they would not survive as adults, and that kind of play among human beings is too often restricted by economic necessity to childhood … Oxford struck me as the perfect place for this kind of learning, or growing. Some of my friends became impatient of it, feeling it unreal, but I argued that if for three or four years you could have the advantages of being adult with none of the responsibilities, what more could you ask?

On a married man she had an affair with:

Felix enjoyed women so much that he could not help making them feel valuable, indded he would have considered it amateurish not to do so.

On traveling:

It is not only seeing landscapes and works of art hitherto unseen, different kinds of buildings, faces of a different cast and complexion, behaviour formed in different moulds, which makes traveling important. It is the different eyes with which the traveler, startled out of habit by changes, looks at these things.

On why people do bad things:

I have seen few evils, and few ills, which could not be traced to the individual’s monstrous misconceptions of his own value in relation to that of other individuals.



Written by Elizabeth

August 1, 2011 at 4:32 pm

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