There’s something reassuring about 98-year-old Diana Athill. She’s stately and well-ordered, like the gardens at Ditchingham Hall in Norfolk, her grandparents’ Georgian house where she spent long periods of her childhood. Yes, she really is of that class, though she doesn’t trumpet it (she was presented at court in the brief reign of King Edward VIII) and, as is well known, she is of more than a certain age — born in 1917, towards the end of the first world war but, in social terms, a throwback to the Edwardian era, and half a decade before the publication of Ulysses and The Waste Land signalled the arrival of Modernism.
One of the ten essays in this delightful collection is about her attitude to clothes. Her favourite garments remain the old-fashioned ball gowns — often velvet and taffeta creations by her self-taught mother — which she, as a young woman with a 22-inch waist and a passion for Vogue, wore to dances. As she notes, this was in the ‘pre-sexy’ days, when desirability was associated with ‘beauty’, ‘prettiness’ and ‘charm’, rather than provocativeness. She recalls, with a hint of disapproval, first hearing the word ‘sexy’ applied to an item of beachwear. It sounded transatlantic and rather vulgar.
Come the late Sixties, she wore sensible maxi dresses rather than flirtatious minis (albeit she was by then over 50, so probably already too old for revealing shows of thigh). I suspect, however, that she was always a handsome woman rather than a vamp.
Yet she has a habit of flouting convention. It’s not the subject of this book but, after a protracted affair with an older man starting when she was 15, she found she enjoyed sex and later, as she developed her successful career as a publisher, she lived with, but never married, a succession of men.
She has written about these affairs — with the Egyptian writer who committed suicide in her Primrose Hill flat, with the American Black Power activist who was later murdered, and with the Jamaican playwright whom she initially shared with his wife, then with another younger woman, before he returned to the Caribbean,
leaving her alone, but content, in North London. She has admitted to being a ‘sucker for oppressed foreigners’, though her fellow publisher Carmen Callil has called her an ‘avid dabbler in female masochism’.
There are no dud essays in this compilation but, as well as her fond evocation of her grandparents’ garden, a couple more stand out. One is about the unsettling and ultimately corrupting experience of expatriate life in post-independence Tobago. She writes beautifully about a place where ‘flowers clamber and perch as though they had claws and wings’. But she is uneasy about the condescension of white foreigners, who talk of their ‘priceless’ servants and pause before describing a local as a friend, as if to show their broadmindedness. She concludes they are all living a dream which, they should remember, is very different from reality.
The other cracker is about the time, in her late early forties, when her period didn’t arrive, she hummed and ha-ed about having an abortion, then decided to embrace the moment and, with great enthusiasm, to have the baby. Sadly, though her no-nonsense style wouldn’t allow such a word, she woke up one night in excruciating pain and bleeding heavily. She only just made it to hospital in time for the blood transfusions needed to save her own life. But when her ordeal was over she didn’t feel any real loss, only recalling her sense of happiness when she was pregnant.
Since her mid-seventies, she maintains she has stopped feeling a sexual being and has welcomed the restfulness that comes with ‘Old Woman’ status. In the last decade she has moved (the subject of a piece here) to an old people’s home in Highgate, which she characterises as her most decisive initiative in a life in which things have just tended to happen.
Any residual wistfulness or sense of entitlement in Athill is trumped and enhanced at every stage by her wry, humane intelligence. As a manifesto for living to
the full, this deceptively slight book couldn’t be better.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £10.99 Tel: 08430 600033. Andrew Lycett has written biographies of Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Fleming, Wilkie Collins and Rudyard Kipling.