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A classic memoir by the author of the New York Times bestseller Somewhere Towards the End. As a young woman, Diana Athill was engaged to an air force pilot—Instead of a Letter tells how he broke off the engagement, married someone else, and, worst of all, died overseas before she could confront or forgive him. Evoking perfectly the picturesque country setting of her youth, A classic memoir by the author of the New York Times bestseller Somewhere Towards the End. As a young woman, Diana Athill was engaged to an air force pilot—Instead of a Letter tells how he broke off the engagement, married someone else, and, worst of all, died overseas before she could confront or forgive him. Evoking perfectly the picturesque country setting of her youth, this fearless and profoundly honest story of love and modern womanhood marks the beginning of Athill’s brilliant literary career. .


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A classic memoir by the author of the New York Times bestseller Somewhere Towards the End. As a young woman, Diana Athill was engaged to an air force pilot—Instead of a Letter tells how he broke off the engagement, married someone else, and, worst of all, died overseas before she could confront or forgive him. Evoking perfectly the picturesque country setting of her youth, A classic memoir by the author of the New York Times bestseller Somewhere Towards the End. As a young woman, Diana Athill was engaged to an air force pilot—Instead of a Letter tells how he broke off the engagement, married someone else, and, worst of all, died overseas before she could confront or forgive him. Evoking perfectly the picturesque country setting of her youth, this fearless and profoundly honest story of love and modern womanhood marks the beginning of Athill’s brilliant literary career. .

30 review for Instead of a Letter: A Memoir

  1. 5 out of 5

    Diane Barnes

    This is an unusual autobiography, in that it tells more about her inner growth than her public life. She does not use real names, and explains this by saying that her friends deserve privacy, they can write their own stories if they choose. Given that she was the editor for some really big guns in the literary world, that's pretty amazing. Honesty is the hallmark of this memoir, as is true with all the best ones, and she's very hard on herself and her motives. This was written in 1962, when she This is an unusual autobiography, in that it tells more about her inner growth than her public life. She does not use real names, and explains this by saying that her friends deserve privacy, they can write their own stories if they choose. Given that she was the editor for some really big guns in the literary world, that's pretty amazing. Honesty is the hallmark of this memoir, as is true with all the best ones, and she's very hard on herself and her motives. This was written in 1962, when she was 45 years old. She is now 100 years old, but still going strong. Diana Athill is one of those intelligent writers that is a pleasure to read.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Beth Bonini

    The first Athill memoir I read was Somewhere Towards the End - written when Diana Athill had already reached an advanced age, and had long been a Grande Dame of the publishing industry. As it turned out, she was nowhere near the end and published quite a few more books before her death in January 2019. I suppose you could describe Athill as an ‘über late bloomer’ because this book, first of her memoirs, was written in the 40s and describes her surprise and delight at becoming fully engaged with The first Athill memoir I read was Somewhere Towards the End - written when Diana Athill had already reached an advanced age, and had long been a Grande Dame of the publishing industry. As it turned out, she was nowhere near the end and published quite a few more books before her death in January 2019. I suppose you could describe Athill as an ‘über late bloomer’ because this book, first of her memoirs, was written in the 40s and describes her surprise and delight at becoming fully engaged with life again after a sort of dormant half-life (in her own description) for twenty years. It’s difficult to imagine Athill being anything other than a formidable woman of letters, but one gets the sense - in this book, written at a sort of midway point of her life - that her life unfolded in a way that was both surprising and occasionally mystifying to her. According to her own description, she was born into an upper-middle class world and absorbed an attitude of ‘smug, matter-of-fact assumption of superiority’. Although she was intelligent and academic enough to attend Oxford University in the late 1930s, she could imagine no life for herself other than becoming a wife and mother. An early intense romance with a family friend named Paul led to a young engagement at 21; but after a long separation, the war and Paul’s own fickle nature meant that she was jilted and left without emotional closure for many years. Although she describes, in honest and exacting detail, how Paul’s defection caused her to emotionally shut down for many years, and just drift from one trivial job to another, she must have been more efficient and formidable in the eyes of others than in her own estimation. Athill is surprisingly straightforward and frank in this memoir. She is unsparing in criticisms of her own character, and despite all the evidence to the contrary, describes herself as chronically lazy. She is always quick to point out any good fortune that came her away, and although she loved her childhood at her grandmother’s Norfolk estate (which she calls Beckton), she also emphasises how fortunate she was to break free of its ‘smothering folds’ - not only of luxury and comfort, but more importantly of its particular narrow mindset. She’s at all times an interesting subject, and her writing style is wonderfully evocative. Her life encompassed nearly all of the 20th century, with all of its turbulence and social changes, and although she is in no way an average or typical person, she manages to make her own story ‘read’ in a surprisingly warm and relatable way.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Leslie

    Sometimes people can get past a terrible loss; sometimes it cracks something at the centre of who you are. What destroys one person may leave hardly a psychic bruise on another. The nature of Diana Athill's loss may not strike you as worth the sadness it caused her for so long (though it made perfect sense to me), but such judgements are shallow and pointless. The fact is, her loss did strike hard at the core of her sense of who she was in the world, and it and its consequences caused her real d Sometimes people can get past a terrible loss; sometimes it cracks something at the centre of who you are. What destroys one person may leave hardly a psychic bruise on another. The nature of Diana Athill's loss may not strike you as worth the sadness it caused her for so long (though it made perfect sense to me), but such judgements are shallow and pointless. The fact is, her loss did strike hard at the core of her sense of who she was in the world, and it and its consequences caused her real damage that she spent the rest of her twenties and thirties rebuilding from. This is a beautiful memoir, a moving exploration of sadness, and surprisingly clear-eyed and unsentimental. When she thinks her younger self was self-indulgent or lazy or weak, she says so. But she also acknowledges the truth of what she felt, and she never underestimates the corrosive power of sadness, loss, loneliness, and regret.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Courtney Johnston

    One of the cover blurbs for this book - Athill's first memoir, covering her life from birth to when she began writing and publishing in her early forties - suggests that every 17 year-old girl should have a copy of this book pressed upon her. I wonder what that particular reviewer thought a 17 year-old girl would take out of the book. Would she see read it as a warning? As a young teenager Athill fell for a young man, about 5 years older than she, who was acquainted with the family. She recounts One of the cover blurbs for this book - Athill's first memoir, covering her life from birth to when she began writing and publishing in her early forties - suggests that every 17 year-old girl should have a copy of this book pressed upon her. I wonder what that particular reviewer thought a 17 year-old girl would take out of the book. Would she see read it as a warning? As a young teenager Athill fell for a young man, about 5 years older than she, who was acquainted with the family. She recounts how quickly she grew up and soon the young man saw her less as a younger sister and more as a romantic possibility to the point where, when Athill was about to leave for university, they became engaged. Athill's young man was the centre of her happiness, her world. He was sent to Egypt (this was at the start of WWII) and they corresponded joyfully until his letters stopped coming. It was nearly two years before he wrote to her again, asking her to release him from their engagement, so he could marry another woman. Athill never married. One of the refreshing things about her memoirs is the calm and un-coy way she writes of her sexual relationships with men; here she talks about an abortion - which saddens her, but which she does not regret - and later miscarriages, her long-term, steady affairs with married men, and her short-term (even one-night stand) relationships conducted out of a sense of obligation, and the feeling that sometimes it is easier to just go to bed with someone than to find a convincing yet polite way to turn them down. She covers her years of war work, and later career in publishing, where she worked with Andre Deutsch to set up two publishing houses (covered more fully in 'Stet'). But most of all Athill writes of unhappiness, and the late discovery, in her forties, of happiness when she begins writing. It is not that writing 'fills a hole' as such, but that it gives her s sense of ease and pleasure, of surprise and success. So, what that reviewer think a 17 year-old would learn from this life? It is that she should not hitch her happiness to a young man, but look instead for fulfillment in a career? That one can only find true happiness by being happy with oneself, and other platitudes? The way I read it, Athill was saying something different about unhappiness, and its particular source. It was all consuming ("My soul had shrunk to the size of a pea) but it didn't stop her from doing things, and doing things successfully. It didn't stop her from feeling happy at times. It didn't mean her life wasn't meaningful. At the same time I was reading this book, I read Jenny Diski (now, there's a writer who can talk about unhappiness) reviewing a self-help get happy book in the LRB: Truth number four is ‘You’re not happy unless you think you’re happy.’ This is not just unfathomable but raises a prior question. Why is Rubin so very sure that happiness is the goal? Why do people, some people, understand their sense of incompleteness as a lack of happiness? Or why do they believe that such an incompleteness can and should be remedied? If the answers to these questions strike you as completely obvious, or they don’t seem to be sensible questions at all, then maybe it’s just me, but I suspect Freud didn’t stop at ordinary unhappiness because he was at a loss to know what to do at that point, but because ordinary unhappiness constitutes part of regular existence. I once tried this thought out on a panel on a TV book show when we were talking about a biography of Ford Madox Ford. There was general agreement that his had been a tragic life, evidenced by catastrophic love affairs, difficulty in writing and several failed suicide attempts. I wondered if you had to see it as such a tragic life, or just that kind of a life. He did after all have all the melodrama and all those torrid relationships, and he also wrote some of the best novels of the 20th century. Even suicide attempts, if they fail, offer a kind of renewal, if only of unhappiness. Certainly, he wasn’t happy, but was it a tragic life? I’m no more sure what constitutes tragic than I am about defining happiness. They cut that bit out when the show was broadcast, because the other people on the panel just blinked at me and moved swiftly on. Indeed.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jun

    Somber, unflinching, delightful memoir of a middle class woman who grew up like all little girls of her class do until WWII, feminism, and other midcentury reappraisals of life's purpose, both historical and personal, change it forever. Diane Athill was the editor of some of the most important English language literature of the 20th century. Simply, it's a book about an ordinary woman who discovers that she is a writer and a lover instead of a wife, mother, and would-be matriarch. It's also abou Somber, unflinching, delightful memoir of a middle class woman who grew up like all little girls of her class do until WWII, feminism, and other midcentury reappraisals of life's purpose, both historical and personal, change it forever. Diane Athill was the editor of some of the most important English language literature of the 20th century. Simply, it's a book about an ordinary woman who discovers that she is a writer and a lover instead of a wife, mother, and would-be matriarch. It's also about the meaning of life, humble and real as its slow discovery and continued questioning is. As a single working woman, I identified a lot with her feelings and thoughts regardless of the generations that stand between us. Athill is so mundanely modern--I never would have thought that a semi-upper crust Englishwoman who came of age during WWII would have anything in common with me--someone who came of age in the Bill Clinton 90s. But we do. It reminded me a small-scale, more casual, less dramatic and realistic everywoman version of the biography of Janet Frame. I enjoyed Athill's summary description of herself as "lazy." I appreciated that. Just imagine, if her asshole boyfriend hadn't jilted her during the war, we wouldn't have this lovely book. I think that's the point of it.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Dagný

    I enjoyed Athill's memoir very much. She wrote this one in the sixties, when she herself was in her early forties. Previously I had read her memoir, -Somewhere Near the End-written and published a couple of years ago when she was almost 90. Athill is a very well known British book editor and has also written about that (STAT), yet although she recounts here how her involvement in the publishing business came about, these memoirs are mostly about herself from a personal standpoint of what it felt I enjoyed Athill's memoir very much. She wrote this one in the sixties, when she herself was in her early forties. Previously I had read her memoir, -Somewhere Near the End-written and published a couple of years ago when she was almost 90. Athill is a very well known British book editor and has also written about that (STAT), yet although she recounts here how her involvement in the publishing business came about, these memoirs are mostly about herself from a personal standpoint of what it felt like to be her. Athill gives us the people and the settings and the circumstances of a rather unusual life and looks back at herself with unflinching honesty and courage. Instead of a Letter recalls Athill's gentry upbringing and Oxford education and then focuses on her youthful love for and engagement to a young man. This her fiance embarks on foreign service, then does not write and leaves her dangling until finally asking for release, eventually marrying someone else. (He died in the 2nd WW). The book is about how she wrestled with her heartbreak, humiliation and self-doubt. Athill eventually can be said to have come into her own through writing. She recalls her great joy in winning a short story competition. At the time of writing the above memoir she might not have foreseen how much more indeed she would come to write in the future. In the beginning of this memoir Athill recalls her own grandmother's deathbed questioning of the latter's live's worth. Athill then reflects on this question in regard to herself. While she herself has had no children we all are lucky in the wonderful inheritance she has given us in her thoughtful and delightfully written books.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Ali

    Instead of a Letter, Diana Athill’s first work of autobiography was written when Diana Athill was only in her 40s, published a year after her first volume of short stories. Since then, she has written several more volumes of memoir, including one quite recently. Considering that Athill didn’t write these in any kind of chronological order I can’t see it matters which order one reads them in, as each book does seem to have a different focus. Born in 1917 – she will be celebrating her 99th birthda Instead of a Letter, Diana Athill’s first work of autobiography was written when Diana Athill was only in her 40s, published a year after her first volume of short stories. Since then, she has written several more volumes of memoir, including one quite recently. Considering that Athill didn’t write these in any kind of chronological order I can’t see it matters which order one reads them in, as each book does seem to have a different focus. Born in 1917 – she will be celebrating her 99th birthday just before Christmas. Diana Athill was born into a wealthy, aristocratic family, and brought up in the Norfolk countryside. Having worked for the BBC before the war, she later worked in publishing and as an editor, working with many very famous literary greats. In writing this memoir when she did, Diana Athill, was trying to discover something about herself, and crucially about what her life had been for. It was a question which had been prompted by the memory of her maternal grandmother. “By the end, pain and exhaustion had loosened her grip on life so that when she ‘recovered’ yet again from a heart attack she would whisper, ‘why doesn’t God let me die?’ but for a long time she was afraid of what was happening to her. She was afraid of death, and she was sorrowful – which was worse – because she had much time in which to ask herself what her life had been for, and often she could not answer.” She is, as ever, uncompromisingly honest. This is a woman, who the reader instantly feels right at home with, someone will a brilliant understanding of herself, and the ability to examine herself with unflinching honesty. Full review: https://heavenali.wordpress.com/2016/...

  8. 4 out of 5

    Susan

    I've read two of Diana Athill's memoirs, and after finishing each book, I wanted to find another of her books to read to hear more of her clear, honest, self-depreciating voice. Instead of a Letter is the story of her early life, with a candid account of her first love, first short story and --more briefly than Stet--her work as an editor. Now, what to read next? "There is plenty of evidence, then, that my existence has been without value: that if, like my grandmother, I approach death slowly and I've read two of Diana Athill's memoirs, and after finishing each book, I wanted to find another of her books to read to hear more of her clear, honest, self-depreciating voice. Instead of a Letter is the story of her early life, with a candid account of her first love, first short story and --more briefly than Stet--her work as an editor. Now, what to read next? "There is plenty of evidence, then, that my existence has been without value: that if, like my grandmother, I approach death slowly and consciously, I shall be driven to ask the question she asked: "What have I lived for?" All that I shall be able to answer is that I have written a little, and I have loved, and if I do not die until I am old, those things will have become too remote to count for much. I shall remember that they once seemed worth everything, but quite possibly the fact that by then they will be over will appear to have wiped out their value. It ought to be a frightening thought, but I am still not frightened." "I used to spend hours searching among them because I collected cornelians and amber, which I kept in a jam jar, with water to make them gleam. I knew pebbles well: the different shades of grey, the almost white, the mottled, the porous, the ones with microscopic sparkles in the graining of their surfaces, the flat, the round, the potato-shaped, the totally opaque, the almost translucent. It was obvious that there were an infinite number of them, and an infinite variety, and that they were all equally real. I handled them, but more often I looked at them. It was by looking at pebbles that I began to feel their nature, and it is by looking that I feel the nature of people."

  9. 4 out of 5

    Emily

    As Ms. Athill's grandmother faces death, she askes her granddaughter, "What have I lived for?". In this memoir, Athill follows her response--that not least among her grandmother's achievements was the creation of a large and loving family--with an exploration of how to answer the question for herself: a single, childless, "career woman," then (in the 1960s) in her forties. Refreshingly unapologetic about her privileged upbringing, she confronts her past, her personality, her successes and failur As Ms. Athill's grandmother faces death, she askes her granddaughter, "What have I lived for?". In this memoir, Athill follows her response--that not least among her grandmother's achievements was the creation of a large and loving family--with an exploration of how to answer the question for herself: a single, childless, "career woman," then (in the 1960s) in her forties. Refreshingly unapologetic about her privileged upbringing, she confronts her past, her personality, her successes and failures with brutal honesty and in doing so speaks not only to her own generation of women, but to those who follow. Anyone who has felt torn between dreams of love, marriage and family, and the pseudo-feminist notion that one who is not always happily independent betrays her ideals will understand Instead of a Letter to be a letter to her own soul from a wise sister traveler.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Kasey Jueds

    My second Diana Athill memoir, which I loved just as much as the first I read. She has the incredible gift (like two of my favorite fiction writers, Tessa Hadley and Alice Mattison) of pinpointing, beautifully, the most subtle and deeply buried human emotions, of bringing them to the surface where they shimmer. This is one of those books that, although the circumstances it describes are completely different from my own, managed to make me feel less alone, to feel companioned and inspired. I thin My second Diana Athill memoir, which I loved just as much as the first I read. She has the incredible gift (like two of my favorite fiction writers, Tessa Hadley and Alice Mattison) of pinpointing, beautifully, the most subtle and deeply buried human emotions, of bringing them to the surface where they shimmer. This is one of those books that, although the circumstances it describes are completely different from my own, managed to make me feel less alone, to feel companioned and inspired. I think that's due not only to Athill's intelligence and insight but to her incredible honesty--about family, love, sex, and work. I found so much of this book moving, so it's almost impossible to pick out a single section I loved more than the others... but her writing about how she became a writer, rather late in life, and what writing means to her, will stay with me for a long time.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Sue

    Diana Athill has a wonderful ability for description. So many times when I was reading this book I just thought- YES! That is exactly how I feel! She spends 2 or 3 pages describing her family's sense of superiority over other classes and cultures, and it is just amazing. "Yet they despised almost all the rest of the world, excepting people nearly as possible replicas of themselves, as though their status as English country gentlefolk made them exceptional beings...." The story of her lover, Paul Diana Athill has a wonderful ability for description. So many times when I was reading this book I just thought- YES! That is exactly how I feel! She spends 2 or 3 pages describing her family's sense of superiority over other classes and cultures, and it is just amazing. "Yet they despised almost all the rest of the world, excepting people nearly as possible replicas of themselves, as though their status as English country gentlefolk made them exceptional beings...." The story of her lover, Paul, is somewhat central to the book and her life story, but I was more interested in her life after that. Being unhappy for years and then finding happiness, and being a single woman in her 30s and 40s. I look forward to reading "Somewhere Near the End" next.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Sue

    A clear-eyed assessment of happiness versus contentment in the life of a privileged Englishwoman who grew up in the mid-20th century. Athill was a publisher and speaks articulately about writers she knew, friends she had, loves that carried her through and buried her in self-doubt. Engaging writing lacking in self-pity and filled with the satisfaction that comes from a well-realized life.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Eleanore

    Easily one of the best books I have read in the past five years and certainly the most profound and moving memoir. The grace of her prose is balanced by the keen edge of her insight, elevated by honesty, humor, and remarkably unshadowed by bitterness. This is a powerful book for all women - I only wished my Mother had thought to give it to me sooner!

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    Instead of a Letter is a nonfiction piece in which Diana Athill tells her life story from childhood to age 43. She starts out at her grandmother's home, Beckton Manor, as the daughter of an upper-class British family that has lost most of its wealth. Athill narrates every detail of her life chronologically, starting with tutors, then moving to board school, on to Oxford, and finally to her various careers. Although she covers many topics in this book, one of her main interests was Paul, an Oxfor Instead of a Letter is a nonfiction piece in which Diana Athill tells her life story from childhood to age 43. She starts out at her grandmother's home, Beckton Manor, as the daughter of an upper-class British family that has lost most of its wealth. Athill narrates every detail of her life chronologically, starting with tutors, then moving to board school, on to Oxford, and finally to her various careers. Although she covers many topics in this book, one of her main interests was Paul, an Oxford student that she falls in love with at age 15. SPOILER ALERT: (I feel safe telling you this, since it is right on the back of the book) Athill eventually becomes engaged to Paul, but he breaks off the engagement in order to marry another woman. Most of the story consists of building up to the engagement, and the rest is her recovery from the rejection. The best part about reading an autobiography is how well you get to know the protagonist/author. Athill hides nothing, showing both the good and bad in her life and letting the reader determine how to deal with it. Her open narration draws the reader in, and makes one certain that she is being totally honest. She also covers important and interesting topics, such as class differences in England and Christian religious values, as well as giving some beautiful descriptions ("All this is bathed in light and silence. It is silent in spite of the fishermen's voices or the occasional grinding of a truck or taxi creeping round the edge of the bay to visit the hotel or the monastery, silent in spite of a donkey on the lower terrace calling to another donkey on the further mountain. The braying of donkeys--that painful, wheezing lionlike sound--might be the voice of rock, as the creaking of cicadas might be the voice of sun.") On the other hand, the worst part about reading an autobiography is how well you get to know the protagonist/author. Even though learning about Athill can be intriguing, sometimes she gives a little too much information. She is very blunt about her love life, and although I appreciated her honesty, she was too explicit for my tastes. Also, Athill tends to ramble. Especially towards the end, when I was expecting her to come to a brief resolution, she continued writing on various topics for a whole chapter that I had not seen coming. I liked this book, but it wasn't my favorite. I would recommend this to adults who are looking for an honest autobiography, and don't mind if it lacks a strong plot. I am looking into another one of Athill's memoirs, Somewhere Towards the End, which is supposed to be a humorous book about growing old; I'm hoping I will like this better, and I will make sure to let you know when I have finished! Too read more of my reviews, visit www.literaryllama.wordpress.com.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Karen O'Brien-Hall

    One of the things I shared with my father was a love of horses and from my early teens our big day out was Royal Randwick Racecourse on Boxing Day. Dressed to the nine’s in my new dress, hat, gloves, stockings and shoes, (often Christmas gifts from my godmother) off we went to the Members stand. On the arm of my handsome Father, he resplendent in suit and hat, I practiced being a sophisticated “woman of the world”, using my beautiful and gracious Mother as my guide. My highly respected, scientif One of the things I shared with my father was a love of horses and from my early teens our big day out was Royal Randwick Racecourse on Boxing Day. Dressed to the nine’s in my new dress, hat, gloves, stockings and shoes, (often Christmas gifts from my godmother) off we went to the Members stand. On the arm of my handsome Father, he resplendent in suit and hat, I practiced being a sophisticated “woman of the world”, using my beautiful and gracious Mother as my guide. My highly respected, scientific, betting system “I like chestnut horses, pink silks etc” was used for Dad to place a bet for me, one shilling each way. Surprisingly, I often went home with money in my pocket. For a time in my 20’s I worked for a thoroughbred horse breeder and consequently spent numerous Wednesdays and Saturdays at the races. I still used my finely honed childhood betting system and usually won, although the bookies would no longer accept a shilling each way bet! So what has this to do with my review I hear you ask? Only this - the main reason I read Instead of a Letter was the face of the author on the cover and my system still works, even for books, what a winner! Diana Athill has a totally no-nonsense countenance! Diana Athill OBE (born December 21, 1917) is a British literary editor, novelist and memoirist who worked with some of the most important writers of the 20th century. She was born in the English county of Norfolk and graduated from Oxford. Diana worked for the BBC throughout the Second World War. After the war she helped Andre Deutsch establish his publishing company and worked closely with many of his authors, including Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and Simone de Beauvoir. Diana wrote many memoires about various parts of her life; Instead of a Letter tells the story of her first love, of losing that love and the consequences of loss. But it is never a sad story, because Diana’s innate intelligence doesn’t allow for self pity. She doesn’t shy away from the hard facts, or from judging herself as others might. As you expect from a literary editor, the writing is superb. Here is a little sample: “Now that I …… have my first grey hairs, a neck less smooth and a waist considerably less slim – can observe in my own body the clear indications of time passing and know that they are there for good, not as a sign of any physical condition that could be cured – I have, perversely, stopped feeling old. The process of aging is undeniable, but it no longer touches an exposed nerve. Being happy has made it unimportant.” (Chapter 16 Instead of a Letter). I so enjoyed Instead of a Letter, on my “To Read” list, which gets longer by the day, is Stet, a memoire of Diana’s time as an editor.

  16. 4 out of 5

    RuthAnn

    Would recommend: Probably not For the life of me, I can't remember what made me put this book on my "to read" list. I think I read about it online, maybe under the context of "If you like memoirs, you'll like this book!" and I was all, "Okay, sure!" And then it was only so-so. For one, it took me freaking forever to read this book, and I only finished it out of sheer doggedness, light skimming at the end, and irritation that I was not done yet for the love of God. I found this writer to be mostly Would recommend: Probably not For the life of me, I can't remember what made me put this book on my "to read" list. I think I read about it online, maybe under the context of "If you like memoirs, you'll like this book!" and I was all, "Okay, sure!" And then it was only so-so. For one, it took me freaking forever to read this book, and I only finished it out of sheer doggedness, light skimming at the end, and irritation that I was not done yet for the love of God. I found this writer to be mostly unsympathetic; she describes herself as lazy and passive, and I just do not cheer that type of person on. Worst of all, the main, juicy conflict described on the back cover was over and done with in the first third of the book, and then the rest of it dawdled along. There were a few bright moments, but on the whole, I was not a fan. Despite myself, though, I am interested in the author's memoir about her experience as a book editor, but maybe I am setting myself up for disappointment again.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Don

    I just finished this book. I am interested in both the type of English childhood that Diana Athill had and in the 'homefront' stories of WWII. I thought that it might be too much of a woman's book for me but the more I read the more interested I became. I also initially thought that she was much to young to write a memoir at that age. Athill's young life drew me in but her writing kept me reading. In the last pages Athill states that she was neither beautiful nor intelligent. Though I would disag I just finished this book. I am interested in both the type of English childhood that Diana Athill had and in the 'homefront' stories of WWII. I thought that it might be too much of a woman's book for me but the more I read the more interested I became. I also initially thought that she was much to young to write a memoir at that age. Athill's young life drew me in but her writing kept me reading. In the last pages Athill states that she was neither beautiful nor intelligent. Though I would disagree with her self-assessment. Above all to have writen such an honest and direct memoir such as this, when put into context of the time, was brave and reflects her strength of character. I will be reading much more of her work.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Donna

    The author takes us through her childhood, teenage years, utter heartbreak from a broken engagement, work during the war years, and her realization in her forties that writing brings her happiness. Some people would read this biography and say 'she needed to stop wallowing in her misery and pull herself up by her bootstraps' (I hate that phrase, but it's a frequently used one where I grew up). But this memoir captures perfectly how, sometimes, that is just not humanly possible. It's not that Athi The author takes us through her childhood, teenage years, utter heartbreak from a broken engagement, work during the war years, and her realization in her forties that writing brings her happiness. Some people would read this biography and say 'she needed to stop wallowing in her misery and pull herself up by her bootstraps' (I hate that phrase, but it's a frequently used one where I grew up). But this memoir captures perfectly how, sometimes, that is just not humanly possible. It's not that Athill curled up in a fetal position, or gave up - she kept plowing ahead, day by day - but her spirit and her ability to enjoy life were so bruised they were numbed. It's writing that allows those feelers to reach out and once again enjoy life. And it's a joy to read this book.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Kristen

    I found this memoir very comforting. Diana writes with ease about her ordinary life. A shitty (ish) thing happens to her in her youth and she still manages to make a mediocre go of it. I feel reassured about the fact that 'I haven't done anything with my life.' Even though 'I am not the only pebble on the beach,' 'there is an infinite number of them, and an infinite variety, and they are all equally real.' I will never be as alive or as young or as beautiful as I am right now (well maybe not lit I found this memoir very comforting. Diana writes with ease about her ordinary life. A shitty (ish) thing happens to her in her youth and she still manages to make a mediocre go of it. I feel reassured about the fact that 'I haven't done anything with my life.' Even though 'I am not the only pebble on the beach,' 'there is an infinite number of them, and an infinite variety, and they are all equally real.' I will never be as alive or as young or as beautiful as I am right now (well maybe not literally, right now.) I hope to attain an ease of reflection and acceptance as Diana exhibits in this memoir. Remarkable in her unremarkability.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Laura Musich

    I enjoyed Athill’s mature, sober prose (such well formed sentences!). Events that must have felt almost violently tragic to a teenager or young twenty-something take on more appropriate significance from a vantage of decades, and the gentle pitch of the prose reflects this; that, I think, is its strength. It can be difficult to take things in perspective with only a third or a quarter of one’s potential life experience in hand, and a memoir that takes stock of a life and puts it in perspective c I enjoyed Athill’s mature, sober prose (such well formed sentences!). Events that must have felt almost violently tragic to a teenager or young twenty-something take on more appropriate significance from a vantage of decades, and the gentle pitch of the prose reflects this; that, I think, is its strength. It can be difficult to take things in perspective with only a third or a quarter of one’s potential life experience in hand, and a memoir that takes stock of a life and puts it in perspective can be an interesting and useful read when executed well (as Athill does).

  21. 4 out of 5

    Mam

    Diana Athill is a perfectly British writer of great insight. This memoir of her first forty years is a search to answer for herself the question asked to her by her grandmother when the old woman was dying: "What have I lived for?" Athill does not find an answer for herself but she learns that, "No one can be detached from his past, but anyone can come to see it as being past."

  22. 5 out of 5

    Peggie

    Too much like a Hemingway novel. I really don't need to know everything single thing she did as a child and how she felt about it and how her little friends reacted. Maybe it gets better but I don't want to stick around to find out.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Sheila

    Fabulous! So much of this book sang to me. For someone born half a century before me in another country with a very different life, she gave me many things to think about for my own life. Can't wait to read more from her.

  24. 4 out of 5

    EBirdy

    This book took me a bit to get into. At times I found her writing a little hard to follow. Unlike many memoirs, she doesn't always progress through time in a linear fashion. I liked her writing style - she's spare with her words but they are well-chosen and make her point. Like another memoir set in Britain in the 30s and 40s I recently read (Testament of Youth), she doesn't appear to have very warm relationships with her immediate family and they don't figure much into her story. Her strongest This book took me a bit to get into. At times I found her writing a little hard to follow. Unlike many memoirs, she doesn't always progress through time in a linear fashion. I liked her writing style - she's spare with her words but they are well-chosen and make her point. Like another memoir set in Britain in the 30s and 40s I recently read (Testament of Youth), she doesn't appear to have very warm relationships with her immediate family and they don't figure much into her story. Her strongest relationships seem to be with friends and lovers. In Athill's case, the place she grew up was a place of happiness, whereas Vera Brittain hated her childhood village. I wanted to read this book because her experience with "Paul" is very like an experience in my own life. I was in a relationship for 7 years when he broke it off suddenly and I never heard from him again. This was a person I had known for more than 20 years, most of it as good friends. Athill's description of what it feels like for someone to just erase you from their life was very similar to how I felt. And, like Athill, it is something that has taken me many years to move past. Unlike Athill, I was not very young. It's easy in some ways to dismiss her feelings because of her youth, but I don't think a young age invalidates the depth of what you feel. Her sense of being a failure for not having achieved the two big things she wanted in life, to be married and to have children, I can also relate to. Like her, my desire for children was ambivalent. The section where she talks about realizing she is happy again was also very relatable to me. It's something that gradually occurs to you, as if emerging from a fog, which I suppose is what grieving is. Her thoughts on the aging process and what make a life meaningful, as framed by a question her grandmother asked her, are some of the strongest sections of the book. The thoughts she has about her life, unmarried and childless, are thoughts I have had over the years, and her conclusions gave me more to think about. I would like to read her other memoirs if I can find them - she had a life filled with very unusual relationships. She also lived to be 101, so I'd like to read the books she wrote about being old if I can find them.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Anne

    Wow wow wow. This book was not what I expected, but it was exactly what I needed. Athill's prose is wonderful, crisp and clear, and her observations on the world and her place in it are poignant, searing, and, occasionally, ruthless. The way she sits down to take stock of her experiences, both good and bad, and lay out how she has lived her life has, at the very least, shaken the cobwebs in my brain, if not blown them away entirely. An excellent read for those among us (like myself) who need the Wow wow wow. This book was not what I expected, but it was exactly what I needed. Athill's prose is wonderful, crisp and clear, and her observations on the world and her place in it are poignant, searing, and, occasionally, ruthless. The way she sits down to take stock of her experiences, both good and bad, and lay out how she has lived her life has, at the very least, shaken the cobwebs in my brain, if not blown them away entirely. An excellent read for those among us (like myself) who need the an uncritical reminder to be an active participant in their own life and happiness. 5/5

  26. 5 out of 5

    Jackie

    A quick-ish read, recommended to me by one of the fiction writers here. Athill's writing is beautiful, almost lyric in places, and the self she projects onto the page is both prickly and likable, in the manner of all truly great narrators. Although I enjoyed myself throughout, I wasn't really finding anything to latch onto until 3/4 of the way through, and then the quotes came fast and furious. I mean: My sympathies are with the hipster, but when I consider his techniques of broadening experien A quick-ish read, recommended to me by one of the fiction writers here. Athill's writing is beautiful, almost lyric in places, and the self she projects onto the page is both prickly and likable, in the manner of all truly great narrators. Although I enjoyed myself throughout, I wasn't really finding anything to latch onto until 3/4 of the way through, and then the quotes came fast and furious. I mean: My sympathies are with the hipster, but when I consider his techniques of broadening experience I can see myself in comparison, as square as a cube from a child's set of bricks: to me excesses bring discomfort and fatigue rather than freedom. This one makes perfect sense to me because I've lived it. People who have been happy in a first marriage are likely to be happy in a second: they are conditioned to companionship and affection. In the same way, I, having lived for so long in a place which I loved passionately, had a readiness to love another place. And this one makes me want to check my workshop classroom next time to make sure there's not a Diana Athill-shaped fly on the wall. Among the writers I have known, the better the artist, the more I have liked the man or woman. 'We are a neurotic lot, every last one of us,' one of them said to me, and certainly the good ones I have known have included the violently moody, the super-sensitive, the spiteful-about-other-people's-work, the hard drinker, the bad husband, the unable-to-communicate-in-speech, the cheerfully perverse, the conventionally amoral. Underneath whatever it may be, however, they have all had a private sanity which does not seem to me to be neurotic: they are the people to whom truth is important, and who can see things. And this, of course. It is a startling realization. To have lived from 1917 to 1961 and to have known violence only through the printed word or through images; to have known social injustice and revolution only through the printed word or through images; to have seen Jews stumbling down concrete steps into the gas chamber only through the printed word or through images; to have experienced fear, hunger, loss of liberty, or courage, relief from want and the impulse to fight for freedom only through the printed word or through images: this is astounding. [...] books have been my windows on to vast tracts of experience, both destructive and creative, in which I have not lived. [...] I am so much in debt that if artists did not exist, I cannot imagine that I would.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Timons Esaias

    First, let me acknowledge where I heard about this book. Noel Perrin included it in his wonderful collection of review essays, A Reader's Delight. Perrin's book intended to highlight out-of-print and forgotten classics, and I made quite a list to look for (I remember a New Orleans antiquarian shop owner asking to see the list in my hand, and then saying, with a note of awe, "This is a GOOD list."). This is the sixteenth book I've read from the two dozen I've rounded up, and I can tell you from e First, let me acknowledge where I heard about this book. Noel Perrin included it in his wonderful collection of review essays, A Reader's Delight. Perrin's book intended to highlight out-of-print and forgotten classics, and I made quite a list to look for (I remember a New Orleans antiquarian shop owner asking to see the list in my hand, and then saying, with a note of awe, "This is a GOOD list."). This is the sixteenth book I've read from the two dozen I've rounded up, and I can tell you from experience it was a helluva list. (Perrin introduced me to Joseph Mitchell, for crying out loud.) This is a memoir by someone who eventually became a writer, after years working in publishing in Great Britain, but it's not at all a run-of-the-mill memoir. She does not make herself the glorious heroine of her own tale; but neither does she wallow in histrionic tragedies from which she barely escaped alive. She was depressed for a long time, it's clear; but basically she had a happy childhood on the margins of the British propertied class, went to Oxford in the late 1930s, lived through the war. (Her fiancée was killed, but he'd already broken it off with her and married another.) By chance, she ended up in publishing; by chance she started writing short stories; by chance she discovered happiness. She is often lazy, she makes bad choices. She explains herself, when she can, but she doesn't make excuses. That's both challenging and refreshing. A quote: "During that time my soul shrank to the size of a pea. It had never been very large or succulent, or capable of sending out sprouts beyond the limits of self, but now it had almost shrivelled away." A summing up, near the end: "So I have not been beautiful, or intelligent, or good, or brave, or energetic, and for many years I was not happy: I failed to achieve the extremely simple things which, for so long, I wanted above all else: I found no husband and it is not likely that I shall ever have a child." There are enough excellent observations in here, and enough of a view of a type of life that has passed away, to make it a memorable read. I found myself identifying with a surprising amount of her story. Thank you again, Mr. Perrin. Another good suggestion.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Rita

    Written when she was about 42. 1st publ. 1963, not that many years after she started working with Andre Deutsch. I foresee being glad to re-read this book at some point. Athill has a light touch about her writing, even though she is often dealing with pretty heavy topics - like feeling betrayed, abandoned, worthless. Not overtly feminist at all, yet she gets in some bits that set you thinking... First part is about her childhood, but bulk of book is about her [very] young adulthood, falling in love, Written when she was about 42. 1st publ. 1963, not that many years after she started working with Andre Deutsch. I foresee being glad to re-read this book at some point. Athill has a light touch about her writing, even though she is often dealing with pretty heavy topics - like feeling betrayed, abandoned, worthless. Not overtly feminist at all, yet she gets in some bits that set you thinking... First part is about her childhood, but bulk of book is about her [very] young adulthood, falling in love, losing her fiance after which she 'lost confidence' in herself, going through several years of a sort of depression before regaining a sense of self-worth. Very insightful without the least bit of preaching or explicit analysis. She enjoyed getting to know the novelists she worked with: "they are the people to whom truth is important, and who can see things." 184 She grew up with profound respect for good writing, and comments on the importance of reading: "having lived a great part of my life entirely in terms of the printed word....to have known violence only through the printed word [and images]; to have experienced fear, hunger, loss of liberty, courage, and the impulse to fight for freedom only through the written word: this is astounding." 185 [I would add that social injustice, fear and violence are experienced by almost all children, tho on what may seem a smaller scale. But I think it is our own experiences, however minor, that make it possible for us to identify with the more extreme cases we read about.] During her years of depression/recuperation, "taking so strong an interest in other people's lives largely fills the emptiness of one's own -- an attitude common among good-natured middle-aged women" 187 [Guess this fits me too] TRAVEL "released me from the creature produced by the conditioning of my environment. I felt as though I were my naked self, starting from scratch....It is not only seeing landscapes and behaviour hitherto unseen which makes travelling important. It is the different eyes with which the traveller, startled out of habit by change, looks at these things." 189-90

  29. 4 out of 5

    Linda

    While hardly madcap, Diana Athill has had an extraordinary life, and writes of it poignantly in this memoir. The back cover of my book says, "Considered a masterpiece of the 'modern' memoir upon publication in 1962, INSTEAD OF A LETTER marks the begining of Diana Athill's brillant literary career." Born into the higher end of the English "well-born" she describes her idyllic childhood at the family estate, belonging to her grandparents. She becomes infatuated with a child hood friend, finally be While hardly madcap, Diana Athill has had an extraordinary life, and writes of it poignantly in this memoir. The back cover of my book says, "Considered a masterpiece of the 'modern' memoir upon publication in 1962, INSTEAD OF A LETTER marks the begining of Diana Athill's brillant literary career." Born into the higher end of the English "well-born" she describes her idyllic childhood at the family estate, belonging to her grandparents. She becomes infatuated with a child hood friend, finally becoming engaged to him. He goes to war and is killed. That event informed much of her coming-of-age years and beyond. This book, published when she was 42 recalls her shriveled social skills, her sexual experiences despite her "heart shrunken to a pea" and recollections of her grandmother and her childhood on the family estate. Athill, still living in her 90's, with a career in publishing, has become one of those crones we always read about in fairy books. She is wise, beautiful, toothless (by some accounts) and full of delight. She has written other memoirs, which will now be on my list.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Philip Lane

    I got on very well with the open honest voice that relates these memories. Diana Athill recounts for us her childhood as a member of a 'poor' branch of a rich Norfolk family. She is very aware of the benefits her extended family brought to her but also the injustices implied. She is remarkably open about her adolescent interest in sex and her attempts to find out the realities that were being studiously hidden from her. I have found a number of sexually explicit books nauseating but Athill does I got on very well with the open honest voice that relates these memories. Diana Athill recounts for us her childhood as a member of a 'poor' branch of a rich Norfolk family. She is very aware of the benefits her extended family brought to her but also the injustices implied. She is remarkably open about her adolescent interest in sex and her attempts to find out the realities that were being studiously hidden from her. I have found a number of sexually explicit books nauseating but Athill does not linger on the physical aspects but delves deep into the psychological aspects without ever being the slightest bit romantic, which I found refreshing. She is similarly honest about her participation in the war effort. I enjoyed her descriptions of working in a publishing house and also a visit to Corfu. Her descriptions of the environment are enchanting. The one aspect which I found less satisfactory is the patchy nature of the book which starts avoiding subjects because they have been earmarked for other books. It felt like an unfinished masterpiece or a manuscript found with missing chapters. Perhaps I need to read more of her books to fill in the gaps.

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