Diana Athill is something of a heroine in my eyes. Here are six reasons why:
- Her contribution to post-war fiction in the UK was enormous in her role as founding director of Andre Deutsch publishing. She worked with him from 1952 until she retired aged 75 in 1993.
- During that time she edited (among others) the works of Molly Keane, VS Naipaul and Jean Rhys, and without Diana Athill’s patience and care we would probably never have been able to read Wide Sargasso Sea.
- She wrote about all this in Stet (2000), and it is an essential insight into editorial work. Also into her relationships with some of the writers she had to deal with.
- She wrote about ageing in an interesting way, and in life managed her final years with dignity and generosity. Read Somewhere Towards the End (2008)
- Her short stories are highly enjoyable. Midsummer Night in the Workhouse was published in 1962 and republished by Persephone Books in 2011.
And the sixth reason is this novel Don’t Look at Me Like That which was published in 1967 and has been reissued by Granta.
Don’t Look at Me Like That
The novel is set in the early ‘60s, and mostly in London. Meg is the main character and the narrator of this novel. She is a clergyman’s daughter and up until the point she comes to London Meg’s life has been directed by her parents and by social expectations, reinforced by school. There she had had few friends, and it was only Roxane, who lives in Oxford with her widowed mother, who is willing to be close to her. Roxane’s mother invites Meg to live in her house while she attends art college in Oxford. Mrs Weaver, is a complete contrast to Meg’s mother. She directs Roxane’s life to the extent of picking out and grooming her husband Dick.
The novel is partly about how Meg from childhood feels out of place, a misfit, unable to consider marriage, unable to make friends easily, unable to find her way in the world. But by the end of the novel she found her own friends, living independently and in some poverty in a succession of rented rooms. She has come to belong within her own circle. But she has also carried on an affair with Dick and therefore comes into conflict with her own family and with Mrs Weaver. Eventually she makes a decision knowing that it will shock her family and people’s ideas about young women.
So this novel notes the changing expectations for generations during this time, and especially for young women. It reflects the different pace of social change in rural areas and London at the time. And it is about making good relationships, and the difficulties of doing this whether you reject the traditional social patterns or accept them.
The character of Mrs Weaver is carefully observed and built up. She is a shocker. Much of Meg’s reflections seemed to me to expose the dilemmas and tensions that develop for any young women at any time; the importance, or not, of marriage and relationships with men and with women; clothes; independence; having children; fidelity and loyalty; managing on limited resources; parental influence and so on.
Diana Athill was born in 1917 and died aged nearly 102 in January 2019. Her death was the occasion for obituaries, and the republication of this novel for reviews. For example John Self in the Guardian in December 2019 called it a ‘reissued gem’. Here is the link.
And this is from an obituary by Lena Dunham, which cacptures the spirit in which to read this novel and the other works of Diana Athill.
Perhaps her greatest legacy was her refusal to cede to societal expectations as she carved out a persistently unusual world for herself in which the demands of femininity — marriage and children, specifically — were rethought and redefined. (Lena Dunham in the New York Times. January 2019)
Don’t Look at Me Like That by Diana Athill, first published in 1967 and reissued by Granta in 2019. 187pp