Author Features / Features / Nonfiction

Diana Athill: The Sufficient Self

by Amy Weldon

In his book In Other Words, critic Christopher Moore describes the Japanese word shibui, meaning “an aesthetic that only time can reveal.”  Shibui signifies the way in which “as we become older and more marked by the riches of life’s experience, we radiate with a beauty that stems from becoming fully ourselves.”  It’s a powerful idea, supported by our own experiences and insight if not by our culture as a whole:  as we get older, anxieties, jealousies, and superficialities recede as the strong bones of our real desires and convictions fortify our choices and our confidence in them.  Robert Cohen has written of how writers experience their own form of shibui, spurred by knowledge of our inevitable mortality: we feel driven to say what we must, as honestly as we can, because we know we don’t have time to mess around.

Yet, paradoxically, it can take time to embrace this fact and grow into our own voices, to get down to work and silence the constant interior chatter of others’ voices—parents, employers, children—urging duty, responsibility, protection.  Again and again, adults in my community writing classes come to me with blank gilt-edged journals and piles of family documents, longing and hesitant; now that I finally have time to tell my story, what do I say? Many, but not all, of them are women.  Some are struggling with versions of what the English author Diana Athill, born in 1917 and still living today at 95, described after being jilted by her fiancé and first great love at 22: a terrible blankness and conviction of meaninglessness, having failed at what her midcentury world considered a woman’s true work, marriage and children.  All are hoping for a version of what Athill described when she began to write fiction in 1958, at age 41: “[A] feeling would brew up, a first sentence would occur to me, and then the story would come, as though it had been there all the time.”  And all of us can be encouraged by what Athill and her books exemplify—that time can be a burgeoning writer’s greatest friend, if she pays attention.

Diana Athill grew up in a rural English-gentry world where household “necessities included a head gardener with two men under him, two grooms, a chauffeur, a butler and a footman, a cook and a kitchenmaid with a scullery maid to help them, a head housemaid with two under-housemaids, and my grandmother’s lady’s-maid,” as well as “animals for our pleasure and governesses and schools for our instruction . . .  a great deal of wholesome food, linen sheets rather than cotton, and three separate rooms for being in at different times of the day.”  Such apparent plenty did not prevent a palpable anxiety among her family about the world beyond that household.  “Bad things were likely to happen to people if they went away,” Athill wrote in one of her eight memoirs, Instead of a Letter (1962).  “I have noticed this attitude in other people whose lives are secure, comfortable, and sheltered by privilege so that one would expect disaster to be far from their minds.”  Yet Athill’s life would ultimately not be sheltered at all, but rather fully engaged with the wide world: a stint at the BBC during World War II, more than 50 years as an editor with André Deutsch (publisher of Margaret Atwood, Brian Moore, V.S. Naipaul, and Jean Rhys, among others), and affairs with interesting and often troubled men (the American black radical Hakim Jamal, the Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali, who committed suicide in her flat, and the Jamaican playwright Barry Reckford, with whom she shared a home for 40 years).

What was to become a fond but definite distance from her family’s conservative world—“I wish, now, that in my youth I had loved my family less. If I had not loved them I might have had the courage for revolt, instead of going quietly underground” (Instead of a Letter)—was fueled by two other presences in that rural life, books and nature.  Her vivid descriptions of a rural childhood’s imaginative territory in Yesterday Morning: A Very English Childhood (2002) ring instantly true: “loving animals was much like loving people: we didn’t think of ourselves as ‘loving dogs’ or ‘loving horses’ but as loving Lola and Kim, Acoushla and Cinders.”  Surely this fueled her insight in Somewhere Towards the End (2008):

[C]hildren respond to animal protagonists because when very small what they need is not to discover and recognize ‘real life’ but to discover and recognize their own feelings . . . Expressed by a ‘made up’ animal (I have yet to meet a child so simple-minded that it doesn’t know perfectly well that animals don’t talk in human language), they slip past the critical faculty into the undergrowth of feelings which need so urgently to be sorted out and understood.

Athill’s eleven books, including eight memoirs (most recently a collection of letters, Instead of a Book, in 2011), demonstrate the power of clearsightedness and directness, as well as honesty with oneself—which enabled her to “sort out” the “undergrowth of feelings” she’s had as a never-married woman who retired from her editorial career at age 75, when her second career as a writer bloomed.  Perhaps it’s this very honesty that’s ensured her psychic and artistic survival through experiences that society teaches women in particular to fear: singleness, solitude, old age.  Again and again in her work, optimism and curiosity about people, ideas, and places emerge as saving graces.  On a cliff above a sparkling bay in Corfu,

I once spent four hours alone . . . with an unread book and untouched writing-pad, turned by that spectacle into nothing but eyes, with no idea of the time that was passing until the sun went down.

On the Austrian painter Marie-Louise Motesiczky, who was in her eighties when Athill befriended her:

She was wonderful to talk to about painting, and it explained why there was no feeling of emptiness about her.  She was an object lesson on the essential luck, whatever hardships may come their way, of those born able to make things.

And, on the presence of younger friends and family (from Somewhere Towards the End, published when she was 91):

We are becoming less able to do things we would like to do, can hear less, see less, eat less, hurt more, our friends die, we know that we ourselves will soon be dead . . . It’s not surprising, perhaps, that we easily slide into a general pessimism about life, but it is very boring and it makes dreary last years even drearier.  Whereas if, flitting in and out of our awareness, there are people who are beginning, to whom the years ahead are long and full of who knows what, it is a reminder—indeed it enables us actually to feel again—that we are not just dots at the end of thin black lines projecting into nothingness, but are parts of the broad, many-coloured river teeming with beginnings, ripenings, decayings, new beginnings—are still parts of it, and our dying will be part of it just as these children’s being young is, so while we still have the equipment to see this, let us not waste our time grizzling.

Athill’s books established her as someone not only “able to make things” like Motesiczky, but to write well about others who do.  Her memoir Stet, about her editorial career, brims with sharp yet often-affectionate portraits of her boss and colleagues as well as her writers.  My favorite is her chapter on Jean Rhys, which I’ve often shared with students while teaching Rhys’s Wide Sargasso SeaOf Rhys’s life vis-à-vis her art, Athill wrote: “No one who has read Jean Rhys’s first four novels can suppose that she was good at life, but no one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was.”  Yet in Athill’s hands, Rhys’s dysfunction, alcoholism, and paranoia become understandable, if no less sad; her upbringing in colonial Dominica prepared her to dream of England but not to confront real life there.

She hated this country which was so far from resembling her dream, and even more fiercely its inhabitants, for despising (as she was sure they did) her ignorance and her home . . . a place so far from ordinary in the mind’s eye that belonging to it, as Jean so passionately felt she did, must set one apart.

And according to Athill, Rhys’s distance and paranoia fueled Wide Sargasso Sea:

At first it was called ‘The First Mrs. Rochester.’ Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre had always filled her with indignation on behalf of the mad West Indian wife shut up in the attic of Thornfield Hall.  She knew that Englishmen had sometimes married West Indian heiresses for their money, and suspected that Brontë had based her story on local gossip about such a marriage; and to Jean, such gossip could only have been spiteful and unfair.

As Rhys’s editor, Athill recognized the novel’s power and helped Rhys out of a difficulty with Part Two—“nervously,” she admitted, “because Part One was so marvelous that the book I was meddling with could obviously become a work of genius”—by suggesting, in Rhys’s own words, “a few weeks’ happiness for the unfortunate couple—before he gets disturbing letters.”  Rhys accepted the suggestion gladly, and Wide Sargasso Sea became a novel that still has the power to haunt—a power undiminished by this fascinating glimpse into its making.  Her description of Rhys as an artist ends the chapter: “Out of her eyes, then, looked a whole and fearless being, without self-pity, knowing exactly what she wanted to do, and how to do it.”

Athill’s honesty about others extends to honesty about herself, including a matter-of-fact sensuality that belies any little-old-lady cliché.  “The last man in my life as a sexual being, who accompanied me over the frontier between late middle-age and being old, was Sam, who was born in Grenada in the Caribbean,” she wrote in Somewhere Towards the End.

We also shared painful feet, which was almost as important as liking sex, because when you start feeling your age it is comforting to be with someone in the same condition.  You recognize it in each other, but there is no need to go on about it.  We never mentioned our feet, just kicked our shoes off as soon as we could.

Her comfort in her body as a means of knowledge extends to her speculations about what death will be like, when it comes:

I can’t feel anything but sure that when men form ideas about God, creation, eternity, they are making no more sense in relation to what lies beyond the range of their comprehension than the cheeping of sparrows.  And given that the universe continues to be what it is, regardless of what we believe, and what it has always been and will continue to be, the condition of our existence, why should the thought of our smallness in it be boring—or, for that matter, frightening? . . . Surely the part of life which is within our range, the mere fact of life, is mysterious and exciting enough in itself?

Athill’s artistic vision and literary craft exemplify the combined powers of maturity, reflection, experience, and time, and the shibui beauty that comes from them. The entry on shibui in Wikipedia adds that “[Its characteristic] balance of simplicity and complexity ensures that one does not tire of a shibui object but constantly finds new meanings and enriched beauty that cause its aesthetic value to grow over the years.”  New meanings, enriched beauties—they are there for the considering eye, and for the reader and writer willing to be enlarged by time.  In considering the pleasures of Athill’s work, her own description, from Stet, of some of her writers echoes:

They brought home to me the central reason why books have meant so much to me.  It is not because of my pleasure in the art of writing, though that has been very great.  It is because they have taken me so far beyond the narrow limits of my own experience and have so greatly enlarged my sense of the complexity of life: of its consuming darkness, and also—thank God—of the light which continues to struggle through.

Bloom Post End

A native Alabamian, Amy Weldon is currently associate professor of English at Luther College.  Her short fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in Best Travel Writing 2012 (Solas Press), Cornbread Nation 2: The Best of Southern Food Writing (UNC Press), Fiction Southeast, Shenandoah, Keats-Shelley Journal, A River & Sound Review, The Carolina Quarterly, StoryQuarterly, Southern Cultures, and others.  She blogs on sustainability, spirit, and self-reliance at

Homepage Photo credit: Glen Bowman via photopin cc

3 thoughts on “Diana Athill: The Sufficient Self

  1. Pingback: From Trailers to Treehouses: Where Bloomers Write | Bloom

  2. Pingback: RIP: Diana Athill. – Amy E. Weldon

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