I recently met Diana Athill.
She was born inconceivably long ago, at the end of the First World War; and now at 92 is still sharp as a knife and loving life more than ever. Her rather unusual life, can I think be said to be a product of her own ‘self’ more than anything else.
Born into an upper class family, she spent most of her childhood on an enormous estate in rural Norfolk, and although she never inherited any of the wealth, she has kept her Queen’s English accent. She went to Oxford and then helped set up and run the publishing firm, Andre Deutsch, for 50 years, publishing VS Naipaul, Molly Keane, John Updike and Jean Rhys among others.
She is known for her daring and racy love life, she has had many lovers over the years, including younger black men and married men – all of which she documents with astounding candour in the books she wrote, primarily in her 80s. And some of her own accounts paint her far from the sweet old woman she looks like today. She has never been sweet.
There are several quotes and excerpts from her books which I love, because they ring so true, either with some of my own experiences or philosophies.
It all started for Diana when her fiancé jilted her for another woman, which she says took her 20 years to fully recover from.
On falling in love:
The sensations involved are after all undeniably delicious: not least the sensations of danger, of being aware of risk and of a sudden release from ones inhibitions against embracing risk.
Intoxication is what it is: it is as seductive and dangerous as alcohol, and should be handled as cautiously. How generations of romanticising Romance can be counter-balanced is hard to see, but it ought to be done.
In old age I can still remember the matchless intoxication of falling in love...and the more common but no less delicious sensations of a powerful physical attraction...I wonder what took me into such affairs, and what held me in them, almost always, until the man moved on.
When I did fall in love again after the war, it didn’t work either, that was very sad. He wasn’t eligible – would have been a good match, nice and rich but he never fell in love with me, thought he might be but he didn’t. He was a nice brave man and was brave enough to say it’s not going to work, I’m not falling in love with you.
Result was pretty shattering but got over it quite fast, no false hopes, cry cry, finish. That was much better.
When you fall in love, you’re not in a normal state – mad as a hatter. You know less about that person at that stage than you ever will again, you’re not seeing that person, you’re seeing your need.
One of her criticisms is for being cold at times…
I am one of those people who are hardly ever totally involved in an emotion. Always a beady-eyed watcher at back of my mind.
I try to be truthful, everyone always goes on about this honesty, even if sometimes uncomfortable.
That suggests a kind of coldness in me. Not that involved emotionally, more curious, watching it, like reading an interesting book. Not as kindly involved as I appear to be – more distanced – a beady eye.
A lot of writers say they can sit and watch their parents die, they mind, but still observing it and watching my own reactions all the time.
Loneliness and heartbreak
During that time my soul shrank to the size of a pea. It had never been very large or succulent but now it had almost withered away. I escaped emptiness through sleep - dormouse, hibernation.
I wish now that in my youth I had loved my family less....I might have had the courage for revolt, instead of going quietly underground.
Did I once, long before I can remember, want to fall in love with my father as little girls as supposed to do, and was I chilled by an indifference that left me with a tendancy to expect rejection? It would make sense, it is the sort of explanation offered by convincing textbooks, but it seems a bit too simple for me.
If I fell seriously in love it was with a fatalistic expectation of disaster, and disaster followed. By the time I reached my thirties I was convinced that I lacked some vital quality necessary to inspire love, and it was not until my forties were approaching that I began to see the possibility that instead of lacking it, I might have been suppressing it; that my profound 'misfortune', of being unable to make the men I loved love me in return, might be the result of an attitude of my own which came from a subconsious equating of love with pain.
I did not fall in love with him, but might have been jumping off a cliff?
I was fairly optimistic and resilient, when I came across story of 103 year old lady who had an infinitely more frightful life than me and still think life is wonderful and plays the piano 3 hours a day. Her sister, she said, was always unhappy – what you’re born with – either being unhappy or able to be resilient.
I’ve seen enough happy and successful marriages to know you can really have hardly anything better when it works.
A relationship can start being romantic and end being very good all round.
Or can be romantic to start with and end up being hell – my 2nd great love – who I would have gone through fire for, I knew nothing about him at all – I understood Tony quite well, but not the 2nd, we only met about 10 times.
Men feel differently about sex – varieties about how people feel about sex are very great. On the whole, I think there is a difference – based purely and simply on biology.
After all every time a woman fucks, she could get pregnant, could be about to change the whole nature of her life. Completely. Not true of a man, he’s much freer.
To say the pill ended that is not true, it’s quite a drastic interference with your nature. A long time before women can feel as free about sex as men can, not sure they ever will be able to.
When I was young I thought about men all the time and about love. One was mixed up about sex and love, thought they were thinking about love on the whole. Think I always thought I was thinking about love.
When I was sexually attracted to someone but didn’t love them I never thought that I loved them. What I really wanted was love, not sex, well sex with it. It is for a good many men too I think isn’t it.
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