My next, and final, review of memoirs in this series is Diana Athill's Instead of a Letter. Athill has written a number of memoirs but this is her first - and it's so pleasing to read that I can see why there was so much more material. She really came into focus for me when she guest edited The Today programme on BBC Radio 4. I was fascinated that this remarkable lady was 90, living in an old people's home and still working, writing, contributing.
She wrote Instead of a Letter age 43 when her career in publishing and her writing appeared to be flourishing. It is the same age I am now, and I felt in good company. She shares her delightful childhood and the development of her passion for reading only for this to turn dark as her heart was broken in her early twenties. Seemingly unable to recover, she spent the next twenty years letting life drive her from pillar to post, never very happy. Her openness was so moving with no high drama or fraught hyperbole - it just seemed so approachable and reasonable.
Despite this, she surprised herself and everyone by finding herself at the centre of the publishing world - now known to be one of the finest editors of her generation. I felt so much for her revealing that at a certain point she was labelled as a 'career girl'; somewhat as an explanation for her not having a family. All she'd ever wanted was to do just that, to get married and have the family, but it wasn't to be; she hadn't really wanted to be successful in the way she eventually was. It makes me wonder if the success we are supposed to strive for these days has always been so applauded.
The journey was so real and intimate and I finished the book with a contentment that she'd come, not exactly full circle, but she'd accepted her experiences. She was finally happy, even if her desires hadn't been met. I felt lifted in a way that was not transcendent or in the least sentimental. I'm not sure how she communicated that, but writers could probably decipher her expert prose. Just as well, I only wanted to read and enjoy it, which I really did. I look forward to reading her other work this year.