Instead of a Letter

by Diana Athill

Over the last decade or so, Diana Athill has written a series of well-reviewed accounts of her life as an editor and writer in London.  It’s hard to see how any inveterate reader wouldn’t devour them with joy.  Yet each time a new book was published, I wondered anew why her first—and to my mind, still her best (as much as I’ve enjoyed the others)—memoir, Instead of a Letter, had never been reprinted.  I loved it when I read it in 1962 and lent copies to all my friends until it went out of print and I sent my last remaining copy to a friend in Australia a few years ago. But now, mirabile dictu, her publisher, W. W. Norton, has remedied this situation and made Instead of a Letter available for a new generation of readers. I have to admit that I had some misgivings as I opened the new edition to the first page; I worried that it wouldn’t live up to my memory of it.  (As all re-readers know, this happens frequently.) But, to my great relief, I was quickly reassured that the book had not lost any of its appeal for me.  Athill grew up bookish in a large country home outside of London that was owned by her grandparents. When she was 15, she fell passionately in love with a young man, whom she calls Paul, who was then an undergraduate at Oxford and a member of the RAF (Royal Air Force).  When Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, however, Diana knew that nothing would (or could) ever be the same.  Does Paul live? Do they marry? Are they happy together?  Readers of her later memoirs like Stet and Somewhere Towards the End will already know the answers to these questions; but even they, I think, will enjoy this early, sterling example of what a memoir can and should be.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Instead of a Letter

  1. Don Crankshaw

    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. Thanks for bringing her to my attention!

  2. Sounds a little like Casablanca.

  3. Karen

    Hi Nancy,
    That’s great news. I’d been wanting to read that book. I’m just now finishing her book, Somewhere Towards the End, which is such a lovely portrait of an unconventional life.

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