Instead of a Letter

My last post was written while recovering from a friend’s hen weekend in Lisbon. That same afternoon, I hurried off to meet a photographer for my own wedding, and the following day I found what might be the most perfect beautiful wonderful wedding dress in the world ever.

There was something about this splurge of wedding-related stuff that pushed what had been a vague, happy excitement into something quite deranged. I found I was unable to concentrate on anything else. I had recurring dreams about walking down the aisle in the dress. I gabbled down the phone to friends about it. I even squealed. I was itching for absolutely anyone to ask me about the wedding. If they didn’t, I’d just drop it, unbearably obviously, into the conversation:

‘So you’ll never guess what…’

‘No, what?’

At this point I have a flicker of understanding that they are expecting me to say, I’m pregnant, or I’m moving to America, or I’m going to run Waterstone’s … Oh well, too late to stop now, ‘I think I’ve found the dress!’

‘What dress?’

‘My wedding dress.’

‘Oh.’ There’s a pause while they get over the anticlimax. Then they realise they’re supposed to feign interest. ‘So what’s it like?’

‘Do you want to see a photo?’

I’m sure you get the picture.

Everyone’s heard stories about ‘bridezillas’. And stories about girls who managed to get their entire wedding sorted in under a week, because they’ve known since they were fifteen exactly what they want, so it’s just a case of booking everything in. I’ve met other brides-to-be who have been utterly shocked at my lack of concern about things like colour schemes and bridesmaid dresses.

I’ve always told myself that I’d never be one of those brides. I’ve tended to feel faintly insulted when people ask about wedding plans. I’m still me, I wanted to shout at them. I still have a life, and interests and am writing a novel and read books and do all sorts of things. There’s much more to life than a silly wedding.

But actually there isn’t once you’ve caught wedding fever. Then there is nothing but overwhelming, almost unbearable excitement. I can’t wait for it to happen. And I still can’t really think about much else.

So last week was rather a peculiar time to be reading Diana Athill’s Instead of a Letter. This classic memoir is Athill’s recounting of an idyllic childhood as part of an, albeit impoverished, aristocratic family in a big house in the English countryside. It’s all delightful – horses and hunts and the occasional spot of sailing, until she goes up to Oxford, is engaged to her childhood sweetheart and then is jilted by him in the cruellest possible way. The remainder of the book tells how this loss crippled her – how her ‘soul shrank to the size of a pea’ – and then how, over a period of twenty years, she recovered, largely thanks to her discovery that she could write.

What is so marvellous about Athill’s writing is that her ambition is to ‘get it just as it was’ (her italics not mine). There’s no overblown wailing of emotion, no overindulgent nostalgia, everything is told with a certain coolness, a frankness, a straight-to-the-point-no-messing-aboutness. In this respect she reminds me very much of Jane Gardam. (See this post for more on the delights of J.G.)

Instead of a Letter is choc-full of perfectly nuanced, thoughtfully recounted moments. Each is described ‘just as it was’. There is everything, really, from memories of school – ‘I was not able, and did not see why I should be expected, to go beyond resigned endurance, and enjoy it’ to those of working in publishing – ‘once meetings start being held in lawyers’ offices, you might as well give up’, and from reflections on travelling to her decision to have an abortion. It is all written so calmly, so perfectly, and everything rings so cleanly true, that reading it as a writer is both inspiring and humbling.

The most striking moment of the book – its essence, its crux – is Athill’s renderings of the pain of being jilted by her fiancé:

The times when the pain was nearest to the physical – to that of a finger crushed in a door, or a tooth under a drill – were not those in which I thought, ‘He no longer loves me’ but those in which I thought ‘He will not even write to tell me that he no longer loves me.’


A long, flat unhappiness of that sort drains one, substitutes for blood some thin, acid fluid with a disagreeable smell.

Her pain is so well articulated that it is surely impossible to read these sentences without a physical sensation of empathy, some kind of sharp pain in one’s belly. One can’t merely shed a few tears and enjoy some kind of catharsis from reading about her pain – it is too well-defined, too precise for that. Her scrutiny of pain forces the reader to scrutinise it too, makes one wonder about different types of pain – acute and near-physical versus ‘long, flat unhappiness’, and in this thoughtful probing, the pain becomes all the more excruciatingly real.

This experience of reading is similar to Athill’s description of reading her sister’s diary:

The shrivelling sensation of reading those words is something I still flinch from recalling.

Her sister was recounting an evening with an older, raffish man:

Once, driving her back from some party, he held her hand. When they got home they sat for some minutes in the car and she, dizzy with expectation, thought that he would kiss her. He did not. ‘He told me that he was not going to kiss me although he wanted to. He said that I was going to be a fascinating woman but that I mustn’t begin that sort of thing too soon or it would spoil me. Look at Di, he said, you don’t want to be like her. And of course I don’t.’

This is yet another type of pain – the pain of seeing how undesirable and pathetic you appear to others, and the sad realisation that you care what they think. It is impossible not to empathise with Athill and share her ‘shrivelling sensation’, her ‘flinch’ing away from such a horrid revelation.

So you can imagine that reading these painful descriptions of a woman being jilted by her fiancé makes for an uncanny experience when read in the heat of wedding fever. Whereas before I might have been able to think, I can’t imagine the pain if he were to leave me now, thanks to Diana Athill, now I’m afraid I can imagine it all too well. I shall have to console myself with thoughts of the dress. And perhaps I better get the fiancé to read Instead of a Letter too.

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