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Instead of a Letter: A Memoir

3.81  ·  Rating Details  ·  394 Ratings  ·  71 Reviews
A classic memoir by the author of the New York Times bestseller Somewhere Towards the End.

As a young woman, Diana Athill was engaged to an air force pilot—Instead of a Letter tells how he broke off the engagement, married someone else, and, worst of all, died overseas before she could confront or forgive him. Evoking perfectly the picturesque country setting of her youth,
Paperback, 237 pages
Published June 7th 2010 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published 1962)
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Nov 22, 2010 Jun rated it it was amazing
Somber, unflinching, delightful memoir of a middle class woman who grew up like all little girls of her class do until WWII, feminism, and other midcentury reappraisals of life's purpose, both historical and personal, change it forever. Diane Athill was the editor of some of the most important English language literature of the 20th century. Simply, it's a book about an ordinary woman who discovers that she is a writer and a lover instead of a wife, mother, and would-be matriarch. It's also abou ...more
Courtney Johnston
One of the cover blurbs for this book - Athill's first memoir, covering her life from birth to when she began writing and publishing in her early forties - suggests that every 17 year-old girl should have a copy of this book pressed upon her.

I wonder what that particular reviewer thought a 17 year-old girl would take out of the book. Would she see read it as a warning?

As a young teenager Athill fell for a young man, about 5 years older than she, who was acquainted with the family. She recounts
Sometimes people can get past a terrible loss; sometimes it cracks something at the centre of who you are. What destroys one person may leave hardly a psychic bruise on another. The nature of Diana Athill's loss may not strike you as worth the sadness it caused her for so long (though it made perfect sense to me), but such judgements are shallow and pointless. The fact is, her loss did strike hard at the core of her sense of who she was in the world, and it and its consequences caused her real d ...more
May 21, 2013 Susan rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I've read two of Diana Athill's memoirs, and after finishing each book, I wanted to find another of her books to read to hear more of her clear, honest, self-depreciating voice. Instead of a Letter is the story of her early life, with a candid account of her first love, first short story and --more briefly than Stet--her work as an editor. Now, what to read next?

"There is plenty of evidence, then, that my existence has been without value: that if, like my grandmother, I approach death slowly and
Sep 22, 2010 Dagný rated it really liked it
I enjoyed Athill's memoir very much. She wrote this one in the sixties, when she herself was in her early forties. Previously I had read her memoir, -Somewhere Near the End-written and published a couple of years ago when she was almost 90. Athill is a very well known British book editor and has also written about that (STAT), yet although she recounts here how her involvement in the publishing business came about, these memoirs are mostly about herself from a personal standpoint of what it felt ...more
Oct 25, 2011 Emily rated it it was amazing
As Ms. Athill's grandmother faces death, she askes her granddaughter, "What have I lived for?". In this memoir, Athill follows her response--that not least among her grandmother's achievements was the creation of a large and loving family--with an exploration of how to answer the question for herself: a single, childless, "career woman," then (in the 1960s) in her forties. Refreshingly unapologetic about her privileged upbringing, she confronts her past, her personality, her successes and failur ...more
Aug 17, 2011 Sue rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Sue by: Uncle David
Diana Athill has a wonderful ability for description. So many times when I was reading this book I just thought- YES! That is exactly how I feel! She spends 2 or 3 pages describing her family's sense of superiority over other classes and cultures, and it is just amazing. "Yet they despised almost all the rest of the world, excepting people nearly as possible replicas of themselves, as though their status as English country gentlefolk made them exceptional beings...." The story of her lover, Paul ...more
Nov 02, 2012 Sue rated it it was amazing
A clear-eyed assessment of happiness versus contentment in the life of a privileged Englishwoman who grew up in the mid-20th century. Athill was a publisher and speaks articulately about writers she knew, friends she had, loves that carried her through and buried her in self-doubt. Engaging writing lacking in self-pity and filled with the satisfaction that comes from a well-realized life.
Jun 30, 2012 Jessica rated it liked it
Instead of a Letter is a nonfiction piece in which Diana Athill tells her life story from childhood to age 43. She starts out at her grandmother's home, Beckton Manor, as the daughter of an upper-class British family that has lost most of its wealth. Athill narrates every detail of her life chronologically, starting with tutors, then moving to board school, on to Oxford, and finally to her various careers. Although she covers many topics in this book, one of her main interests was Paul, an Oxfor ...more
Karen O'Brien-Hall
Dec 23, 2013 Karen O'Brien-Hall rated it really liked it
One of the things I shared with my father was a love of horses and from my early teens our big day out was Royal Randwick Racecourse on Boxing Day. Dressed to the nine’s in my new dress, hat, gloves, stockings and shoes, (often Christmas gifts from my godmother) off we went to the Members stand. On the arm of my handsome Father, he resplendent in suit and hat, I practiced being a sophisticated “woman of the world”, using my beautiful and gracious Mother as my guide. My highly respected, scientif ...more
Dec 07, 2010 RuthAnn rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction, memoir
Would recommend: Probably not

For the life of me, I can't remember what made me put this book on my "to read" list. I think I read about it online, maybe under the context of "If you like memoirs, you'll like this book!" and I was all, "Okay, sure!" And then it was only so-so. For one, it took me freaking forever to read this book, and I only finished it out of sheer doggedness, light skimming at the end, and irritation that I was not done yet for the love of God. I found this writer to be mostly
Kasey Jueds
Mar 28, 2013 Kasey Jueds rated it it was amazing
Shelves: memoir
My second Diana Athill memoir, which I loved just as much as the first I read. She has the incredible gift (like two of my favorite fiction writers, Tessa Hadley and Alice Mattison) of pinpointing, beautifully, the most subtle and deeply buried human emotions, of bringing them to the surface where they shimmer. This is one of those books that, although the circumstances it describes are completely different from my own, managed to make me feel less alone, to feel companioned and inspired. I thin ...more
Sep 11, 2010 Don rated it really liked it
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 disag
Oct 03, 2010 Kristen rated it liked it
Shelves: memoir, non-fiction
I found this memoir very comforting. Diana writes with ease about her ordinary life. A shitty (ish) thing happens to her in her youth and she still manages to make a mediocre go of it. I feel reassured about the fact that 'I haven't done anything with my life.'
Even though 'I am not the only pebble on the beach,' 'there is an infinite number of them, and an infinite variety, and they are all equally real.' I
will never be as alive or as young or as beautiful as I am right now (well maybe not lit
Laura Musich
Jan 29, 2011 Laura Musich rated it really liked it
I enjoyed Athill’s mature, sober prose (such well formed sentences!). Events that must have felt almost violently tragic to a teenager or young twenty-something take on more appropriate significance from a vantage of decades, and the gentle pitch of the prose reflects this; that, I think, is its strength. It can be difficult to take things in perspective with only a third or a quarter of one’s potential life experience in hand, and a memoir that takes stock of a life and puts it in perspective c ...more
Apr 03, 2011 Mam rated it it was amazing
Diana Athill is a perfectly British writer of great insight. This memoir of her first forty years is a search to answer for herself the question asked to her by her grandmother when the old woman was dying: "What have I lived for?"
Athill does not find an answer for herself but she learns that, "No one can be detached from his past, but anyone can come to see it as being past."
Aug 19, 2014 Eleanore rated it it was amazing
Easily one of the best books I have read in the past five years and certainly the most profound and moving memoir. The grace of her prose is balanced by the keen edge of her insight, elevated by honesty, humor, and remarkably unshadowed by bitterness. This is a powerful book for all women - I only wished my Mother had thought to give it to me sooner!
Timons Esaias
Jul 18, 2016 Timons Esaias rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
First, let me acknowledge where I heard about this book. Noel Perrin included it in his wonderful collection of review essays, A Reader's Delight. Perrin's book intended to highlight out-of-print and forgotten classics, and I made quite a list to look for (I remember a New Orleans antiquarian shop owner asking to see the list in my hand, and then saying, with a note of awe, "This is a GOOD list."). This is the sixteenth book I've read from the two dozen I've rounded up, and I can tell you from e ...more
Philip Lane
Jan 17, 2014 Philip Lane rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I got on very well with the open honest voice that relates these memories. Diana Athill recounts for us her childhood as a member of a 'poor' branch of a rich Norfolk family. She is very aware of the benefits her extended family brought to her but also the injustices implied. She is remarkably open about her adolescent interest in sex and her attempts to find out the realities that were being studiously hidden from her. I have found a number of sexually explicit books nauseating but Athill does ...more
Sep 27, 2010 Peggie rated it did not like it
Shelves: did-not-finish
Too much like a Hemingway novel. I really don't need to know everything single thing she did as a child and how she felt about it and how her little friends reacted. Maybe it gets better but I don't want to stick around to find out.
Mar 21, 2011 Sheila rated it it was amazing
Fabulous! So much of this book sang to me. For someone born half a century before me in another country with a very different life, she gave me many things to think about for my own life. Can't wait to read more from her.
Lara Fairall
Nov 07, 2015 Lara Fairall rated it really liked it
I have discovered Diana Athill with a grandmother like mine (lovable but with detestable views), a shared capacity for intensity, love and sadness that can span decades and a vicarious approach to reading. Diana is 97, still very much alive, and I am 42, the age she wrote this, her first memoir. I'm tempted to write her a letter, as she did to writers who submitted their manuscripts to the publishing house where she passed her long career. What I want to know is this. Can writing wrestle my soul ...more
Jan 20, 2016 Lore rated it liked it
I'm not sure what I was expecting. Some portion of this book matched those expectations. But it got off to a slow start, with reflections on English families and social class. I suppose that most English biographies and autobiographies have to get into that, but it wasn't necessarily what I came for.

The last third became fairly interesting, as Athill came to terms with the idiosyncratic path of her life, and aging.

But the narrative as a whole was also idiosyncratic. I'm not sure who, who doesn'
Susan Rothenberg
Aug 21, 2014 Susan Rothenberg rated it it was amazing
Having loved her book Somewhere Towards the End, written at 88 years of age, when I saw another memoir, I grabbed it. In this one she describes her growing up years her first love and her life up to middle age in wonderfully British style. Her way with words is delightful. One quote tht made me smile is "His first present to me, sometime in my fifteenth year, had been the complete works of Oscar Wilde and T. S. Eliot's collected poems, and while the Wilde had been just my cup of tea, the Eliot h ...more
A quick-ish read, recommended to me by one of the fiction writers here. Athill's writing is beautiful, almost lyric in places, and the self she projects onto the page is both prickly and likable, in the manner of all truly great narrators.

Although I enjoyed myself throughout, I wasn't really finding anything to latch onto until 3/4 of the way through, and then the quotes came fast and furious. I mean:
My sympathies are with the hipster, but when I consider his techniques of broadening experien
Jan 10, 2012 Linda rated it really liked it
While hardly madcap, Diana Athill has had an extraordinary life, and writes of it poignantly in this memoir. The back cover of my book says, "Considered a masterpiece of the 'modern' memoir upon publication in 1962, INSTEAD OF A LETTER marks the begining of Diana Athill's brillant literary career." Born into the higher end of the English "well-born" she describes her idyllic childhood at the family estate, belonging to her grandparents. She becomes infatuated with a child hood friend, finally be ...more
Jan 16, 2013 Rita rated it liked it
Written when she was about 42. 1st publ. 1963, not that many years after she started working with Andre Deutsch.
I foresee being glad to re-read this book at some point.
Athill has a light touch about her writing, even though she is often dealing with pretty heavy topics - like feeling betrayed, abandoned, worthless.
Not overtly feminist at all, yet she gets in some bits that set you thinking...
First part is about her childhood, but bulk of book is about her [very] young adulthood, falling in love,
Jan 22, 2011 Kristy rated it liked it
A finely written exploration of the first 40 or so years of the life of Diana Athill, a well-known English editor and publisher. The memoir centers on a pivotal romantic experience -- when Athill was a teenager she met and fell in love with an Oxford man a few years older than her. They became engaged while Athill herself was at Oxford, and he joined the RAF and went abroad while she finished school. They wrote each other frequently until his letters just stopped. Two years later he wrote her a ...more
Oct 24, 2010 Karen rated it really liked it
Excerpt that I can relate to as a serial procrastinator.

"I was considered a clever girl, but lazy. It takes the form of an immense weight of inertia at the prospect of any activity that does not positively attract me: a weight that can literally paralyse my moral sense. That something must be done I know; that I can do it I know; but the force which prevents my doing it when it comes to the point, or makes me postpone it and postpone it until almost too late, is not a conscious defiance of the '
Sep 29, 2010 JoEllen rated it really liked it
A formidable publisher (Updike, Rhys, Atwood); award-winning memoirist; I expected this to be her lovely path to publishing. Well, it is. But I found it startling in its honesty. Athill is of the class we don't have much here. She grew up on the family estate, and as the family expanded and two Great Wars wrenched mother England, she tells of the polite dismay to a social class being delicately dismantled. She goes to work without ambition. It's the 2nd War, and no money w/o work. She tumbles in ...more
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Diana Athill was born in Norfolk in 1917 and educated at home until she was fourteen. She read English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford and graduated in 1939. She spent the war years working at the BBC Overseas Service in the News Information Department. After the war she met André Deutsch and fell into publishing. She worked as an editor, first at Allan Wingate and then at André Deutsch, until her r ...more
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