Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Instead of a Letter: A Memoir” as Want to Read:
Instead of a Letter: A Memoir
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

Instead of a Letter: A Memoir

3.84  ·  Rating details ·  449 Ratings  ·  77 Reviews
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, this fearless and profoundly honest story of love and modern womanhood marks the beginning ...more
ebook, 256 pages
Published June 7th 2010 by W. W. Norton Company (first published 1962)
More Details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about Instead of a Letter, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about Instead of a Letter

This book is not yet featured on Listopia. Add this book to your favorite list »

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
Rating details
Sort: Default
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
Nov 22, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Sep 08, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 21, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 30, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Instead of a Letter, Diana Athill’s first work of autobiography was written when Diana Athill was only in her 40s, published a year after her first volume of short stories. Since then, she has written several more volumes of memoir, including one quite recently. Considering that Athill didn’t write these in any kind of chronological order I can’t see it matters which order one reads them in, as each book does seem to have a different focus. Born in 1917 – she will be celebrating her 99th birthda ...more
Oct 25, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 14, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 12, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
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
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 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 27, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 01, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 22, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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."
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!
Mar 21, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Aug 06, 2010 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Siobhan Lynch
I appreciated this book. Her ability to recall past events in her life with vivacious clarity, is an enjoyable dip into the stream of consciousness of another human being.
She is eloquent without exaggeration, a life lived in moments. Some plain and ordinary, others great feats of accomplishment, she gives reverence in equal shares as these moments have shaped her.
Jun 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Some really poignant and delightful writing in this book. Recommend for people who enjoy memoirs, hearing about people's struggles and travels and happiness.
Elizabeth Brookbank
Favorite passage (among many): "To me, the knowledge that everything will *still be going on* is the answer. If I die with my wits about me, not shuffled out under drugs or reduced to incoherence by pain, I want my last thoughts to be of plants growing, children being born, people who never knew me digging their gardens or telephoning their friends."

Diana Athill is a new (to me) favorite. She just published her latest memoir last year at the age of 100 and has lived a wonderfully unconventional
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
Timons Esaias
Jul 01, 2016 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
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,
Philip Lane
Jan 13, 2014 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
Aug 13, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »
  • Miss Hargreaves
  • Period Piece
  • A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep
  • A Daughter's Tale: The Memoir of Winston and Clementine Churchill's Youngest Child
  • Nella Last's Peace: The Post-War Diaries Of Housewife, 49
  • Slipstream: A Memoir
  • Quicksands: A Memoir
  • We Are at War: The Diaries of Five Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times
  • A London Child of the 1870s
  • London War Notes, 1939-1945
  • A Fine Old Conflict
  • Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived
  • The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh
  • Finding George Orwell in Burma
  • Composed: A Memoir
  • Anus Mundi
  • Curriculum Vitae: Autobiography
  • 33 Days: A Memoir
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
More about Diana Athill...