While Diana Athill was perhaps best known for her work as a literary editor and memoirist, she also produced a small number of works of fiction, particularly towards the beginning of her career. One of these books – a 1967 novel entitled Don’t Look at Me Like That – has just been reissued by Granta in a stylish new edition (very 1960s in terms of artwork). It is, in some respects, a coming-of-age story, imbued with the pleasure and pain of illicit love, all set within the bohemian milieu of Oxford and London in the 1950s.
The novel focuses on Meg Bailey, a socially awkward young woman with a talent for art. Home life for Meg has been frugal and conservative, the daughter of Church of England parson and a buttoned-up mother, reflective of the traditional attitudes of the era.
At school, Meg has only one friend, Roxane Weaver, whom she stays with from time to time during the holidays. Roxane’s family are the opposites of Meg’s: relaxed, sophisticated and socially adventurous at heart. It is during one of these visits that Meg meets Dick, a charming young man who encourages her to come out of her shell and dance. Dick also indulges Roxane’s mother, Mrs Weaver, playing up to her as a precocious nephew might do to a favourite aunt. Before long, Meg is holding Dick’s hand in the back of a car, Roxane and her companion in front oblivious to the developments going on behind them. For Meg it is a big moment, her first real experience of boys and everything this represents.
I wanted to rush on into unknown territory forever, safe in the warm intimacy of the car, the blanket rough against my chin, the men singing and joking, Roxane reaching into the back from time to time to feed me a chocolate, and neither of the two in front knowing that my hand was fast in Dick’s. I was eighteen and no one had ever held my hand before. Wilfred had always been too shy to attempt physical contact beyond bumping into me occasionally. This was a new move in the game, and a big one. (p. 45)
In her desire to escape the restrictions at home, Meg enrols in art school in Oxford where she stays with Roxane’s family, enjoying the buzz and activity of the Weavers’ household. By now, Meg is able to see Mrs Weaver for what she really is – a somewhat comic figure holding court over her gatherings or ‘salons’. It is during this period that Meg realises Mrs Weaver’s intentions towards Dick, as a future husband for Roxane – a match that seems natural and socially acceptable. Nevertheless, Meg has allowed herself to get emotionally involved with Dick, fantasising a little about his charm and easy-going manner.
A year or two later, Meg lands a job based in London, working as an illustrator of children’s books by an up-and-coming author, while Roxane and Dick begin their married life back at home. In the course of his work, Dick must travel to London on a fortnightly basis, bringing him into contact with Meg for various dinners and trips to the cinema. It is at this point that the situation between the two friends becomes more complex, rapidly developing into a passionate affair that extends over a number of years.
I don’t want to say too much about how the relationship between Meg and Dick plays out. That’s something for you to discover yourself should you decide to read the book. Instead, I’d like to mention something about the settings which are beautifully evoked. Athill captures the transient nature of a young woman’s life in London to great effect – from the poky, down-at-heel bedsits presided over by fearsome landladies to the friendly yet disorganised atmosphere of a house share, everything is conveyed in vivid detail.
It was one thing to make resolutions about my sex life and another to carry them out. I didn’t know how to escape from Miss Shaw’s bed-sitter. London never seemed to me hostile, but its size and complexity daunted me so that every day my morning decision to start looking for another room would give way by lunchtime to the argument that any place cheap enough for me would be as depressing as this one. Once again I would group my reproductions and Roxane’s mug full of flowers where they caught the light and made a little island of colour and ownership, and would get into bed and hide in a book. (p 71)
It’s a testament to Athill’s skills as a writer that she encourages the reader to feel some sympathy for Meg in spite of the latter’s recklessness with the affair and her apparent lack of concern for Roxane. The accompanying notes on the inside cover suggest Athill drew on her own experiences of London in the 1950s as inspiration for the novel, a point that seems entirely believable given the tone and ‘feel’ of the book.
My only reservation relates to a minor thread depicting Meg’s relationship with Jamil, a fellow lodger in the bohemian house share that becomes her home. Ultimately, this element feels a little superfluous and tagged on, to the point where I’m left wondering whether Athill wrestled somewhat with the novel’s ending, unsure of how best to draw Meg’s story to a close. Nevertheless, this is a minor quibble in the scheme of things, especially as there is much to admire in this unsentimental portrait of a young girl’s life. This is a book I would definitely recommend to lovers of British fiction, particularly from the mid-20th-century.
Don’t Look at Me Like That is published by Granta Books, my thanks to the publishers / Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.
This sounds great – made me think of Joan Wyndham’s Love Letters (although that is actual memoir, and the mother is quite eccentric – but the arty London milieu, and the story of a young girl learning to navigate it, is fascinating) and also of the excellent radio series based on Cooking in a Bedsitter.
I recently read Athill’s book about her first ever trip abroad, to Florence, and again it is the small details, and especially the people, that are so enjoyable. What a life she lived.
Thank you so much for telling us about this novel.
Oh, you’re very welcome. I’m glad you found it useful. The Wyndham sounds excellent – not a book I’ve ever come across in my travels so it’s definitely something for me to look up – thanks!
There’s something very appealing, isn’t there, about the bohemian London milieu? At times, I was reminded of Olivia Manning’s The Doves of Venus and Brigid Brophy’s The King of the Rainy Country, both of which have that kind of vibe.
I‘ve wanted to read this since Susan’s review put it on my radar. I really enjoy Athill’s writing but I’ve never read her fiction. This does sound enjoyable despite the ending being a bit clumsy.
Oh, great. I’m glad you like the sound of it, particularly as it feels to me like something you would enjoy. Susan’s review had completely slipped my mind, so thank you for mentioning it. I’ll have to go back and read it properly now that I’ve written my piece. (I usually try to avoid other reviews if a book is nearing the top of my TBR, just in case it end up influencing my perceptions too much!)
Super review. The characters sound interesting and well drawn. I agree, it takes a good writer to create a flawed character that is also sympathetic.
It is curious that Athill produced such a limited amount of fiction.
Thanks, Brian. Yes, I don’t know enough about her as a writer to know why she decided to go down a predominantly non-fiction route, whether it was by chance or conscious design. It’s one of the reasons why I’m interested in reading some of her memoirs – that and her connection to Jean Rhys, whose work I really admire.
I have to say that the cover is gorgeous…. Putting that superficiality aside, I don’t think I was aware that Athill had written novels and this does sound intriguing. The setting in particular is very appealing though there’s always the risk with a book firmly rooted in the period it’s written that it won’t trascend that setting and will become dated. Nevertheless, I think I’ll definitely keep an eye out for it! :D
Isn’t it just?! I do love a stylish cover, particularly when it feels as if there’s some kind of connection to the book. I see Jule has mentioned an interview with the cover designer in her comment below, so I’m definitely going to follow that up, just learn more about the story behind the artwork.
As for the novel itself, it could be accused of feeling a little dated, certainly in terms of the social attitudes of the older characters, the mothers in particular. That said, most of the core emotions conveyed seem just as relevant today as they were back in the 1950s, so it definitely stands up from that perspective. (Plus, I’m a sucker for pretty much anything to do with this period, so that’s fine by me!)
I love Diana Athill’s writing, so although I don’t have this one yet, it is high on my wishlist. I love the sound of that London atmosphere. Sorry you were a little let down by the ending but this definitely sounds like a book I will like.
Ah, glad to hear it’s on your list as it’s definitely a book I would recommend to you. It actually reminded me a little of Olivia Manning’s The Doves of Venus, especially the bit where Ellie moves to London and lands a job ‘antiquing’ furniture to make it look somewhat distressed.
It’s a shame she’s not known as much for her writing, this sounds wonderful! I do love the cover, it’s a gorgeous looking book.
Isn’t it just? So simple yet so effective – it’s a gorgeous piece of design. I definitely want to check out more of Athill’s writing in the future, particularly her memoirs.
Thanks Jacqui. I think I’d like this.
Very welcome, Guy. I think you’d like it too…fingers crossed.
This book sounds lovely. I do enjoy her writing though haven’t read any of her fiction, another to add to the TBR.
For those interested, there’s an interview in The Spine magazine (which can be found online) with the designer of the cover, Luke Bird, that goes into detail of how he came up with the cover design.
Oh, thanks so much for mentioning that interview with the designer. I’ll be heading off to read it very shortly!
Here’s a link to the article Julé mentions in her comments:
Thanks for posting the link! I am rather taken with that title font. Now I just need to read the book…
Not at all. It’s a very interesting piece. Thanks so much for mentioning it in your comment!
Definitely one for the TBR list, I haven’t read any Athill yet!
Hope you enjoy, Jane. :)
I really like Athills writing but haven’t read this. I wonder how closely it is based on her own life. I know she did have a big heartbreak when she was young, and later on had a long term relationship with her lodger.
Yes, I suspect she may well have drawn on some of her own experiences here. It certainly has that feel, if you know what I mean. She was 50 when this novel was published, so there would have been plenty of time to look back and reflect…
I had no idea she’d written novels. I have two of her memoirs here which I’m sure are very good but this sounds like something I would like very much. Especially since the descriptions seem so well done.
It’s interesting. I don’t think her fiction — what little there is of it — is very well known, certainly compared to the memoirs. She wrote some short stories too, which again don’t seem to have the profile of her non-fiction work. I really must get around to buying Stet, particularly as it seems to be so highly regarded by other readers.
“It was one thing to make resolutions about my sex life and another to carry them out.” Simple but forthright statements like this certainly work to collapse the years between the time of her writing and the present-day. And I have heard her a few times in interview, so I can hear her speaking this line and it makes me smile. She is funny, isn’t she? I think so.
The first of her books I read was Stet and I just loved its overall bookishness (and plenty about Rhys in there, which you would love) but I have not spent enough time with her fiction and am especially curious about her short stories, having quite enjoyed a couple of them. So glad that this was satisfying overall!
It’s a very striking quote, isn’t it? Still so relevant today in many respects. I sometimes wonder just how much has changed for women in the past 60 years, but I guess movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp are starting to make a difference on the empowerment front. Still quite a bit to do, though, especially in certain quarters of society. Anyway, back to the book…this was my first experience of Athill, and I have to admit to being very taken with it. I think you’d like it, especially given your fondness for some of her other work.
Oh, and its lovely to hear that you think I would enjoy Stet – the link to Rhys makes it even more appealing, I have to admit!
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I read Stet which was intriguing and I think it was in there or perhaps in an interview that she said she spent so many years editing fiction that she was left with little taste for it and much preferred memoir and the unpredictability of real lives, fiction had become too predictable for her.
Oh, that’s so interesting. Yes, I guess it’s difficult to foresee what might happen in someone’s life, what direction their path may take when subject to various influences and the vagaries of fate. That sense of the unknown can be very appealing. I really must get around to reading Stet at some point, especially as it touches on her work with Jean Rhys. Later this year, perhaps…I’ll have to see.
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