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.