I am finding my project of reading books by or about very old women rather dispiriting. Why am I surprised that a major concern seems to be being put away in a nursing home by families who have had enough? I am able to assure you, though, this seems to happen after one reaches the ninety mark; able bodied women in the seventies and eighties seem to be able to be independent for the time being. But so far three of the books I have read have a common thread; the old female protagonist runs away from home in an attempt to remain free. Although this is usually doomed to failure due to their debility.
Diana Athill was on my list, and she was not typical of women of her age. She made the decision to live in a retirement home for the active elderly when she reached ninety-three years and did not want to be a burden to her friends and relatives in the future. I knew she had had a long and independent life working as an editor at Andre Deutsch, as well as publishing her own books. Stet, about her time at Deutsch, written when she was eighty-three, was the book on my list. I had read this some time ago, so I thought I would read her last book written only a few years before she died at the age of one hundred and one (even though other Gert reviewed it here in 2016 I had not read it. So you get two reviews for the price pf one.)
But Alive, Alive, Oh! written when she was ninety-eight was not her last book. After this she wrote A Florence Diary, a travel memoir, when she was ninety-nine; but I settled for what seemed to be a summing up of the events of her life. From her wheelchair in a residential care home, she looks back over her life and reflects upon what seems to her to be important.
The book begins with a detailed account of her grandparent’s garden where she spent a great deal of time as a child. One can imagine her musing and seeing it all in her mind’s eye. She has such a precise memory of the buildings, trees and garden statuary
The urns that stood at intervals on its wall had been brought back from Italy by Gramps, and small pink roses, with a lot of heavily scented honey-suckle clambered over the walls – on summer evenings, through the bedroom windows overlooking the terrace there used to come delicious waves of honey suckle.
How deep these childhood memories lie. Even almost one hundred years later she can still see the cedar trees and smell the honeysuckle. She then moves on to post war years, time in Trinidad Tobago, and to a crisis in her life that arose when she was in her early forties.
Athill had long had unconventional relationships. In spite of her posh upbringing, after being jilted by her fiancé when the war ended, she elected to lead the single life, with suitable lovers. She had never wanted children, but when she was forty-three she discovered she was pregnant. To her astonishment she discovered she really wanted to have the child. Even though she had worked with Andre Deutsch for a very long time and was a famous editor who could argue with V S Naipaul and coax work out of Jean Rhys, she always seemed to be short of money. Whether Deutsch paid her at ‘female rates’ or whether her lovers had little capacity for earning money, the decision to have a child opened up visions of financial insecurity for her. If she could no longer work, how could she support her child? She lived in a flat rented from her cousin and even then had a paying lodger.
But having broken the news of her pregnancy to her ‘business partner’ (who I assume was Deutsch) and finding him supportive and happy for her
…I was left grinning like the Cheshire cat, established in my full glory as an Expectant Unmarried Mother.
After that she felt able to tell friends and her boy-friend, the child’s father, who was ‘in a detached way, pleased.‘ The biggest stumbling block was how to tell her mother, but she decided to let that drift. She sails through her pregnancy, ‘gloriously well, hungry, lively, pretty, without a single qualm of sickness.’ But then after a few months she begins to bleed. She tries to hang on, to stay in bed reading Jane Austen but the inevitable happens and she is taken to hospital by ambulance, seriously ill and needing blood transfusions. She hears the doctors saying, ‘she’s near collapse’ she thinks to herself, ‘Oh, well, if I die, I die.’ But waking after the anaesthetic still nauseated but with no pain
And amazing glow of relief and joy was flowing up from my healed belly.
‘I AM ALIVE.’
It was enough.
It was everything. It was filling me to the brim with pure and absolute joy, a feeling more intense than any I had known before.
There are other chapters in her memoir about accepting the inevitable but this to me was the stand-out. Is life better than death? For Diana Athill the answer was a resounding,‘ Yes,’ and for over a hundred years she enjoyed flowers and gardens, conversations with friends, and, of course, books.
Diana Athill was a talented woman, fortunate in her health and resilient temperament. This memoir concerns the things that were important to her. If not her finest work, these essays are a wonderful achievement in celebrating all the joyous moments of her life.