Diana Athill’s Only Novel, About Coming of Age in 1950s London


Twenty-three years ago, Diana Athill wrote “Stet,” a memoir of her life as an editor in which she outlined the pleasures of her profession. “It was like removing layers of crumpled brown paper from an awkwardly shaped parcel,” she writes of honing a text, “and revealing the attractive present which it contained.”

A publishing legend, Athill, who died in 2019 at the age of 101, was a founding director of André Deutsch Ltd., where she edited everyone from Simone de Beauvoir and V.S. Naipaul to Norman Mailer, Philip Roth and Margaret Atwood. And she did a good bit of gift-wrapping herself: In her long life Athill published no fewer than 10 memoirs, two collections of short stories and, in 1967, “Don’t Look at Me Like That,” her only novel.

By the time of its writing, she already had her first autobiography, “Instead of a Letter,” under her belt. There are obvious connections between the two books. Although the novel is set primarily in the 1950s — its protagonist, Meg Bailey, is some years younger than her creator — Athill and her heroine share a similar social status (both had titled grandfathers) and an artistic London milieu. What’s more, the two books share what the novelist Helen Oyeyemi, in her afterword, calls Athill’s distinctive “unguardedness of tone.”

The novel begins in the countryside, where Meg, the daughter of a clergyman father and a lachrymose mother, is slouching through a dreary adolescence. Her general unpopularity is not helped by the fact that she is forced by her frugal parents to wear “porridge-colored,” capacious “combinations” as underwear. “They buttoned over the chest, had an obscene vent between the legs and were very warm.”

Meg’s horizons broaden when she is invited to spend the weekend in Oxford with her only friend, Roxane Weaver, and Roxane’s forbiddingly soignée mother, who greets their young guest with an alarming shower of blandishments, and goes so far as to praise the “little drawings” she noticed while visiting the girls’ provincial school. “The bitch! I thought — or could she be a fool and mean those words as a compliment?” Meg’s realization “that I might, one day, see her as a joke” proves pivotal to her developing sense of self — as does the presence of Mrs. Weaver’s sophisticated nephew Dick, a 19-year-old man about town and celebrated wit.

Meg dreams of being a painter, but is advised by her teachers to switch her focus to the commercial sphere, where she makes a career as an illustrator. She finds a home as a boarder in a pleasantly bohemian (but not overly zany) household with a shifting cast of tenants and engages in a series of mostly unsatisfactory love affairs while waiting for her real life to begin.

To tell much more would be to give away an engaging plot. Suffice it to say that over the next 10 years of the protagonist’s life, we move from ugly underwear to actual shame; from crushes to love; and from self-consciousness to hard-won self-knowledge. The title, which at first feels gauche and defensive, becomes a plea for understanding. In short, Meg grows up.

Like Athill’s nonfiction, this too is an editor’s book, taut and briskly paced, precision-cut and ruthlessly economical, qualities clearly treasured by the authors who trusted her with their work. In Athill’s hands, economy never feels stingy: The effect is of luxurious distillation.

“Don’t Look at Me Like That” is also very funny, even — especially — when Meg herself remains a detached observer. While plenty of ancillary characters fall about laughing uproariously at various antics, follies and domestic disasters, Athill never makes the fatal mistake of assuming this hilarity is transferable to the reader. The narration has self-respect.

This polite, admiring distance is not the attitude of a character study; and particularly compared with other novels of its era, this one could be said to lack intimacy. Meg’s isolation keeps the reader at arm’s length, too. If the novel has a weakness, it is a certain fuzziness in the secondary characters — friends, love interests — and the reader is left to guess what saves the merely insubstantial suitor from being actively repulsive.

But love is not Athill’s subject. Neither is brilliance. Toward the end, when Meg is in personal crisis and loses herself in work, the author gives us one of the best descriptions of competent mediocrity I’ve ever read. Work, she says, is “more a matter of ‘How horrible it would be to be without it’ than ‘What a joy it is to have it.’ It happened that people wanted what came easily to me, and there can’t be any great satisfaction in doing what comes easily. Pleasure, yes (thank God), but not pride.”

This happy, if slightly astringent, dose of realism is what makes Athill’s lone novel something special, in our time, but hers as well. She was not a fool — and in her book there’s no higher compliment.

Sadie Stein is an editor at the Book Review.

DON’T LOOK AT ME LIKE THAT | By Diana Athill | 194 pp. | New York Review Books | Paperback, $16.95

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