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Not a happy home


My parents' marital life
Diana Athill Writer
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He [my father] was a very nice man, but he wasn't particularly close to children. He… I think he used, when we were babies, I think he was always frightened we were going to be sick. He was one of these people who had an absolute horror of people being sick. And you know, babies sort of spill over very easily, and I don't think he liked that very much. I think he rather shrank from us when we were very small. But he was… he was nice and he was friendly, and he was funny. And when he liked, he could be very amusing, and sang funny songs and told us funny stories and things. But, between my mother and my father, which was… we didn't realise it until later, she had got married. She was very young when she met him. My grandmother believed that… she really did believe that no decent woman, no lady, could possibly let a man kiss her unless she was in love with him, and that no man could possibly want to kiss a woman or allow himself to kiss a woman unless he wanted to marry her. And these two met at a dance when my mother was 19, I think, and he was pretty young. And I should think probably as innocent as she was, too. And he fell for her very much at once, and he kissed her in the conservatory, and she was absolutely thrilled, you see, she had never been kissed before and it was just lovely. And so she thought she must be in love with him.

                         And he was invited home. He was a very, very nice young man, and he was amusing, and she liked him, and all her friends liked him. And they went for a walk in the wood to see the bluebells, and he kissed her again, and that was even better. And so they got married and it didn't occur to her… I mean, she didn't… she didn't know anything about sex at all. And the only critical thing I ever heard her say about her mother, when she was 82, she loved her mother, but she said, 'It really was rather wrong of Mum, you know, she never told us anything about sex'. And she didn't. And when they actually got married, she hated it. I think, probably, you see, he, poor man, very likely didn't know much about it and was probably a clumsy lover, quite unable to cope with a girl who didn't know what to expect, and it was a disaster. And she sort of pulled herself together, though, 'Oh well, one can survive'. Think of England, lie back, you know, and all that. And that. So it got off fairly alright and she had me, and then she had Andrew. And then when they were at Woolridge, she fell in love with one of his fellow officers and briefly had an affair, discovered what… that she did actually like it and it was marvellous with someone… and this was something, you see, that we naturally didn't know at the time. My sister was in fact the result of that affair. And my poor, poor father found out, wouldn't divorce her. I think really it would have been almost unthinkable to have a divorce. She would have found it unthinkable, because her family would have rejected her, she thought. And so there was terrible, terrible tension between them for a bit.

                         Being such an extraordinarily nice man, my sister was the child he was always nicest to. He never, never, never took it out on her, and never did he ever… when he died… I mean, we both… I guessed, eventually, and my sister guessed eventually, and we both discovered that we'd guessed from the same tiny, tiny, tiny symptoms, which one wouldn't have believed if somebody else hadn't noticed them, too. And when he died, my brother and sister were both abroad, and I was alone with her that evening after his funeral, and then she said, 'Oh, I feel so guilty, I feel so guilty'. And I said, 'Why do you feel guilty? You couldn't help not being in love with him, you know.' And she said, 'Well it wasn't that, it was just that he was such a good man. You know, Patience wasn't his child, and we quarrelled, you remember how we quarrelled all the time. He never used it against me once'. And I said to her, 'Well, you know, we knew'. She said, 'How did you know'? She was sort of so miserable, she said, 'How did you know?' And I told her. And she said 'Oh, yes, well that was true', you know? And she was going out to see my sister in Rhodesia, so I wrote to my sister and said, 'Look, you have now the chance to find out about who's your father, because she's talked to me about it'.

Diana Athill (1917-2019) was a British literary editor whose publishing career began when she helped André Deutsch establish his company. She worked with many notable writers, namely Philip Roth, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Rhys and VS Naipaul. Following the publication of her memoirs, she came to be hailed as an author in her own right.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: marriage, kiss, love, sex, affair, sister

Duration: 5 minutes, 20 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008