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Granny used to read aloud to us

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Sex and Marie Stopes
Diana Athill Writer
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Well Marie Stopes, of course, for a whole generation – or two generations of women – although she was a mad old woman, extraordinary figure, we published a biography of her, and she was really a very, very peculiar woman. But she did open possibilities. She taught women how they could use contraceptives, for a whole generation, because she was so horrified by what was going on, and people having babies, children they didn't want.

And she wrote very clearly, in great detail. But of course, she herself hadn't known anything about sex at all when she got married and neither had her husband. And for quite a long time, they hadn't known, either of them, what they ought to be doing. It was most extraordinary. And she had the sense to think, 'Well, I don't want other people to have to go through this', so she found out what people ought to do. And she then, in a very high-minded way, you know, one was given to understand that once you were with someone you loved, it was all very beautiful. But you then discovered… anyway, just detail by detail, exactly how it was all done. And the book was called something like Wise Parenthood, and it was small and it was black and I don't think it had anything on the outside. It was in a corner of a shelf, down at the bottom. And I pulled it out and saw on the title page Wise Parenthood, and thought: how funny, this is probably a book that Mummy once bought about how to bring us up and thought I'd have a look. And so I began to read it. And that was very eye-opening indeed.

I knew better than to say anything to my mother about it, but I rushed to tell my friend, who lived next door. I mean, you know, we shared the knowledge. But I got into trouble, eventually, because her mother found out that we'd been having these conversations - I think we'd written letters to each other. And we were, both, of us, absolutely obsessed at that stage by the knowledge that we'd gained. And I was described as a dirty-minded little girl, which I think I was, actually. And she was forbidden, for a bit, to see me. And I got into much… but not real trouble. My mother was very sensible, she just said what had happened.

[Q] At what sort of age?

Nine, I think, or ten.

[Q] 'A dirty-minded little girl' is a funny sort of thing to say, isn't it, you know, but it sounds like…?

That was what Mrs Arbustner had said about me, apparently. And my mother was too sensible to actually accuse me of this. She obviously thought the whole thing was rather funny, and didn't say much about it. Just said, 'Oh dear, oh dear, Mrs Arbustner is very cross, because you and Betty had been having these silly conversations'. Silly. My mother would not say things were obscene, but silly was our word, in my family, to put you down in your place. Silly, very silly to be interested in this sort of thing. So you shut up.

[Q] Is 'silly' a sort of… what kind of a word is 'silly' where you come from?

Silly was wonderfully effective, actually, as a disciplining word. It was much, much better than naughty, because naughty was rather dashing. But if you were silly… I mean, you didn't want to be silly. And so they did actually… that's how they largely put us in our place, by simply telling you, you were silly.

Born in 1917, Diana Athill is a British literary editor whose publishing career began when she helped André Deutsch establish his company. She has worked with many notable writers, namely Philip Roth, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Rhys and VS Naipaul. Following the publication of her memoirs, she is now 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: Wise Parenthood, Marie Stopes

Duration: 3 minutes, 38 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008