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Instead of a Letter

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A broken engagement
Diana Athill Writer
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We got engaged, and I was… went up to Oxford. Tony had been at Oxford himself, and so he knew that I was having a lovely time, and he didn't, sort of, want me to stop being at Oxford. He said, 'Well, we'll wait until after Oxford before we get married'.

And then he was posted to Egypt. He was in the air force. And off he went to Egypt, and I'd had quite a number of letters from him there, all about what we were going to do and where we were going to live, and it was all going to be so delicious, and I was going to have a white Arab to ride, and I was going to have a Saluki dog to run behind me. And we were going to live on 400 a year, which our elders were all rather depressing about, used to say, 'How are you going to manage'? We thought it was a lot of money, we thought we could live perfectly well on 400 a year in those days. And so that was all lovely. And then, you see, the war came, and he was posted to Transjordan, which was in a state of emergency. I think this was just before the war that he was… it was already in a state of emergency for some reason. And so we had to postpone this… I got a cable saying, 'Look, it's not going to be possible for you to come out, because I'm not allowed to have anyone out in Transjordan with me'. And after that, I had two letters from him, all about how interesting it was and how lovely it was. Rather good letters, actually.

And then he went completely silent. And I went on writing, because he had said to me, in one of his letters, 'Look, I'm not as good a letter writer as you are. Don't ever stop writing to me because I'm not writing to you as often as I should, because I'm not good. But I'd die if you stopped.' So I went on writing and I went on writing and I went on writing. And I told him, finally, how awful it was not hearing from him. And I still didn't hear from him. Two years. I didn't… I mean, in the end, of course, I stopped writing. And it was very, very deathly, really, because it was… I didn't know what had gone wrong. I mean, if I had known what had gone wrong, it would have been extremely painful, but that would have been the end of it. If he had written and said, 'Look, I'm terribly sorry, but I've met somebody else', whatever, but he never had the nerve to do that. His nerve failed him. I know what happened, anyway. He said to himself, 'Oh, I ought to write to Di, I ought to write to Di'. And then he thought, 'Well, I haven't written to Di for so long, I can't now'. And he just, sort of, put it out of his head.

What had happened was he had started an affair with his commanding officer's wife. That wasn't eventually what carried him off, but that's why he stopped writing. Someone I know… no, not someone I knew, my cousin heard from somebody who'd met him at about that stage, when they were having a very drunken evening, and Tony got very drunk and cried and said how awful he was and how he was ashamed of himself and how I was his great love. And she foolishly told me that, because it rather made me go on hoping. But then, after that, he met a young, and I think, very nice girl. And by that time, the war was well on, and he was flying in bombers. You know, he knew perfectly well he didn't have a great deal of a chance, really, of coming out of it. And he fell for her, and she fell very much in love with him, and they got married. And then I got this little brief, brief letter, awful little formal letter saying that he'd met somebody else who he wanted to marry, would I release him from the engagement?

It was awful, really, because that was… you see, it was as though one's whole future was gone. It wasn't just that one had lost a man, one had lost one's job, one had lost everything one had been believing in and counting on. And that knocked the stuffing out of me very badly. I lost my self-confidence, I lost my sexual self-confidence very badly. I couldn't believe that I was attractive to anybody, which was why I became very, I think, for quite a long time after that, very promiscuous, because any sign that I was attractive, even warning signs, was such a relief, you know?

He married her, he… they had a son, but he was dead before his son was born. I have met his son, quite recently, since he surfaced. And he discovered me. He discovered me because he'd been going through his grandfather's letters, and he found a letter I had written his grandfather on… when Tony was killed. And he showed it to me. And I wrote a very nice letter, actually. I wrote a much… I hadn't realised I was quite a sort of… I was a good deal more mature, then, than I thought I was. Because I was fond, very fond of him, the old man. And the old man was fond of me. We used to go on meeting quite a lot. His son was a bit like him. Not quite… not a very happy man. I think having… he liked his children a lot. I think he was having quite a difficult time with his wife. But we didn't see each other after one meeting. And I found I didn't mind meeting him a bit. And it was interesting to hear that his mother had been a very charming and very loyal young woman, and who had adored Tony. Got married later again, had quite a happy life. By that time, it didn't matter, but it was some…

[Q] I mean, you were engaged, but had you also been lovers?

Yes. Yes. We had been. And we became lovers when I was at Oxford. But it was… it was a very, very bad blow and took a lot of getting over. And didn't really completely stop influencing my life until after, all those years later, when it came out in a book. And I wrote it. Wrote it all out, absolutely. Finished. Gone. Relief. All was well.

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: Oxford University, Egypt

Duration: 7 minutes, 23 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008