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Love and madness


Brian Moore's offensive letter
Diana Athill Writer
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Brian Moore, who I think came to us through Mordecai Richler, who was a Canadian and who knew Brian in Canada, and told… we published Mordecai's books, and he told me, this friend of mine who is very good, and put us in touch. And Brian's first novel was a novel about… called Judith Hearne, about an Irish spinster. Unpromising subject. An Irish spinster who drunk… drank too much. But a very good book, and I always thought that all his books which dealt with Ireland were the best. He wrote… he couldn't write a bad book; he was an extremely efficient writer, but his Irish books were particularly good. And when I met Brian, he was married to Jackie, who was a Canadian, and they were a very happy and successful couple, it appeared. They got on very well together, and we became great friends, saw a lot of each other. And I stayed with them in New York and they came to England a lot. And Jackie was a very amusing and very interesting person, and she was a journalist. And the last time I stayed with them, they had some friends called the Russells. And the Russells… Frank Russell was a writer, a nature writer. And he was off in some exotic place, I don't know where, writing a book.

And so his beautiful wife, who'd been an actress, was staying with the Moores, and the great news that year was that the Russells and the Moores had bought a property which they were sharing. The Moores were going to be living in the house and the Russells were adopting the… the barn and were going to make it into their house. And there we were, happily staying… we went to New York, they were in Amagansett for the summer. Jackie and Brian and his… Mrs Russell, whose name I know perfectly well, but am now forgetting. So awful, I'm sorry about this thing with names. I mean, I forgot poor Driss's name, and now I'm remembering it perfectly well, and then in one minute, I shall remember her name, but I don't just now.

And it did occur to me once, in the course of that stay, as we walked down to the beach. Jackie was ahead, with her little son, ten years old, and I did think, you know, Jackie is going a little bit far in letting herself go. She's getting a bit too fat and she oughtn't to be wearing those shorts. And she really ought to bother with her hair a bit more. And I might have… I think I was thinking because of how beautiful the other girl was, walking beside me, but I didn't think anything else. Nothing, no sense of anything looming at all. And I'd only been home in London three weeks before I had a letter from Jackie saying, 'They've run off together'.

And I'd always thought that I was rather observant of human beings, and I felt very ashamed of myself. I hadn't noticed a thing. But neither had Jackie, poor girl, and what had happened, the most ordinary cliché of life. She'd been sending a suit to a cleaners and she had found a letter. And there they were, much in love. And she had said, 'What is all this?' And off they had suddenly gone. And the extraordinary thing was that Brian was so angry with me for siding with Jackie. I didn't really side with Jackie, but, I mean, Jackie was the one who was hurting. Jackie was having a horrible time, and I knew them both equally well, and Jackie and the child had been dumped. And so of course I was writing letters to her and answering her letters. And I didn't really particularly want to write to him at the moment. I was quite prepared to believe that I would become, sooner or later, I would think, well, people can't help who they'll fall in love with. You know, if it happens, it happens. But I just didn't want to hobnob with him at the moment.

But he got into a state of, he who is not with me, is against me. Apparently I wasn't the only one, he said there were other people. And he broke off with us, said he was never going to be published by us again. And his letter that he wrote to me, telling me this, started quite sensibly, saying that he didn't think we'd been advertising his book enough, and all authors think that. But you know, that's a reasonable sort of thing to say, and it gives the publisher a chance to say, well look, we'll advertise your next one more. But then, the rest of the letter, which was much longer, was, 'And anyway, you've sided with Jackie'. It was absolutely shocking, really. And it upset me very much, because he was such an intelligent person. We'd spent so much of our time, all of us together, gossiping about people and the extraordinary way that people behave. And there he was, sort of so blindly behaving in this extraordinary way.

We never really made it… we made it up in that when we met after that, we met perfectly friendlily, but we were never great friends again. But what was funny was that Jackie and Frank Russell, who were left to tidy up this business of sharing something, started an affair and then got married. So they did a swap. Which would have been a very happy thing if it wasn't that Jackie died rather soon afterwards of awful, awful, awful cancer, which was very bad luck on poor Frank, who had to cope and that was a tragedy.


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: Canada, Judith Hearne, Brian Moore, Mordecai Richler, Jacqueline Scully, Frank Russell

Duration: 6 minutes, 56 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008