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Unnecessary 'which' and 'then'


Two unfinished sentences
Diana Athill Writer
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But, once we had discovered what was up, Francis then was wonderful. He gave her £100, which was quite a lot of money. And generally, everyone rallied around, and we finally helped her to get the book finished.

I didn't go down at that stage. Esther Whitby, who was an editor who worked with me, went down and helped her, took dictation and got it, sort of, written out. She had these awful shopping bags with scribbled versions. She wrote in a completely chaotic way. A little bit of paper here, back of an envelope there, little notebook there in her scrawly, spidery handwriting. And she said herself, 'Nobody but me can make any sense of this'. And she was the only person who could.

But anyhow, she got it now finished, excepting for said she would have to come up to London. I got it typed out by someone in London. I shall have to come out to see… I must come up and see the typist, because there are two sentences that have got to be altered. But then it'll be finished and done.

So I said, 'Well, come and this is wonderful and we'd have lunch and we'll celebrate and how delightful'. I knew where she was going to be staying, so I rang up the hotel that morning to say, 'I shall be picking you up at half past 12', or whatever. And the woman at the hotel said, 'Thank God, somebody knows the lady. She's had a heart attack'.

So I tore around to the hotel, and I found this poor old thing. And the first thing I had to do with Jean was pack her up, put her in an ambulance, and get her into St Mary's hospital. And she said, 'Promise me one thing. Promise me one thing. You're never going to publish that book until I've finished it'. And of course I had to say, 'Yes, of course, I absolutely promise'. It was only these two sentences that were left. You know, it could perfectly well have been published. And I then went away, saying to myself, 'Well now if she dies, oh my God, am I going to have to keep that promise?' Actually, I never would have, because I could perfectly well have went around and got to these two sentences and could have put a footnote, saying, 'Had she lived, she was going to alter them, but we don't know how'. But I thought, 'Well, perhaps, perhaps'… her brother did surface enough to be in touch and to know that she was in hospital. And I thought, 'If I ask him to go to the cottage and get all those bags out from under the bed, I might be able to sort of find out by going through them what it is that she is wanting to alter'. Because I knew where it was, about. And he did that and he brought it up. And it was absolutely hopeless. Nobody could possibly have found out. And so we… she never knew that I'd done that. We took it all back and put it back exactly as he found it, we left it. And anyway, she didn't die. She came around above that. And quite a long time after that, I mean she was too weak to do anything for a long time, but apparently either she had a new doctor, or her old doctor gave her a new drug. Something happened that she suddenly felt rather better and was able to do the tiny, last finishing touch.

And she wrote me… and Max died, and she wrote me this pathetic little letter saying, 'Max is dead'. And the book was finished'.

[Q] But she did change the two sentences?

She changed the two sentences. 'The book is finished. At least, I think it must be, because I've lost all interest in it'. And so I got the book published, and it was of course a great success, because it's a lovely book. And we had decided that if it was a success, we would then follow it with all the others, reprint all her old ones, you see. Which we did, promptly. So from then on, she did have enough money to live. I mean, not in luxury, but at least without this constant thing of where was she going to live? How could we get her into somewhere better? But she never would leave at all, because she hated the place, but she wouldn't move. 'Better the devil I know', she said. But at least we got it warm, and lovely nice friends. She had all these keen people, like Di Melly and such, who wanted to help her. And they went down and they painted it and they made the furniture nicer, and they warmed it up, cleaned it. You know, it became more habitable. And Sonia, marvellous Sonia, used to bring her up to London every winter.

[Q] That's George Orwell's wife?

Yes. And used to pay for it. Put her in a really comfortable, luxurious hotel. Buy her pretty nighties and things. Give her parties. Because, Sonia never was given credit for it, really. She was very self-conscious about having George's money from his books. And she had made a resolution that she was going to use it mostly to help penniless writers. And she really spent an awful lot on Jean, and not just money, but time and thought. And she was very thoughtful. She would fix her up at a hotel and she would go and see the people at the hotel and she would explain the sort of thing that Jean needed. She would pay all the tips in advance. I mean, she was wonderful. She would even go shopping with Jean, and my God, was that a task. I always got out of that.

[Q] Shopping with Jean Rhys?

Yes, shopping with Jean Rhys. Wow. But there were endless, sort of, devoted women turned up, who would go and do these things. There was a wonderful couple of gay ladies who didn't… went down and one of them became her amanuensis for a bit. Anyone who did anything for Jean was in trouble before long, because, you know, always they did something wrong or they were… you know, she would be paranoid about them. But they were really helping her tremendously. I mean, Di gave her… had her for a whole winter in her house, gave up her own bedroom to her, looked after her completely. And at the end of that, Jean was saying that she'd stolen all her jewellery, which was… I mean, she'd gone very… she'd always been paranoid, really. I mean, I remember saying to her, 'Darling Jean, don't be so paranoid about things'. She said, 'But I am paranoid!'

But Di was marvellous to her. But Jean was really drinking heavily by then, and being torture when she was like that. I remember David Plant, who was helping. David Plant was doing all her typing out of her last book for her, and David and me and Di sitting downstairs in the kitchen, saying, 'You know, it's quite simple, really. What one of us ought to do is go upstairs and just take the drink tray out of the room!' Which of us? And Di saying, 'We're about as much use as the three wet phoenixes'. None of us could do it. She would have thrown such a… such a rage.

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: London, Jean Rhys, Francis Wyndham, Max Hamer, Sonia Brownell, George Orwell, Diane Melly, David Plante

Duration: 8 minutes, 13 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008