The fourth slim volume of memoirs (Stet, 2001, etc.) from the veteran London editor looks back on a mostly blissful English country childhood, concluding that early happiness is life’s best preparation for death.
Beginning with the passing of her mother (“that a woman of ninety-six was lucky enough to die an easy death without losing her wits . . . there was nothing much to mourn in that”), Athill, 85, offers a series of upbeat accounts of what it’s like to be “a mobile reservoir of experience” (“you can so easily let your mind drift”) before examining her first 17 years. The eldest of five children born to an upper-middle-class family in Norfolk, Athill offers lush, episodic recollections that drift over the flora and fauna surrounding her grandparent’s large country estate, touch on her real and imaginary adventures with siblings, her closeness with horses, and her sensitivity to the varying moods within the many rooms of her grandparents’ huge manor house, which she contrasts to the smaller but no less interesting farmhouse that her parents occupied. Things that could have been sources of trauma don’t become so here (a malignant “ghost” glimpsed during potty-training; a fussy French governess; a funereal doctor who mistakenly diagnoses her childhood coughs and sniffles as tuberculosis); nor do the exciting but carefully constrained fumblings of teenage love become anything more than momentary interruptions in a childhood rich with the rhythms of nature, the mostly kind, if occasionally incomprehensible, administrations of servants and teachers, and the aloof but unquestioned affection from parents. All these gave Athill a sense of self, and of place, before adult uncertainties intruded and, as she puts it, “the gates of Eden clanged shut.”
Graceful recollections of a privileged English childhood that was “directed by common sense as well as with love.” (15 b&w photos)