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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, January 21st, 2003


 

Yesterday Morning: A Very English Childhood

by Diana Athill

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

Athill, now eighty-five, was once regarded as the best editor of literary fiction in London. This memoir of her "very English childhood" — an upper-middle-class country upbringing, with ponies, books (and a grandmother to read them aloud), kind servants, and impromptu plays in the drawing room — is idyllic without nostalgia or sentiment, owing largely to Athill's nearly pathological honesty. As a child she wondered, "Am I ever going to get away from this awful self-awareness?," and she spares herself no unpleasant truths about her character, conduct, or (the memoir is framed in the present) physical decline. Especially sharp yet sympathetic is her depiction of her parents' sad and eventually sexless marriage, their endless bickering, and the emotional effects this had on her and her brother. Athill recognizes the limitations of her parents and of the milieu in which she was raised, but from her decent, stiff-upper-lipped elders, who detested lying and who made her accept "without question" certain responsibilities to animals, spring her fearless — heedless — candor and her grit and sense of duty (which, she recounts in a memorable passage, she summoned as a girl to put a suffering hedgehog out of its misery — an act she recalls with residual horror and justifiable pride). I read this book when a pre-publication copy arrived a few months ago, and had decided not to review it (how many English writers can we cover?). But I've found myself unable to forget this gracefully written, clear-eyed, and beguiling reminiscence.


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