Midsummer Night in the Workhouse – Diana Athill

Diana Athill has become well known for her memoirs & her work as an editor which she wrote about in Stet (a book I’m very keen to read now & it’s sitting on my desk at the moment). However, in the 1960s, she also wrote short stories. A collection was published in 1962 in the US & more appeared in magazines but they’ve never been reprinted until this collection from Persephone Books was published a couple of years ago.

Athill describes the beginning of her life as a writer  as “being hit by my first story one January morning in 1958.” As an editor she had always seen herself as one who helps others write rather than as a writer herself. The stories often have an autobiographical element or are about the people Athill knew or the social circles she moved in. They are beautifully written, funny, poignant & very readable.

A Weekend in the Country is the story of Elizabeth, a young woman who has fallen in love with Richard, a man she knew when she was a child but they’ve recently met again in London. Elizabeth is an artist, sharing a flat with a friend. She’s moved a long way from her country childhood in her attitudes about society, class & politics. Richard, however, loves his country life in his ancestral family home with his conservative politics & comfortable opinions.

I am making too much of it, she thought. I am inventing the gulf between us out of some kind of vanity. It is only that they live in the country and I live in London; that they have capital and land, while I have no money but my earnings. Our circumstances are different but we are not creatures of a different kind, there is no need to go into disguise.

However, Elizabeth does feel that she’s in disguise. Making polite conversation with people whose class assumptions & political opinions appall her. Realising how stifled she would feel living in the country again after the freedom of her life in London with her friends & her work. When Richard takes her to an island on his estate for a picnic, she knows that she is in love with him but she also knows that their relationship will never work. No matter how much she longs for him physically & emotionally, she knows they are so fundamentally different that love wouldn’t be enough.

‘I really couldn’t go on voting in the accepted way and going to church in the accepted way and dismissing people in the accepted way because they spoke with a different accent or wore funny clothes, without ever questioning it. My ideas are much more different from yours than you think.’
‘But we get on very well, don’t we?’ he asked, looking distressed.
‘Yes, we get on.’ The arrogance of adding ‘but only because I have kept most of myself shut off from you’ was impossible, so instead she reached for the Sunday paper they had brought with them and said, ‘Let’s see what’s new.’

The crisis comes when Richard tells Elizabeth that he loves her & she has to try to make him see the impossibility of it.

I enjoyed this collection very much. It is a very Persephone book, highlighting women’s experiences, the domestic life but always the emotional life of the protagonists.

4 thoughts on “Midsummer Night in the Workhouse – Diana Athill

  1. I see there's an Athill short story in the Persephone Book of Short Stories which I have on my TBR. I really must tackle that, but am slightly concerned it will lead to wanting to own books by all the writers within!

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  2. That's the problem with anthologies, isn't it? It's a lovely book though with about half the stories already published in Persephone books & Quarterlies/Biannuals. Worth cautiously dipping into.

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  3. I've been very restrained in my book buying this year so don't blame me if you don't have my iron willpower! The Persephone anthology is lovely & will lead you on to many more reading paths, I'm sure.

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