Novella a Day in May 2022 No.17

Don’t Look At Me Like That – Diana Athill (1967) 187 pages

I was aware of Diana Athill’s incredible career at Andre Deutsch but it wasn’t until Granta re-issued her only novel in 2019 that her fiction work was on my radar. I have a bias in favour of editors writing novels due to my love of William Maxwell, and Don’t Look at Me Like That is certainly an interesting exploration of character.

It opens with Meg Bailey, daughter of a clergyman, nearing the end of her school career in the 1950s. As she explains: “When I was at school I used to think that everyone disliked me, and it wasn’t far from true.”

Athill brilliantly captures the trials of adolescence and how the clever and pretty Meg is “aggressively self conscious”, convinced simultaneously of both her inferiority and superiority to everything around her.

It is a time on the brink of huge social change and the difference is between generations is coming into sharp relief. Meg’s parents lead an ordinary life, making the best of their privations.

“Rationing and austerity in general deprived my father of nothing he valued… And my mother who had suffered because of their poverty, hating the drab life they were compelled to lead, felt a release of tension when everyone’s life became equally drab.”

But Meg wants something more. Roxane is probably her only friend and seems to lead a much more glamorous life with her widowed mother, Mrs Weaver. At first entranced by Roxane’s mother, Meg later sees beyond the façade, when she lives with them while studying art.

“There was something feverish in the energy she devoted to her play-acting, and without understanding what longings drove her to it I could feel their uncomfortable presence.”

Mrs Weaver is a brilliant piece of characterisation, a beguiling and somewhat menacing mix of vulnerability and pretention.

Things change when Roxanne marries the man her mother wants her to, family friend Dick. Athill portrays the shifting sexual mores in this time before the 1960s sexual revolution so well. While there is sex before marriage for some, there is still a great deal of naivety, and limited awareness that women are entitled to sexual pleasure. As such, Roxane does not have the best start to married life.

“Roxane had accepted something which I had never before thought of: that life could be as it ought not to be, and that one still had to live it.”

Meg meanwhile begins carving out a successful career in London and starts seeing Dick without Roxane.

“Without knowing it, I had learned what Dick was really like, and he was like me.”

Inevitably they begin an affair. Athill’s subtle writing means that while neither Meg nor Dick are particularly likeable, they are very believable. They are both selfish and weak but also young, naive and a bit lost.

We see the rest of their affair play out within the setting of Meg’s 1950s bedsit London life, and Dick and Roxane’s suburban family life.

“There was no change in my feelings for Roxanne: she was still the girl I knew best and whom I loved for her innocence, affection, and vulnerability. And there was no doubt in my mind about me: I was betraying her. These two facts simply coexisted, without seeming to affect each other. I was appalled by myself, but of course I could meet her.”

Don’t Look at Me Like That is so evocative of a particular time and place. I thought the characterisation was complex but done with a light touch. While I didn’t particularly care for any of the characters in the love triangle, I found myself very affected by Meg’s kind and bewildered parents. The following passage broke my heart:

“When my father got a book on abstract painting out of the library so that he could talk to me about modern art I was so embarrassed that I let some milk boil over on purpose to end the conversation.”

A very readable novella that is brave enough to show its characters with all their flaws and without judging them harshly.