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Persephone book no:

Midsummer Night in the Workhouse

by Diana Athill

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Hiking (1936) by James Walker Tucker

ISBN 9781903155820

It was writing short stories that first gave the impetus to Diana Athill’s writing life. As she says in her new Persephone Preface to this selection of them, Midsummer Night in the Workhouse: ‘I can remember in detail being hit by my first story one January morning in 1958. Until that moment I had been hand-maiden, as editor, to other people’s writing, without ever dreaming of myself as a writer.’ Then she encountered someone who reminded her of an episode in her past and that evening when she got home from the office she sat down at her typewriter and wrote her first short story. ‘As soon as that story was finished, another one began, and by the end of the year I had written nine.’ However, this was not what she calls her ‘thunder-clap’ story. ‘That role was to be played by the third’, which won the Observer short story competition: ‘Bury me, dear friends,’ Diana Athill writes, ‘with a copy of the Observer folded under my head, for it was the Observer’s prize that woke me up to the fact that I could write and had become happy.’

Then, energised by her success, she wrote a memoir, Instead of a Letter, which was about her life up to that time and was in particular about her devastation when her fiancé married someone else. It was her first book and appeared in America in 1962; that same year the short stories appeared there, collected into a volume called An Unavoidable Delay. However, none of them ever appeared again in the UK. As Diana writes, ‘In André Deutsch Ltd, our publishing firm, the belief that short stories by unknown writers were publishing poison was so deeply entrenched that I never thought of offering my stories to a British publisher.’ A few more appeared in magazines, including ‘Desdemona’, the winner of the Erotica Award for 1973, which was published in Transatlantic Review. But until now they have not been reprinted.

This new selection of Diana Athill’s stories provides a subtle counterpoint to her memoirs because the focus of the stories is autobiographical: although not in the first person, they are about facets of a life which Diana knew through and through, either because she was, as she has said, writing about herself (the story about her first kiss or the one about an Oxford undergraduate and her boyfriend) or because she had sharply observed those around her (an Englishwoman on holiday having an affair, a married couple bickering at a dinner party). All the stories are beautifully written, perceptive, touching and funny. We are proud to be publishing them and equally proud that Diana Athill has become the eighth in Persephone’s distinguished list of short story writers.

Also available as a Persephone Audiobook on a Digital Download and on CD, read by the author in a Story Circle production.


A 1970s furnishing fabric which the author bought as curtains for her flat in North London.

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Categories: Short Stories A Woman’s Place .
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