Diana Athill, Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes, Anne Enright, Howard Jacobson, Will Self and Lionel Shriver reflect on their own disappointments in life, love and work
From the age of 22 to that of about 39 I knew myself to be a failure. For many of those years I was not positively unhappy, because I was doing work I enjoyed, was fond of my friends and often had quite a good time; but if at any moment I stood back to look at my life and pass judgment on it, I saw that it was one of failure. That is not an exaggeration. I clearly remember specific moments when I did just that. They were bleak moments. But they did lead to a subdued kind of pride at having learned how to exist in this condition – indeed, at having become rather good at it.
The reason for it was banal. Having fallen in love when I was 15, and become engaged to marry the man I loved three years later, I had known exactly what my future was to be. As soon as I finished my education at Oxford (not before, because I was enjoying it so much) we would be married. I would join him wherever he happened to be stationed (he was an officer in the RAF) and my life as a wife would begin. I didn't doubt for a moment that it would be happy. My childhood and teenage years had been very happy so I was a young woman who expected the answer "Yes". And then, not suddenly, but with excruciating slowness, I got the answer "No".
He was stationed in Egypt. After three months he stopped answering my letters. His silence endured for month after month, reducing me to a swamp of incredulous misery, until at last a letter came, asking me to release him from our engagement because he was marrying someone else. Like, I am sure, most young women at that time, I had seen giving my life over to a man, living his life, as "happiness". Doing that was what, as a woman, I was for. And this I had failed to do. I did, of course, see that the man had behaved badly, cruelly in fact, in leaving me in limbo without any explanation for so long, until (I guessed) being advised that he ought to guard against me "making trouble". But I was so thoroughly the victim of current romantic attitudes that, in spite of that recognition, I was unable to withstand a sickening feeling that a woman worth her salt would have been too powerfully attractive to allow this disaster to happen. And I was not that woman.
I was saved from total loss of self-confidence by the solid happiness of my childhood and teens; but my sexual self-confidence was wiped out. For most of my 20s and 30s I equated love with pain, plunged into hopeless relationships and staggered out of them further reduced, so that I became almost invisible to men. Though presentable, my looks had never been those of a "trophy" woman, so I needed to make an impression in other ways – and I didn't do so. Many years that might have been good ones were turned grey, but they did force me into some very useful knowledge: I learned that it is perfectly possible for a woman to live her own life, not someone else's, her value does not, in fact, depend on how she is seen by a man. And the clearer this became to me, the more colour was restored to my life. Bit by bit, enjoyable sex crept back into it. A romantic commitment to passion never came back, but physical pleasure did, and then the reliable warmth of friendly love – and something else happened, just as important or perhaps even more so: I discovered that I could write