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 color 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.
It was the writing that really put an end to failure. In the early 1960s nine stories "happened" to me. I say "happened" because I did not decide to write them, but suddenly felt a peculiar sort of itch, which produced them. One of them won the Observer's short-story prize. I was told that I'd won it on my birthday, in December, and having submitted the story in March I had forgotten about it. The news was astounding, and became even more so when I went to collect my cheque and they kindly offered to show me the room in which all the entries were stored: two thousand of them. Two thousand stories, and mine had been judged the best! I understood at once what had happened, and it was by far the best part of a lovely experience: that dreary bedrock under the surface of my life was no longer there, and off I could go into happiness. Almost at once I started the most satisfying relationship of my life, which lasted for 40 years until it was ended by the illness of the man I was living with. When sometimes during those years I stood back and passed judgment on my life, I saw it as happy. And that is still true, because when love-happiness faded out, writing-happiness took over.
I had enjoyed writing three books during the 1960s and early 70s, and had then, with only mild regret, ceased to write. After retiring from my job as a publisher I started again, and the three books – plus a collection of letters that I have written and published since I was 80 (I am now 95) – have gone surprisingly well, well enough to astonish me, and to please me a great deal. Success in old age, when things have stopped really mattering, has a frivolous sort of charm unlike anything one experiences in middle age. It feels like a deliciously surprising treat. Perhaps as one advances into second childhood one recovers something of first childhood's appetite for treats. Whatever the nature of the feeling, it allows me to state that it is possible to recover from failure: to digest it, make use of it and forget it. Which is something to remember if you happen to be experiencing it.