An obituary by Richard Lea for London’s Guardian.
Writer and editor Diana Athill, whose clear eye on life and literature inspired authors and readers alike, has died aged 101. The news was confirmed by the publisher Granta.
Athill combined a glittering career in publishing, where she worked with writers including Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood, Jean Rhys and VS Naipaul, with award-winning success as an author herself, turning her flinty gaze on love, work and approaching death in memoirs including Instead of a Letter, Stet and the Costa biography prize-winning Somewhere Towards the End.
Born during a Zeppelin raid on London in 1917, Athill studied English at Oxford and worked for the BBC Overseas Service during the second world war, before helping André Deutsch found Allan Wingate in 1946, and five years later the publishing house that bore his name. For the next five decades, the imprint gathered acclaim and struggled for cash as Athill worked with writers including Marilyn French and John Updike.
Being an editor was for the most part “a simple thing”, Athill told the New Statesman in 2012. “We would not have published a novel if we couldn’t have published it as it came in … Then, I just worked to polish it up a bit.” As for the writers such as Naipaul or Updike who brought her praise as an editor, she continued, “I didn’t do a thing to that text. I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing anything. You were a nanny.”
As a “writer manqué”, Athill could see what writers were trying to achieve and help them to achieve it, citing Rhys’s aspiration to “get it like it had really been” as justification for getting out the editor’s red pencil. “Jean used to say, ‘Cut, cut, cut, cut,’ and she was right,” Athill explained. “Accurate writing means accurate thinking.”
It was “a good deal more satisfying” to deal with writers whose prose required more attention – a process Athill once compared to “removing layers of crumpled brown paper from an awkwardly shaped parcel, and revealing the attractive present that it contained”. But an editor must never expect thanks, Athill continued, remembering a grouchy author who once sent her a positive review of his extensively reworked book with a note suggesting the reviewer’s kind words about his style proved “none of that fuss about it was necessary”.
After mistaking the driver of a passing car for an old friend in January 1958, Athill found a story “bubbling up inside”. She later recalled: “That story came straight out, with no pause, exactly as I meant it to, and I was perfectly happy all the time it was coming.” As soon as it was finished, another story came, until by the end of the year she had assembled a collection of nine. Her friends encouraged Athill to submit one to a fiction competition in the Observer and, in a moment of delicious surprise, she discovered that she had won first prize. “Bury me, dear friends,” she wrote, “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.”
Athill turned next to her own life, recounting in her 1962 memoir, Instead of a Letter, the humiliation of a relationship that blighted her early years. Tony Irvine won her heart at 15, proposed to her while she was studying at Oxford and he was serving in the RAF in Egypt, and then fell silent. For two years she waited for an answer to her letters in “a swamp of incredulous misery”, the pain like “a finger crushed under the door, or a tooth under a drill”. But in 1941 he wrote briefly to ask that she release him from the engagement so he could marry someone else, pitching Athill into “a long flat, unhappiness” that drained her, substituting her blood with “some thin, acid fluid with a disagreeable smell”. The Guardian hailed Instead of a Letter as “the kind of detergent autobiography that scours out the soul”.
A short novel, Don’t Look at Me Like That, followed in 1967, but for the next 20 years Athill ducked behind the scenes. She “nannied” Jean Rhys as she completed Wide Sargasso Sea, straightened out Molly Keane’s chronology and boosted VS Naipaul out of his depressions after delivering a manuscript – a chore that Athill remembered whenever she needed cheering up, consoling herself that “At least I’m not married to Vidia.” Meanwhile she conducted a series of affairs, including a liaison with the Jamaican playwright Barry Reckord that lasted for 40 years. In a 2017 Guardian webchat, Athill advised all young women to “have a very good love affair”.
Athill returned to memoir in 1986 with an exploration of her complicated relationship with the Egyptian novelist Waguih Ghali, who killed himself in Athill’s flat in 1968, and examined another friend and lover, the activist Hakim Jamal, in 1993’s Make Believe. But her retirement from André Deutsch in the same year signalled the beginning of a new phase in Athill’s life as she grew into a literary celebrity in her own right.
An astute account of her 50 years in publishing, Stet, was published in 2000, with a volume revisiting her comfortable Norfolk childhood, Yesterday Morning, appearing two years later. In 2008, the 89-year-old Athill tackled mortality, arguing that although “book after book has been written about being young, and even more about the elaborate and testing experiences that cluster around procreation … there is not much on record about falling away.” The Guardian hailed a memoir that begins as a book about death, but is written “with such verve that it becomes, triumphantly, a book about life”. Somewhere Towards the End took the 2008 Costa prize for biography. A further dispatch from the “high plateau” of old age, Alive, Alive Oh!, was published in 2015, comparing her life in a home for older people to a return to boarding school and declaring the most important lessons of life to “avoid romanticism and abhor possessiveness”.
Speaking to the Guardian in 2017 as her 100th birthday approached, Athill said she had been lucky in her life, adding that “things have come out so well for me that I’ve been able to have a very relaxed philosophy, which is enjoy yourself as much as you can without doing any damage to other people … I can’t think many centenarians are still living by their pen.”