An obituary by Polly Pattullo for London’s Guardian.
Diana Athill, who has died aged 101, was one of book publishing’s most remarkable editors, but in the latter part of her life it was her own writing that brought her much-enjoyed literary success. First there was Stet (2000), which described her long career at André Deutsch, and then, over the next decade, forgotten books were reprinted and new writing emerged, in particular Somewhere Towards the End, which won the 2008 Costa prize for biography, and became a bestseller. In 2009, four volumes of her memoirs (including Stet and Somewhere Towards the End) were republished as Life Class.
In all her work, observations were clear-sighted and seemed truthful, even when they exposed her own emotional frailties. She rose to the challenge, as Ian Jack wrote in the introduction to Life Class, of Jean Rhys’s phrase to “get it as it was, as it really was”.
Athill’s first memoir, Instead of a Letter (1963), was written when she was in her 40s. The blurb on the original flyleaf said that Athill had “written this autobiography in order to discover the truth about herself and about what her life has been for. Her book is uncompromisingly honest. Yet although she discusses with unusual frankness matters not usually discussed by conventionally reared daughters of British colonels, she is never embarrassing because nothing embarrasses her.”
Those were to remain her traits – she talked of herself as “a beady-eyed watcher”. In 2004, when she was 87, she wrote – in the third person – of her own miscarriage at the age of 43. Unmarried, she had come to cherish the pregnancy. Then she miscarried, the loss being graphically described in an intimate manner but without sentiment. Having nearly died, Athill concluded that “not having died was more important to her than losing the child”. The piece later formed a chapter of her 2015 memoir, Alive, Alive-Oh! and Other Things That Matter.
Although she often wrote about tragedy, she was far from a tragic figure. Softly pink-skinned, warm-hearted but never cuddly, she remained, in elegant old age, an optimistic, inquiring woman. She was an entertaining conversationalist – her talk, which had the same searching tone as her writing, was delivered in a crisp upper-class timbre.
Until she was 14, she was educated at home by governesses – before a spell at boarding school, and on to read English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, in 1936. Then she discovered – somewhat to her alarm – that she had to earn her own living. She wanted to be a librarian; it was wartime and she joined the BBC, where she worked in its information department. It was a meeting with André Deutsch, a Hungarian émigré, at a dinner party in 1943, which changed her life. She joined him as an editor at the end of the war in his first publishing venture, Allan Wingate, and then became founding director of his new company, André Deutsch.
She remained there from 1952 until her retirement, aged 75, in 1993. Publishing was then a career where women were usually in the publicity department rather than the boardroom. Indeed, she was not much concerned that women were not on equal pay. But Athill, an initial shyness overcome, had found her niche: in her gift for discovering new authors and for her dealings with them and their writing she would become known as “the best editor in London”.
She loved the job. The sense of being a midwife to books was its essential pleasure. She once described a heavy rewrite on a badly written book as “like removing layers of crumpled brown paper from an awkwardly shaped parcel, and revealing the attractive present which it contained”. Among Athill’s authors were Molly Keane, VS Naipaul, Mordecai Richler, Brian Moore and Jean Rhys, all of whom feature in Stet.
Her dedication to her authors was legendary. She was responsible for coaxing Rhys’s great novel Wide Sargasso Sea out of her. Athill’s efforts, over many years, to nurture Rhys and her work are described with great understanding and sympathy in Stet. Of Rhys, she wrote of “the existence within a person so incompetent and so given to muddle and disaster – even to destruction – of an artist as strong as steel”.
Athill, too, showed certain mettle in dealing with her writers. Naipaul, for example, walked out after Athill had suggested that two characters in a new novel, Guerrillas, did not convince. If Stet contains literary gossip, it certainly is not from a smugly exclusive point of view, and is packed with insight as to how editors and writers relate. Athill wrote: “All this book is, is the story of one old ex-editor who imagines that she will feel a little less dead if a few people read it.” In fact, it was, to her great pleasure, amazingly successful, as were all her other books, and she became a sought-after speaker on the literary festival circuit.
Athill’s own writing life had begun in 1958, when she won an Observer short-story competition (Muriel Spark had done the same seven years earlier). She had entered the competition under the pseudonym Mr What, the name of that spring’s Grand National winner. Her own win did more than enrich her by £500; more importantly, it unlocked the possibility of happiness. It smoothed, as she wrote, the “lumpy presence” of failure.
For, despite a flourishing career, a longstanding sense of failure had menaced Athill’s life. This, indeed, is the story at the heart of Instead of a Letter. The book begins with a loving description of her childhood and then plunges into an emotional pilgrimage. Athill’s fiance, a young pilot, goes off to war to serve in Egypt. She plans to join him – and have four children. Letters arrive every day. Then suddenly, they stop. After two years, there is a numbingly offhand request that he be released from his engagement. He has found someone else. The narrative of Athill’s pain, the insight into that rejection, is fervent. On Desert Island Discs, in 2004, she said that it was not until she wrote Instead of a Letter – 20 years after being jilted – that she completely recovered.
Writing about yourself was pointless, she believed, unless it was true. “I write to get to the bottom of things,” she told a journalist. This included a no-nonsense approach to writing about sex. Her one novel, Don’t Look at Me Like That (1967), feels semi-autobiographical with its tale of a young woman in bohemian London in the 1950s who has an affair with a married man. A collection of short stories, An Unavoidable Delay, appeared in 1962.
As well as Instead of a Letter, there were memoirs that in different ways dealt with Athill’s relationships, occasionally curiously masochistic, with difficult men. After a Funeral (1986) tells the story of an Egyptian writer called “Didi”, who comes to live in Athill’s spare room. He makes her life a misery, and exploits her friendship and generosity. She reads his diary. It is full of insults and wounding remarks about her. Yet she does not cast him out. In the end, he takes his own life in her flat.
A similarly flawed and exploitative man, Hakim Jamal, who was later murdered, was at the centre of her book Make Believe (1993). The much younger Jamal, an African-American activist and associate of Malcolm X whose book André Deutsch had published, also spent time at her flat, and became her lover.
This flat, which had seen so much drama, was at the top of a house owned by her cousin Barbara Smith in Primrose Hill, north London. For more than 40 years Athill lived in this cosy space, full of books, her own embroidered cushions, with the playwright Barry Reckord, until he returned to Jamaica to be cared for by his family, where he died in 2011. At one point in this long relationship, Athill had welcomed Reckord’s new, much younger girlfriend to live with them, although by then Athill and Reckord were no longer lovers.
She finally gave up her flat at the end of 2009 when she moved to a residential home in Highgate. She also shared a country cottage in Norfolk with Barbara, on the estate where she had grown up. She drove there, until her mid-80s, nearly every weekend to tend a half-acre of much-loved garden.
Somewhere Towards the End touched readers because she dealt with old age and death in a forthright way, musing on subjects that if no longer taboo are rarely written about, at least not with such aplomb. In her mid-80s she listed what she could no longer do: “Drink alcohol, walk fast or far, enjoy music, and make love. Hideous deprivations, you might think – indeed, if someone had listed them 20 years ago I would have been too appalled to go on reading, so I must quickly add that they are less hideous than they sound.”
Explaining this loss, in relation to sex, she explained: “My body began slowly to lose responsiveness in my 60s, long before my mind did. For a while it could be restored by novelty, which allowed me an enjoyable little Indian summer, but when it became a real effort, and then a mockery, it made me sad: being forced to fake something which had been such an important pleasure was far more depressing than doing without it.”
Another later book was Instead of a Book: Letters to a Friend (2011), which featured the letters, over 30 year, from Athill to the New York poet Edward Field. Field had kept Athill’s letters, whereas Athill threw his away (as she had done those from Rhys). Her last book, A Florence Diary (2016), was created out of a 1947 account of a visit to Florence.
Athill’s work as an editor will remain in the books she shaped, the writers she supported and wrote about. Her own writing too showed that editor’s clarity of judgment. The success of her books boosted her modest finances and this helped contribute to her last, agreeable and extraordinarily productive years. She had never had, she said, so much uncomplicated fun. On the eve of her 100th birthday she mused: “I can’t think many centenarians are still living by their pen.”
She wrote, at the end of Yesterday Morning: “It is not entirely impossible that I might, like my mother, come to the end of my days murmuring about some random memory: ‘It was absolutely divine.’”
She was made OBE in 2009. She is survived by six nephews and two nieces.
• Diana Athill, editor and writer, born 21 December 1917; died 23 January 2019