In 2009, Diana Athill, the renowned literary editor and award-winning writer who died this week at the age of 101, moved from her big flat on the edge of London’s Hampstead Heath into a retirement home. “Almost at once on arrival at the home I knew that it was going to suit,” she wrote of the move. “And sure enough, it does. A life free of worries in a snug little nest.” At the time, I was working in the secondhand department of a North London bookshop, unsure whether to commit to university or to itinerant bookselling. One day my boss told me to get in the car, because we were going to “pack up the books” of a person with a great collection.
It felt sad, at first, to remove the evidence of such a long and brilliant career in readership. But as I carefully placed Athill’s library into cardboard boxes, she didn’t seem heartbroken at all. We didn’t even give her a particularly good price for the books, yet she didn’t mind. It was my prejudice as a young person that made all these objects seem of the utmost value for a writer and a thinker. If ever there were a lesson that one’s literary life exists beyond shifts in material circumstances, inside one’s head, then Diana Athill’s career is it.
After graduating from Oxford in 1939, Athill began her career at the BBC Overseas Service, where she worked throughout World War II. She was then instrumental in founding the publishing house Allan Wingate with her friend André Deutsch—renamed after him in 1951. Her list of authors might remain unparalleled among editorial careers. She handled the egos of a litany of male writers, including Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, John Updike, Jack Kerouac, and V.S. Naipaul. When Naipaul left the house (for the first time; he would return), Athill described it as a “relief.” She wrote of Sir Vidia that, “He was easily the most difficult writer I’ve ever worked with.” Not all her authors were male and difficult, of course; her other clients included heavyweights like Margaret Atwood, Stevie Smith, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Rhys, and Gitta Sereny.
In 1958, Athill won The Observer’s short story competition, to her great surprise. Later she would write that she wanted to be buried “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.” The excellently titled story collection An Unavoidable Delay (1962) was Athill’s first published writing. A novel followed, 1967’s Don’t Look at Me Like That, and another story collection in 2011, Midsummer Night in the Workhouse.
Athill is perhaps best known outside publishing circles, however, for her autobiographical writing, which she began in 1963 with Instead of a Letter and ended in 2016 with A Florence Diary. She was the oldest person ever to win the Costa biography award, for 2008’s Somewhere Towards the End, which also won the National Book Award.
In that book, she wrote frankly about sex—a theme for her since Don’t Look at Me Like That. In her late sixties, she wrote, that drive drained away. She found it “rather a relief, not going to bed with anyone any more. One has the chance to enjoy men for other reasons.” Athill is so well known as an examiner of sex and romance that The New York Times’s obituary for her even opened with a description of her as an “Englishwoman who wrote a series of critically lauded memoirs chronicling her romantic and sexual liaisons over much of the 20th century.”
This is a reductive way to see Athill’s career. She was a facilitator of other writers (she once said of editing that “accurate writing means accurate thinking”), a precise and fluent adventurer into her own interiority, and the rare woman writer to invite her readers to join her in thinking through old age.
For newcomers to her oeuvre, the memoirs are the place to start. As her biggest hit, Somewhere Towards the End is probably her most crucial book, nearly tied by Stet (2000), her memoir of working as an editor. The former is an extraordinarily clear-sighted look back over a life of sexual freedom, from the vantage point of one who has left it all behind, a rare gem. The latter is also unmissable, but because it is a document attesting to one of the longest and brightest literary careers in the last century. It’s full of great gossip, as in the glorious line where she recalls cheering herself up by reminding herself that “at least she’s not married to Vidia.”
Diana Athill retired from editing at 75, a full 26 years ago, but her career was far from over. She lived a long life of the mind, until the very end. May we all be so lucky.