Diana Athill, editor and memoirist, dies aged 101
Athill helped found André Deutsch and won late fame as a chronicler of old age
Diana Athill: she won the Costa Biography Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Somewhere Towards the End (2008)
Diana Athill, widely regarded as one of the finest editors in Britain and a successful memoirist, died last night following a short illness. She was 101.
Born on December 21st, 1917, she graduated from Oxford in 1939 and worked for the BBC throughout the second World War. She helped André Deutsch establish the publishing company that bore his name and worked as an editor for nearly five decades.
In early 2000 she published a piece titled Editing Vidia in Granta, which was taken from Stet, her celebrated memoir about her life as an editor which was published by Granta later that year.
Athill published eight memoirs including Instead of a Letter (1963), After a Funeral (1986), Yesterday Morning (2002), Make Believe (2004), Somewhere Towards the End (2008), Alive, Alive Oh! (2015) and A Florence Diary (2017). She also published a novel, a collection of letters, and a collection of stories.
Somewhere Towards the End (2008), which won the Costa Biography Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, was a frank look at old age. To promote the book she toured Britain to talk about her life and work with characteristic wit and candour. This gave her a certain amount of celebrity, which she regarded with a wry amusement.
In 2009 she moved in to Mary Feilding Guild, the residential home, which she wrote about in Alive, Alive Oh! Difficult as it was to give up the required number of books to fit into her room there, she embraced her new home and was regularly visited by the world’s media keen to hear more about her life.
She was the subject of a 2010 BBC documentary, Growing Old Disgracefully, shared her Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4 in 2004 and guest edited the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 in December 2010. Throughout her 90s she wrote for numerous publications about her passions: gardening, fashion, her family and her continuing old age.
Her work was published in 12 territories around the world including USA, Canada, Italy, Korea and Brazil.
Granta publisher Sigrid Rausing said: “How does one describe Diana’s work? Writers are sometimes startlingly different from their writing, offering a front to the world either through their personas or their words, or perhaps a combination of both. Diana’s work, by contrast, was somehow exactly like herself: formidable, truthful, often amusing.
“She was a soldier for clarity and precision, a clever and competent young woman brought by a combination of forces to a heady mix of London publishing and postwar love affairs. It is tempting to see one as the counterpoint of the other – sexual passion vs editorial discipline. I think the combination strengthened her, certainly as a writer, and probably as an editor (and lover) too. She had, in any case, the rare ability to grow seemingly stronger, not weaker, with everything life brought her, transcending the prejudices of her day and learning from mistakes.
“And what a writer she was. You can faintly perceive traces of Diana, the fluid rhythm, the steady intelligence, even in the books she edited –I am thinking particularly of Jo Langer’s fine memoir of bleak and dangerous postwar Prague, My Life with a Good Communist. Diana was an institution at Granta. News of – yet another! – new book was always greeted with unanimous glee and joy in acquisitions meetings. We will miss her indomitable spirit.”