Granta is terribly sad to announce the death of Diana Athill last night. She was 101.
Diana Athill OBE was born on 21 December 1917. She graduated from Lady Margaret Hall, 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 for nearly five decades was widely regarded as one of the finest editors in London.
In early 2000 she published a piece titled ‘Editing Vidia’ in Granta 69, 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 (2016). 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’ (part of the Imagine series), 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.
‘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 post-war 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 post-war 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.’ Sigrid Rausing, Publisher, Granta
‘Diana was a remarkable presence on the page and in person; full of spirit, candour, keen observation and wit. In her memoirs, she spoke directly and personally to thousands of readers, and will be remembered particularly for her unique and perceptive insights into the worlds of writing and editing, in Stet (every aspiring editor’s bible) and growing old, in Somewhere Towards the End, but she also wrote penetratingly about race in Britain, the loves of her life, her privileged upbringing, and her experiences as a young working woman. She was an inspiration to work with (and as an editor herself she always knew precisely what she wanted for her books), and the most tremendous fun. I feel very lucky to have had the chance to work with her, and to know her, and I’ll miss her enormously.’ Bella Lacey, Editorial Director, Granta
‘Her writing was compelling – once you started reading you couldn’t stop. Her sentences had a lovely rhythm and clarity and they were a genuine expression of what she felt to be true. They just carried you forward – a current of thought that was unusually and sometimes clinically frank when it came to her private life. She was a delight to edit. Editing of any kind – even replacing a comma with a semi-colon – very rarely needed doing, but if any refashioning was required she would grasp your suggestion immediately, see what you were getting at, and change things without any fuss. Of course she’d been an editor herself – a very fine one, without whom several good, even great books would have been much less good and great. She was also great fun. I’m privileged to have known and worked with her.’ Ian Jack, former editor of Granta Magazine
‘I adored Diana and it was a huge privilege to be her publicist and friend. She was a wonderful story teller with a wicked sense of humour. She has been a significant part of my life and I will miss her immeasurably.’ Pru Rowlandson, Publicity Director, Granta
‘Diana was a heroine and role model for me during my editorial career. As an agent, I had the immense good fortune and honour to represent her as a writer for the last 5 years of her life. She was unstoppable and was even working on a new book until very recently. It feels hard to compute that I won’t be able to carry on talking to her about it. She became almost eternal in my mind, and in the minds of so many others around world where she had many, many friends. She was published in all over the world, in a dozen languages and was a true internationalist, while cherishing all that was best about England.’ Rebecca Carter, Janklow & Nesbit Ltd
Photo © Mark Crick