I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Diana Athill 1917-2019


The writer and editor Diana Athill, who has died aged 101, was a founding director, in 1952, of the London publishing firm André Deutsch, founded by the Hungarian émigré of that name. At Deutsch she edited the works of, among others, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Jean Rhys, VS Naipaul, Brian Moore, Molly Keane and Margaret Atwood. She also wrote two books of short stories and a novel, but was best known in later life for a series of sparkling memoirs of publishing and personal life, most notably Stet (2000).

In Stet, Athill made the distinction, useful for the lay reader, between an editor and a copy editor. In most companies, she wrote, an editor was a person who found authors, and having found them kept them happy, encouraging them in their projects and sometimes trying to draw them down this or that particular avenue. Copy editors on the other hand “simply” tidied up manuscripts. In André Deutsch, however, both roles were combined. If you were in charge of making sure that VS Naipaul’s novels came out as intended, or came out to best advantage, you were also, worse luck, in charge of keeping him happy.

Publishers of course want to make money, but fifty years ago it was accepted that not every book could be expected to be financially successful and many were published – poetry titles for example – which it was known for certain would not earn the firm a penny. A fair number of modest successes will keep the show on the road, but what is really sought after is the bestseller (sometimes a book that comes out of the blue) that will keep everything else afloat for a long time to come. For Deutsch, these included Peter Benchley’s Jaws, Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, John Updike’s Rabbit books and Couples.

And then there were the ones that got away. André Deutsch snapped up Philip Roth’s first novella, Goodbye Columbus. His second, Letting Go, also came along and was widely admired, though his British publisher thought it was too long. It didn’t earn back its advance. The third book, When She Was Good, didn’t catch fire either, so at this point the publisher decided it was time to adjust its attitude to the promising young writer. It’s worth quoting here Diana Athill’s account of what happened next:

So we thought ‘No more silly money’ and decided to calculate the advance on precisely what we reckoned the book would sell – which I think was four thousand copies at the best – and that was not accepted. As far as I know, When She Was Good was not a success – but the next novel Philip wrote was Portnoy’s Complaint.

This space represents a tactful silence.

Athill was happy when she was able to establish a personal relationship, on top of a professional one, with an esteemed author. This she did with the Canadian Mordecai Richler, who introduced her to Brian Moore, who had moved from Belfast to Canada. She became friendly with Moore and his wife, Jackie, whom she remembered as great gossips, “and when I say great I mean great because I am talking about gossip in its highest and purest form: a passionate interest, lit by humour but above malice, in human behaviour”. Half of this much-valued friendship ended, however, shortly after Moore left his wife for another woman. Athill’s sympathies were with Jackie, and for Brian that was unforgiveable.

Jean Rhys’s life was so turbulent that in the 1950s, when she had disappeared from view for some years, many people assumed she had drunk herself to death. When the BBC was preparing an adaptation of Good Morning Midnight they advertised seeking anyone with information on “the late Jean Rhys”. One of the replies they received was from the unlate Jean Rhys, who was living, in quite squalid circumstances, in Devon. Over nine years, Athill and her collaborator Francis Wyndham patiently watched over Rhys and tried to ensure for her a basic standard of material welfare while she worked on the novel that was to be her masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea, eventually published in 1966. Athill reports that in spite of the chaos of Rhys’s life, her illness, her paranoia and her habitual heavy drinking, with the exception of one suggestion of a mechanism to overcome a stalled plot she had to do virtually nothing with the text of the book. Jean Rhys might have been “a mess”, but her manuscript certainly was not.

Athill, who became rather well-known only in the last twenty years of her life, has described herself as “undeniably English”, in the sense that she valued decorum and in social situations liked to stay sober. And so it was with the boozy (and generous) Sonia Orwell, rather than Diana, that Jean Rhys was occasionally able to relax. For all her Englishness, however, Athill was remarkably frank about her somewhat unorthodox romantic and sexual life. An early relationship with an RAF pilot, with whom she fell in love aged fifteen, convinced her that it was better not to trust in happiness: Tony had what she wonderfully described as “a very open approach to life”. “My affairs after that,” she said, “I kept them trivial if I possibly could. I was frightened of intensity, because I knew I was going to be hurt.” She had no moral qualms about being “the other woman”, a role she found herself playing on many occasions. But she did also become what she called “a sucker for oppressed foreigners”, her maternal instinct diverted into a weakness for lame ducks. One lover, the Egyptian Waguih Ghali, killed himself in her flat. Another relationship was with an American black power activist whose book she had been editing. Hakim Jamal, a cousin of Malcolm X, was apparently convinced he was God. Athill, who had worked on his manuscript, presumably knew otherwise. Jamal was eventually to be murdered in Boston by a rival black political faction.

Athill remained a remarkably handsome and engaging woman into her late nineties. She also, though never personally wealthy, retained something of the aura of the gilded interwar upper class set, having learned to enunciate in a long-ago era when speaking proper was speaking proper. As one interviewer, John Preston in The Telegraph, put it, she even “makes the Queen sound faintly common”.

In 2004 she appeared on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, picking Haydn’s Creation as the piece of music she could not do without and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair as the book. Revealing choices: Haydn for grace, balance, serenity and harmony; and then Thackeray’s hugely enjoyable comic celebration of the possibilities of life in English Regency society, with at its centre the unsinkable, somewhat amoral yet irresistibly charming heroine, Becky Sharp.

Images: the young Diana Athill; Diana in her late 90s.


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