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Text by Erica Wagner
Portraits by Alasdair McLellan
Issue n° 14, Autumn & Winter 2016

Diana Athill, 98, has a beady eye and a way with words. She used both on the likes of Jean Rhys and Philip Roth during her 50 years as London’s most respected literary editor. But for the past 15, she’s turned that gaze on her own storied life with eight volumes of autobiography. Erica Wagner met Diana at the residential home where she lives and works.

On a sunny day in early summer, I leave Highgate underground station and head uphill. It is 10 minutes’ walk through north London’s generous plane trees to the entrance of the Mary Feilding Guild, the rambling, beautifully kept residential home where Diana Athill lives. It describes itself as a residence for the “active elderly” – a description that fits Diana to a T. Her 98 years have not dimmed her a jot, though she will acknowledge that her hearing is not what it was, and she’s happier these days scooting about in a wheelchair, a tool she sees as offering freedom rather than its opposite. Whether she’s writing (or conversing) about the work that occupied her for so many years, her family background or her romantic history – not least the miscarriage she suffered at 43 – she is forthright. In her latest book, Alive, Alive Oh! she turns her clear blue gaze on the pains and amusements of heading towards her centenary.

I find Diana waiting for me in her room on the second floor. It’s not very big. As she has written, one of the things she feared when she moved here at the end of 2009 was having to give up so many of the possessions she treasured in her flat (including her books, of which, she says, she got rid of “not many, only about 1,500”). There is room for a narrow bed, a comfortable chair, a tall bookcase, a little hob and a fridge and, of course, a desk – her laptop is resting on top of it, ready to go. But what little space there is is full of character. Colourful fabrics adorn the bed and inviting armchair. The bookshelves hold a mix of beloved classics and the inspiring new: well-worn hardback copies of Chekhov, Henry Green and Boswell; clearly no-less-adored volumes by Hilary Mantel, Alice Munro, William Dalrymple. And the walls are hung closely with pictures in delicate frames. “Everything I kept is precious,” Diana says. “But I have one very precious photo, of Barry” – Reckord, her long-time partner. It was her nephew Phil – more about him anon – who helped her select what she would bring here; he and his son Orlando arranged her things so she never felt anything less than at home.

“He did everything,” she says of Phil, beaming. (Her accent is cut-glass; it’s the only old-fashioned thing about her.)

Literary fame came late to Diana Athill. For 50 years she was an editor at André Deutsch, in its day one of Britain’s leading publishing houses. Deutsch, born in Budapest and schooled in Vienna, fled Europe after the Anschluss in 1938 and was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man before he was able finally to settle in Britain. Among the publisher’s great finds – and Diana’s charges – were VS Naipaul, Mordecai Richler and Brian Moore; the house was the first in Britain to release the work of John Updike, Margaret Atwood and Philip Roth. It was Athill who worked for nine years with Jean Rhys to ensure that her great novel Wide Sargasso Sea found the acclaim it deserved. She also shepherded the work of the Irish novelist Molly Keane into the world. Keane, she has said, was really always her favourite author. Like Athill, Keane had a late flowering – her wonderful 1981 novel, Good Behaviour, was published decades after she had last appeared in print.

Some editors are famed for being lacerating dragons, whipping their authors into shape; others are gentler guides, coaxing their authors – often over a period of years – to create their best work. Athill was very much in the latter camp. Some authors, though, can’t manage even the gentlest of guidance. Her relationship with the always-tricky Naipaul was finally sundered when she made suggestions as to how he might improve his 1975 novel, Guerrillas: he wouldn’t accept them – and quit Deutsch forthwith. Athill has written of her intense relief. “It was as though the sun came out,” she said. “I didn’t have to like Vidia any more.”

But Athill had always – quietly – been an author as well as an editor. In the early 1960s, there was a short-story collection, and then her striking memoir of the broken love affair that so affected her life, Instead of a Letter (1962). When it was reissued many decades later, The New Yorker’s praise captured what makes Athill’s work stand out. “Supple, frank, unafraid of contradictions, her literary voice has all the courageous intelligence one associates with a certain type of British writer but none of the chill.”

But it was the publication of Stet, the story of her working life, in 2000 – when Athill was 83 – that really brought plaudits and sales. Yesterday Morning (2002), in which she considered her parents’ unhappy marriage, followed, and then Somewhere Towards the End (2008), in which she pondered approaching 90 years of age. The latter won the UK’s Costa Book Award in the biography category in 2009. Life Class, a collection of four of her memoirs published that year, has sold going on for 20,000 copies; 2015’s Alive, Alive Oh! has sold as many in hardback already.

It’s hardly surprising that so many readers have responded so warmly to that courageous intelligence. Her honesty not only about her love life – her many lovers, her unwillingness to be tied down by marriage and her willingness to be “the other woman” – but also about the pleasures and pains of ageing makes her presence unique.

Diana begins the day by opening the many letters she still receives from admiring readers. For these portraits, she was photographed in her room in Highgate on 2 June 2016.

Erica Wagner: Is it extraordinary to be considered such an icon at this point in your life?

Diana Athill: It’s really odd! It really is odd. I can’t take it seriously. I don’t really think about it much. It’s completely unexpected. In the beginning, the fact that I’d written a book didn’t come as a surprise, but the fact that the book was such a success was a big surprise. Now I have the most splendid, kindly readers who write me long letters. I think this happens when you write a book about anything personal. You get people writing back saying, “Your life is just like mine.”

E: I suppose one reason they respond like that is because you’ve been so frank about so much in your life. From the way you’ve described your growing up – an upper-middle class childhood in Norfolk – it doesn’t sound as if you were raised in an atmosphere of frankness, of honesty. You’ve talked about how there were things you couldn’t tell your mother. What do you think enabled you to say, “I’m going to speak my mind”?

D: Well, it was simply that at the time, the first book I wrote, I didn’t make any decision about it; I didn’t think about it. It’s a peculiar thing to say, but it’s true. It just happened to me. The whole point of that book, it turned out, was that I was trying to get to the bottom of an unhappy situation. And it did make it better – because it was an automatic reaction really. I was writing about it, and there was no point in writing about it unless I was trying to get it like it really was. I think there is no excuse for writing about one’s personal life unless one tries to get to the bottom of it.

Instead of a Letter recounts Diana’s love for her brother’s tutor, Tony Irvine, whom she met when she was 15. They became engaged a few years later. He was in the RAF, and during the Second World War he was posted to Egypt. For a while, they exchanged loving letters, but his stopped, and she received nothing for two years – until a formal letter arrived asking to break off their engagement because he wished to marry another. Irvine was killed before the end of the war. Diana has said that in the 20 years that followed, her soul “shrank to the size of a pea”.

E: And after writing that book, it seems that this great sadness just lifted. Is that so?

D: It was quite astonishing. It really was. When it was written out, I was a new person. In all those years I wouldn’t have said I’d been very unhappy, really. I hadn’t been thinking about it at all. I would have said that I was over it. But I think if in that time anyone had asked me what was most basic about my life, I would have said, “It has been a failure.” There was a basic, underlying sense of failure – and it came from the very simple thing of having been brought up expecting to get married, which was the ordinary woman’s thing. I had not achieved it. That had left this sense of failure, much deeper than I realised. Once this was dug out and thought about, it vanished.

E: I wonder if this is perhaps why so many people write to you – because many people carry around a burden they don’t think they can lift.

D: I think perhaps it’s true. They’ve had an unhappy marriage, or whatever, but it’s a part of life, and you go on with it. And there is perhaps the fact that I escaped, which I did. I do look back now, and I would say that my life has been a happy life. It’s certainly been a lucky life. A very, very lucky life. And I am obviously a recoverer – I must be!

E: That’s a very good way to put it: a recoverer. Because to say that you were just an optimist, or just happy, almost implies that you didn’t suffer or you weren’t paying attention. How much better to say, “Difficult things happen; I recover.”

D: Yes, I think that’s true. I think it’s something I’ve inherited. My family tend to be recovering people, you know? They’ve had a lot of quite difficult things happen. The idea when I was a child was that you ought to be brave. If possible, you are brave in everything. That went quite deep, actually. I think of my darling cousin Anne, who is now 102 – you ring her up, she’s living in her own house, she answers the telephone herself, and she sounds exactly like she’s always sounded. As a little girl, a naughty little red-headed girl, her favourite thing was to sing “The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck”. She always wanted to be heroic, and she was always having wonderful, heroic ideas that went terribly wrong!

One thing Diana never told her mother was that at 43, unmarried, she had become pregnant. In Alive, Alive Oh! she describes how she wrote her mother a letter to reveal the truth but suffered a miscarriage before sending it. Losing the baby nearly led to the loss of her own life; she describes what happened in extraordinary detail in the book.

E: It’s striking the way you tell some of these stories – you describe your miscarriage in vivid, personal detail, but you first wrote it as an essay in the third person.

D: I did that because I wanted to distance myself from it. When I first did it – I mean, the very first notes that I wrote about it were when I turned it into an article that went into Granta in 2004. Then I thought, “Well, it doesn’t work in a book which is all in the first person,” so I changed it for Alive, Alive Oh!

E: I wonder if that connects to the fact that you have also described yourself as “a watcher”.

D: One does observe things. I mean, I really did – I can remember every minute of that whole night very, very clearly to this day. It was an extraordinary thing to be going through. I never kept a diary – except for a trip to Florence after the war, which will be published in December.

E: Observing must be what made you such a wonderful editor: that ability to step back and see the way something is working.

D: I think that one does, yes. And I think that it’s a little bit cold, that. This thing, the “splinter of ice in the heart”.

Diana has written vividly of her many love affairs; the most enduring was with the Jamaican playwright Barry Reckord. They were together for four decades. Reckord was a married man, although Athill ended up caring for him towards the end of his life.

“I’ve gone off fiction a bit because I’ve read too many novels. I think, ‘Oh, God. I know what’s going to happen next.’”

E: You’ve spoken of your contentment at being “the other woman” in relationships with men. But we’re all told – as you were as a girl – that romantic love, union with one person forever, is what we must live for.

D: You see, that was one of the things that I did get rid of, thanks to that horrid experience [with Tony Irvine]. I came out of it and realised that I would rather become myself – and that I could live my own life. I wasn’t going to have to live someone else’s life, and it suddenly struck me that that’s what most marriages are. You take on living somebody else’s life. When I finally settled down with Barry, we just lived our own lives together, the two of us. We didn’t become married; I didn’t become “a wife” – well, I did right at the end, when I was looking after him, because, to my rage, I found myself having to become a wife. But on the whole, I discovered that one didn’t have to depend on anybody else. It was a great thing, that. I didn’t have to have a family.

E: But you do have very strong family connections – you’re very fond of your nephew Phil, aren’t you? It’s Phil who helped you move in here, I believe.

D: Yes, my darling Phil! Phil, out of all of my nephews, is the one I’ve always felt best with. Even at the beginning, when he was about six. He was in my brother’s garden, and he said, “I know what I’m going to have. I’m going to have a garden, and on this side I’m going to have roses and on this side I’m going to have carnations, and I’m going to walk down the path in the middle and first smell one and then the other.” I thought: This child is a child after my own heart!

E: He knows what he wants.

D: He knows what he wants – and he turned out to be very foolish, very often, when he was a child, but he got through it. I mean, when he was in his teens. But he always remained a very good friend. And I was thinking the other day that if I’d known him as a separate person – as a man, not as a nephew – I think I would have fallen in love with Phil! Because I like him so much. My family, in that sense, is very valuable – but I don’t mind not having children. I really don’t. I mean – I trust and hope that if I’d had a child, I could have been quite a good parent. I think I’d have been very much like my mother, who was not a possessive parent. She was there always; she was to me a wonderful kind of mother. We ended up being very, very good friends – but she wasn’t mad about it. She didn’t like babies much! Once they stopped being babies and became rational beings, she liked one better. I think I’d have been that sort of mother. I have never found it in me to much mind not having a child. Tony used to say, “When we have children, we’ll have so and so and so...” I used to play along, but I never really felt terribly involved. And thank God, you know, because it can be awfully difficult to be one of those women who feel as if they would die if they did not have children. I never felt like that.

E: And of course you had a very fulfilling working life, which was perhaps unusual at the time.

D: I had a very, very interesting working life – and really, it just got better and better.

E: Are there certain writers you worked with who come back to you particularly strongly? You were instrumental, for instance, in ensuring that we all got to read Wide Sargasso Sea.

D: Well, of course Jean [Rhys] was very important to me as a person. Terribly demanding as an author. I felt, really, not like an editor. I was a nanny. She was extraordinary. She was the most extraordinary person I’ve ever known – because her incompetence in life was so complete that she might have been a child. She really might. But once she was writing, she was steely: she knew exactly what she wanted to do and how to do it. Such a strange combination! I’ve never got to the bottom of how she could have been like that.

E: As an editor, were you looking for that sense, when reading something, where the hairs on the back of your neck go up and you think, “This is it – this is the real thing”?

D: That was it. Lovely feeling.

E: It sounds like you had a lot of freedom, working with André Deutsch, to seek out authors on your own.

D: Oh yes. That was partly because André’s command of English was perfectly good, but he didn’t trust himself, so I was the one who chose the books.

E: Do you have any particular memories of discovering something very special?

D: I always remember that I was not really forgiven much when Molly Keane turned up. She first came to Esther [Whitby, another editorial director at the firm], and Esther was the first one to read her. But I said, “Look, I’m going to call her and I’m going to look after this book.” Esther has really never to this day quite forgiven me for that! But I did know I wanted that book, and I got that book.

E: It sounds like you’re not sorry.

D: I wasn’t sorry at all!

E: So what are you reading now?

D: Every week, well almost, my friend Eleanor brings me a book – usually they’re very good books. Unfortunately, I’m now reaching the stage where I can read a book – a good book – and I enjoy it, but then three weeks later I’ve forgotten about it! It has to be very good if I remember it three weeks later.

A native of Norfolk, Diana has resided in room No. 30 at the Mary Feilding Guild for seven happy years. The residence is home to the “active elderly” and frees her up to work without the burdens of housekeeping. Nice!

E: That sounds familiar. I read so many books for work.

D: It’s part of the job; we’ve all read too much. In any case, I’ve gone off fiction a bit because I’ve read too many novels. It’s very difficult for me to get into a novel and not know what’s going to happen next.

E: You notice a pattern, you mean?

D: Yes. At which point, I think, “Oh, God. I know what’s going to happen next,” and it’s not worth reading it any more. If I do read on, it means it’s pretty good.

E: I always notice how beautifully dressed you are when we meet. Are clothes very important to you?

D: I’ve loved clothes always – and I was very sad when I was young because I didn’t have nearly enough money to buy the clothes I wanted. My mother was a very good dressmaker and used to make me beautiful evening dresses, so I always went to parties in lovely clothes. For quite a long time I really couldn’t afford to buy decent clothes, what with being a publisher, and there was of course the war. Now I’m an absolute sucker for mail order. I love the Wrap catalogue, which provides me with these lovely long skirts. I’d been wearing trousers for years and years, and now I’ve got two long skirts, which I love. My nephew Charlie is very good at fashion. He and I go to museums together, and then we go to the museum shop – we always come out with something.

Although Diana tells me she knows what’s going to happen next in novels these days, she’s said she’s rarely known what’s going to come next in life – just as Instead of a Letter “happened to” her rather than being written. In the chapter of Alive, Alive Oh! in which she discusses her move to Mary Feilding, she begins by saying, “Few events in my life have been decided by me.” And yet that perceived lack of choice has never dismayed her – rather the opposite.

E: One of the things I love about your work is the way in which you think about luck. And yet I know that moving here was a difficult decision.

D: Well, that was luck because I did hit on that. Just by chance, my friend Rose Hacker had come here, and when I came to see her, expecting to find her in some dreadful place, there was Rose saying, “Darling, you’ve got to come and live in this wonderful place!” and that was luck. I wasn’t even thinking at that stage that I would ever end up in a home, but it became instantly clear that if ever I was going to, this was the one to come to.

Rose Hacker, who died in 2008 at 101, was celebrated as Britain’s oldest newspaper columnist. She was a lifelong campaigner for social justice, always vibrantly active in her community and beyond; it’s not hard to see why the two women were friends.

E: We’ve talked about this wonderful idea that one should think about death. But it’s not something in our culture that we’re encouraged to do.

D: Well, people are getting round to it, you know? I mean, there was a time when you simply could not talk about it. You couldn’t publish books about death; you wouldn’t! Now you can – and people prick up their ears. Young people like to talk about it. I think it goes up and down. In Victorian times, where everyone was haunted by it, children used to be led to see the little corpses of other children, of their dear granny dead on the table. There was then my mother’s generation, which swung against that: my mother wouldn’t go to a funeral if she could possibly help it, certainly would never allow a child to go to a funeral. My father walked out of the room if people started talking about death. Now we’re swinging back, but in a different way.

E: How in a different way?

D: We can talk about it, but we’re not morbid about it. Phil is always saying to me, “Tell me what you want your funeral to be like” – and I have an idea... and then I change my mind! I thought that chapter that I wrote at the end of Alive, Alive Oh! about death ended up sounding, well, dead right. You can read that at my funeral.

The chapter is indeed called “Dead Right”. In it, Diana writes: “Death is the inevitable end of an individual object’s existence – I don’t say ‘end of life’ because it is a part of life.”

E: Very good!

D: It would be a very sensible and cheerful ending to a funeral.

E: You’ve considered being buried at Highgate Cemetery, I think.

D: But it’s terribly expensive! I was very taken by the idea of being buried in the bushy part of it, because it’s fascinating. A fascinating place. But no. Mind you, I think any of the London cemeteries are expensive. I think being dead is an expensive business. So I’m going to be buried at Hedenham, in my native Norfolk. In the corner of that church, there is my father, my mother, my grandparents, everybody, and I’d like to be there. The idea of it really is quite pleasing, and it would be quite cheap. Phil has even asked them, “Can she be buried in the churchyard at Hedenham although she’s a pagan?” and they said, “Yes, she can.” The vicar seems to be quite happy to have me there.