A miracle in action: Diana Athill's editorial genius

Joining André Deutsch in the late 80s, I saw a great editor at the top of her game, tirelessly working to bring good writing to perfection

Independent publishing was at a dangerous moment in 1987 when I was ushered at the age of 26 into a lowly place in the publicity department of André Deutsch Ltd. But the company was flourishing. Deutsch had Gore Vidal, Molly Keane and John Updike. Penelope Lively won the Booker for Moon Tiger in my first week and the backlist-bookshelves lining the corridor to the dim publicity offices were a treasurehouse of the boldest and the best in fiction, from Don DeLillo to Jean Rhys, Jack Kerouac, Wole Soyinka and VS Naipaul. But most significant for me was the unparalleled commitment and intelligence of an editorial department led by Diana Athill.

It is hard to overstate the importance of those editors – who were almost all women – as role models in my life. Diana stands for them all. At 70, she was still working at the top of her game, her subtle gifts for precision, diplomacy, deftness and clear-sighted calm in the face of writerly impatience (or worse) quite undiminished – as will come as no surprise to anyone who knew her to be quite as sharp 30 years later. In editorial meetings she was beady-eyed and ruthless where poor writing was concerned, but also unstinting in championing writers she loved.

What struck me, though, as I got to know her – and read her own remarkable early books Instead of a Letter and After a Funeral, then largely unknown – was the courage she must have had. How long and arduous was the fight for a woman born at the end of the first world war, in the face of casual discrimination and low pay, without domestic security or professional acknowledgment, to be certain of her own fierce intellect, of her right to a voice and to make her living by it. To observe Diana and her fellow editors in the little hive of editorial offices – buried almost invisible at the heart of Deutsch – all tirelessly working away to bring good writing to perfection was, for a recent graduate in literature, to observe a kind of miracle in action. Diana stood up for forgotten writers, writers from the Commonwealth, defiers like herself of convention, and most perfectly inspiring of all, she believed in the power of the written word, had devoted her life to its service and not felt sorry for herself for a moment.

It seemed entirely natural that Diana’s own literary career flourished after her retirement. The written word had been her companion for 70 years and, when it was time for her to unpick her own inner life, she did it with peerless clarity, fearlessness, rigorous honesty and limpid intelligence. To read her was to inhabit her, to see through her eyes, and when I heard she had died it was rather like imagining my own death. That remarkable magic trick of letting the reader know what it is to be really alive in another’s consciousness is the mark of a great writer. It was such a privilege to know her.


Christobel Kent

The GuardianTramp

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