I had come to see Diana in her bright, lovely room at the Mary Feilding Guild in north London, the place itself as perfect a version of assisted living as you could imagine. I was interviewing her for a magazine called the gentlewoman a couple of years ago. Diana was intrigued by the magazine’s name, until I told her that the magazine the same company produced for men was called Fantastic Man. Diana was outraged. “Why isn’t it called Fantastic Woman?” she exclaimed. If there was ever anyone who deserved the label Fantastic Woman, it was Diana Athill.
Fantastic in her openness, her honesty, her humour, her complete lack of interest in what are commonly supposed to be life’s ordinary proprieties but which are, usually, simply stultifying convention. To be in her presence was to be reminded that every day of one’s life is a gift and that it’s never too late.
She worked hard all her life as an editor and was integral to the success of authors such as VS Naipaul and Jean Rhys; her writing mostly took a back seat. She was in her 80s by the time Stet, her memoir of a life in publishing, catapulted her to unexpected literary fame.
She never married, but a well-bred young woman born in the last year of the first world war would have been expected to marry. She would very plainly say that her failure to marry made her feel, when she was younger, that her life was in every way a failure. She had to fight to make her way in the world and listening to her acknowledge her struggles made it easier to acknowledge one’s own. At literary events, it was extraordinarily moving to see readers open up to her, to see her truly listen and respond with real kindness.
But what also made Diana fantastic was her sense of fun, her delight in the world. Of course, it was fine to talk about literature with her, but was it really more wonderful than discussing the treasures to be found in the jewellery counters of the V&A shop? Did I know about the delights to be found in the Wrap catalogue before I met Diana? I did not.
Her elegance, combined with that perfect skin, the brilliance of her deep-set blue eyes, that snowy hair and striking profile, might have been intimidating, but it wasn’t: it was joyful. As was the delight she took in her friends – her friendships were vigorously cross-generational and I know that even now Diana is gone, those of us who knew her will be bound by her memory.
“I’m a good recoverer,” she said to me once. It’s a quote to remember. Tough stuff will happen; you will suffer; but you’ll recover. Bless you, Diana. How lucky we were to know you.