Diana Athill

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Diana Athill
Diana Athill BBC.jpg
Athill in 2004
Born (1917-12-21) December 21, 1917 (age 96)
Norfolk, England
Occupation Literary editor, author
Nationality British
Alma mater Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford
Genres Novels and memoirs
Notable work(s) After a Funeral, Somewhere Towards the End
Notable award(s) OBE, PEN/Ackerley Prize, Costa Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award
from the BBC programme Front Row, 26 April 2013.[1]

Diana Athill OBE (born December 21, 1917) is a British literary editor, novelist and memoirist who worked with some of the most important writers of the 20th century.

Early life[edit]

Diana Athill was born in the English county of Norfolk. Her parents were Major Lawrence Athill (1888-1957) and Alice Carr Athill (1895-1990). [2] Her maternal grandfather was William Carr (1862-1925). [3] Her maternal grandmother's father was James Franck Bright (1832-1920) a Master of University College, Oxford. Athill graduated from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford in 1939[4] and worked for the BBC throughout the Second World War.


After the war Athill helped André Deutsch establish his publishing company and worked closely with many of his authors, including Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Mordecai Richler, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Rhys, Gitta Sereny, Brian Moore, V. S. Naipaul, Charles Gidley Wheeler and David Gurr.

She retired in 1993 at the age of 75, after more than 50 years in publishing. She continues to influence the publishing world through her revealing memoirs about her editorial career. She is best known for her books of memoirs (these were not written in chronological order, Yesterday Morning being the account of her childhood), and has also translated various works from French.

She appeared on Desert Island Discs at the age of 86 and selected a recording of Haydn's The Creation as the most valued of the eight records and Thackeray's Vanity Fair as the book.[5]

Athill was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2009 New Year Honours.[6]

In 2008, she won the Costa Book Award for her memoir Somewhere Towards The End, a book about old age. [7] For the same book, she also received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2009. [8]

In June 2010, she was the subject of a BBC documentary, "Growing Old Disgracefully", part of the Imagine series.[9] In 2013, she was listed as one of the fifty best-dressed over 50s by the Guardian. [10]

Personal life[edit]

Accordiing to journalist Nick Brown, "She attributes her flight from convention to her first love, Tony Irvine, an RAF pilot with whom she fell in love at age 15, and who was blessed, she says, 'with a very open approach to life.'"[11] The failure of her relationship to Irvine, her "great love", “blighted” many years. "My affairs after that, I kept them trivial if I possibly could. I was frightened of intensity, because I knew I was going to be hurt."[11]

She says she was a "sucker for oppressed foreigners", an inclination she described as a "funny kink" in her maternal instinct: "I never particularly wanted children, but it came out in liking lame ducks."[11] One lover, the Egyptian author Waguih Ghali, a depressive, committed suicide in her flat. Her most remarkable affair, about which she later wrote a book, was "a fleeting, and distinctly odd" relationship with Hakim Jamal, an American Black radical who asserted he was God. Jamal's other lover Gale Benson, was murdered by Trinidadian Black Power leader Michael X. Jamal was killed by others a year later.[11] Athill's account of these events was published in 1993 as Make Believe: A True Story.

Her longest relationship was with the Jamaican playwright Barry Reckord. The affair lasted eight years, but he shared her flat for forty. She described it as a "detached" sort of marriage.[11]

Selected bibliography[edit]


  • An Unavoidable Delay (1962), short stories
  • Don't Look at Me Like That: a novel. London: Chatto & Windus, 1967
  • Midsummer Night in the Workhouse (2011), short stories, published by Persephone Books in 2011


  • 1963: Instead of a Letter. London: Chatto & Windus
  • 1986: After a Funeral. London: Cape — winner of the J. R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography
  • 1993: Make Believe. London: Sinclair-Stevenson
  • 2000: Stet: a memoir, London: Granta (ISBN 1-86207-388-0)
  • 2002: Yesterday Morning: a very English childhood. London: Granta
  • 2008: Somewhere Towards the End. London: Granta — winner of Costa Prize for Biography
  • 2009: Life Class: the Selected Memoirs of Diana Athill. London: Granta ISBN (1-84708-146-0)
  • 2011: Instead of a Book: Letters to a Friend. London: Granta


  1. ^ "Diana Athill". Front Row. 26 April 2013. BBC Radio 4. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01s0ssd. Retrieved 18 January 2014.
  2. ^ "Lawrence Francis Lambert Athill". rootsweb.ancestry.com. Retrieved 3 January 2013. 
  3. ^ "William Carr (1862-1925)". rootsweb.ancestry.com. Retrieved 3 January 2013. 
  4. ^ Prominent alumni, Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, UK.
  5. ^ "Diana Athill". Desert Island Discs. BBC. 2004. Retrieved 3 July 2010. 
  6. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 58929. p. 9. 31 December 2008.
  7. ^ "Costa Winners 2006 - present". costabookawards.com. Retrieved 3 January 2013. 
  8. ^ "All Past National Book Critics Award Winners and Finalists". bookcritics.org. Retrieved 3 January 2013. 
  9. ^ Who is that woman who looks like me. Daily Telegraph, 29 June 2010. Retrieved 30 June 2010.
  10. ^ "The 50 best-dressed over 50s". The Guardian. 
  11. ^ a b c d e Brown, Mick. "Diana Athill on letters, lovers & letting go". The Telegraph, 23 September 2011, accessed 21 August 2012.

External links[edit]