Diana Athill spent most of her life as an editor, working with titans of literary history. They were mostly male — most anointed titans are — and the challenge of this job was immense enough to warrant a thick memoir, “Stet: An Editor’s Life.” Remarkably, Athill didn’t use the pages to complain, an instinct that would have been easy to understand, but instead to sing the praises of the written word and the people who make it their mission to tell stories. What she less overtly advertised, though, was her fiercely independent life. Athill died last week at the age of 101, and her words, at several critical points in this reader’s life, provided a lifeline. Perhaps her greatest legacy was her refusal to cede to societal expectations as she carved out a persistently unusual world for herself in which the demands of femininity — marriage and children, specifically — were rethought and redefined.
I was introduced to Athill through her memoir “Somewhere Towards the End.” Published when she was 91, it was a meditation on the mixed bag that is aging. While Athill was quick to point out the injustices of growing older, chief among them giving up sex (Athill loved sex in her very British way, decreeing that every woman should have a few good love affairs), her tone was almost defiantly peppy — never saccharine, but refusing to give in to the weighty fear with which we tend to face the great unknown. I had my first existential crisis (that’s putting it generously) at age 13, and sat with the pain for years afterward. My primary literary bedfellows in the ensuing years were death obsessives like Philip Roth and Robert Lowell, or poets who were far too successful in its pursuit (Sylvia Plath, who was less enthusiastic about her life in the London literary scene than Athill, her counterpart who was born more than a decade before her and survived her by more than 50 years). I figured if I couldn’t solve the mystery around mortality then I could at least wallow with some of the greats. I was on year 15 of this strategy when I found myself in possession of Athill’s slim book in consideration of the topic. The simplicity of her prose belies a complexity of thought that would have been necessary to edit V. S. Naipaul (or survive a dinner with Jean Rhys); though Athill may not have been afraid of death, she didn’t think it was simple, either. She just didn’t dwell on its complexities. I swallowed her words like barbiturates and they killed the fear. “I think that underneath, or alongside, a reader’s conscious response to a text,” Athill writes, “whatever is needy in him is taking in whatever the text offers to assuage that need.” Guilty as charged.
In the same book Athill reflects on how her relationship to sex had “gone through several stages and had not always been a happy one, but that had always seemed central to my existence.” Sex, she explains, “obliterates the individuality of young women more often than it does that of young men, because so much more of a woman than a man is used by sex.” And her individuality appears to be the quality Athill valued most as she made decisions that were unorthodox, and geared to maximize joy and minimize obligation. She wasn’t the workaholic we expect passionately single women to be (in the movies, it seems everyone who’s unmarried by choice wears a blazer and wields a Blackberry), proclaiming in “Stet,” “I was not ashamed of valuing my private life more highly than my work; that, to my mind, is what everyone ought to do.”
But here she must have been underplaying her ambition, so spectacular was the second act that followed (achieved at fourth-act age). Athill was under no illusion that she would be celebrated for her work as an editor: “We must always remember that we are only midwives — if we want praise for progeny we must give birth to our own.” And so she did, writing novels, essays and nonfiction with the kind of 9-to-5 work ethic she’d once shown in the office of the publisher André Deutsch. She quickly found her subject: romance in its many forms. In “Stet,” it was a romance with words. In “Yesterday Morning,” with memories of childhood. In “After a Funeral,” it was a love lost to depression, her partner ending his life violently in Athill’s home, an act she treated with her signature lack of fanfare. She used “A Florence Diary” to describe every inch of the Italian city as happily as a tween with a thesaurus. She made peace with love’s dark demise in “Instead of a Letter,” in which she admits frankly that an early broken engagement has left her with a fear of lasting intimacy. She had love affair after love affair, including a brief but soul-expanding dalliance with the Black Panther Hakim Jamal (a man who’d also had a high-profile relationship with the actress Jean Seberg before the murder of his next girlfriend by his fellow Panthers, and who later was murdered himself). Athill lived with the Jamaican playwright Barry Reckord for nearly 40 years, though she was his lover for fewer than 10.