I have very few regrets in life, but one of them is that I am guilty of having laughed scornfully at a Christmas present from an ex. I remember the year clearly: my sister’s boyfriend gave her some spectacular diamond earrings while mine gave me some woefully ugly mittens and a copy of Diana Athill’s Stet. I was in my mid-twenties, it was the beginning of a new millennium, and apparently I thought I was somewhat above a quiet hardback by an 83-year-old. For years afterwards, I told everyone the boyfriend had given me mittens… and forgot all about the book.
Today, Diana Athill turns 100 and I can see just how ungracious I was. It took me a while to get around to reading it, but that copy of Stet has been one of my most treasured books for over 15 years now. The title means “let it stand”, a reference to an industry instruction to book printers to ignore an over-zealous correction in an edited manuscript. The book itself is Athill’s memoir of her 50 years in publishing: she started as the Second World War ended, a co-founder of André Deutsch’s iconic publishing house, and became one of London’s most revered editors. Working with the likes of V.S. Naipaul, Philip Roth, Jean Rhys and John Updike, she played a huge part in shaping our post-war literary landscape.
But there were many women who lived noble lives of literary prowess in the 50s, 60s and beyond. (Why else would The Sloane Ranger Handbook have contained somewhat cruel jibes about the women who work in publishing becoming “brides of art”?) And nor is it the simple fact that Athill has reached a century that makes her so special. The magic lies in the way that she has done it. Because if you’re going to live a long life, you’d better hope you have the insight, style and wit that Athill has. And she has it in spades, living a fearless, open-hearted life where others would have blanched.
“My soul shrank to the size of a pea,” she wrote on that first heartache. Who hasn’t felt the same after a brutal breakup?
Over the years she has written novels and short stories, but it is her memoirs for which she is best-known, and with good reason. Although Stet was something of a “comeback” (and is the perfect place to start if you are a new reader), she had already written Instead Of A Letter, about her first love affair, which ended with her lover disappearing for two years and only turning up to tell her he was marrying someone else, and After A Funeral, which recounted another lover committing suicide in her flat. She has since written about her later life, including Somewhere Towards The End, which concerns growing old and won the 2008 Costa Biography Award in the UK and the National Book Critics Circle Award in the US.
Yet despite her becoming well-known in recent years simply for managing to get this old, to read Athill is to feel time become elastic, to feel that what makes a certain type of wordy, curious, and perhaps earnest sort of woman tick has been and will be the same forever. “My soul shrank to the size of a pea,” she wrote on that first heartache. Who hasn’t felt the same after a brutal breakup? And of After A Funeral and the lover who died at her home, she says “I wrote to sort myself out.” There cannot be a story-telling, blog-writing, diary-keeping woman in the country who hasn’t felt that it was getting their words down in order which saved them in the aftermath of a crisis.
When asked about regrets, Athill will only admit to very few. Perhaps it is because she has been so consistently honest and straightforward in her writing that she has reconciled herself admirably thoroughly with her past, from her career to her lovers and even her candour about not having children and the miscarriage she suffered. What she does admit is that she wishes she had been more honest with her mother about her more than 40-year relationship with the Jamaican playwright Barry Reckord. In her publishing circles she never felt the need to hide it, but despite rebelling against what her family might have hoped for her, she didn’t feel able to be entirely honest about it either. To her credit, she is very clear-sighted about the privilege she was born into, and did a lot more to open doors to writers across the spectrum than many today have been inclined to.
As for advice, she says simply “enjoy yourself as much as you can without doing any damage to other people”. And if we are to truly take her up on that then it will surely involve reading some of her work. Happy birthday Diana Athill, and thank you for all the words.