Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 16 Dec 2017

Stet by Diana Athill

In the 70s and 80s, Diana Athill, the editor and co-founder of publisher André Deutsch, published a number of memoirs. Finally, on her retirement  from a lifetime spent in publishing – she was an editor at Deutsch for almost fifty years – she had more time for her own writing and enjoyed what can only be described as a late flowering. On the 21st December 2017 she will be 100 years old.

My favourite book of hers – I have just reread it – is Stet, published in 2000, and specifically about her life as an editor. Anyone who is interested in books and especially in how books get created will find Stet fascinating.

When she told a friend that she was planning to write of her years at Deutsch he apparently said, ‘Put the numbers in!’, because he felt that what people would find most interesting – and most revealing – was the economics of publishing. She does put some numbers in – but her friend was right, and more would have been more interesting.

I think Stet is a beautifully judged book. Rather than write at length about dozens of books that many will never have heard of let alone read – and some of which will have been justly forgotten – what Athill does is write of a life in publishing, and more briefly of some of the writers she met and formed relationships with, such as Molly Keane, Jean Rhys, and VS Naipaul (a writer whom Athill revered, but also a monster she was eventually relieved not to have to try and like on a personal level). Indeed, it isn’t stretching things too far I don’t think to say that what Athill does is to reflect on the human condition through the lens of publishing, writing and books.

Since then Athill has written another five or six books, including further memoirs (Yesterday Morning and Somewhere Towards the End) and reflections on ageing and womanhood. A single volume selection of her memoirs has also been published.

In some respects, Stet and her later books are somewhat unlike the earliest titles – Make Believe and After a Funeral – she published in the 70s and 80s. She herself refers to these earlier works as ‘documentaries’, and they are both about key relationships in her life. Athill is never less than scrupulously honest but the earlier works seem almost like experiments in radical candour. Perhaps they are simply of their time (both were written some years before they were eventually published, if I remember correctly). They are significant works but – at least to me – less enjoyable than Stet. Reviewing Stet on its first publication, The Observer said it was a gem, ‘written unashamedly for people who care about books’, and I think this is true, whereas the earlier titles are perhaps written for those whose paramount interest is personal candour and honesty. My own interests are less exalted – I want to know about the louche, grubby glamour of literary publishing in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s!

It may seem odd to say this considering how much she has now written about her life, but I find Athill a somewhat enigmatic figure. But there are two keys, I think, that help unlock a fuller understanding of the woman.

The first is tucked away in the final pages of Stet, where she talks about ‘caste writers’. What she means by this are writers who share – like her – the marks of an English, educated, upper class, intellectual caste whose tastes and cultural judgements have formed not just key movements in literature, but the social and historical importance attributed to such work. She mentions two – Angela Thirkell and Virginia Woolf, explaining that she can now no longer read either: Thirkell because she simply seems dated and irrelevant; Woolf because of her preciousness and pretention. The point Athill is making, I think, is that (albeit in different ways and for different reasons) neither of these writers managed to escape their caste.

The second key is offered by her memoir of her childhood, Yesterday Morning. This isn’t just – as some reviewers termed it – a record of an idyllic country childhood of the 1920s, although it is that. It is a record of a childhood spent as part of the ‘county’ landed gentry (the money and the Big House and the estate and the staff were on her maternal grandmother’s side of the family) and with characteristic honesty she describes how this formed her views and personality.

And it is suddenly evident that Athill’s life in literary London from the late-1940s to the late-90s, her somewhat rackety relationships, her unconcern regarding money, and her rejection of convention are to some degree a personal effort to escape her ‘caste’ – to build an alternative life, to live by a different set of values, to be honest to those values, and to live stoically with the consequences.

I suspect I will always find a reason to return to Athill’s various memoirs, but the single book I return to most frequently is Stet, because in this I think she found her perfect subject – the literary work she gave her life to – and the perfect way to talk about it. Thankfully, all of her books are again available in handsomely produced editions from Granta. Happy 100th Birthday, Diana Athill.


Alun Severn

December 2017