Writer and editor celebrated for her frank memoirs

Born: December 21, 1917;

Died: January 23, 2019

DIANA Athill, who has died aged 101, had an invisible but significant influence on the literary world as a highly-respected editor, nurturing the careers of several distinguished writers; late in life, however, she achieved celebrity in her own right for a series of memoirs, which were chiefly noted for their unsparing accounts of her complicated, and frequently catastrophic, romantic life.

Though she had first been encouraged in her own writing by winning a short story competition at the age of 41, and wrote a novel (Don’t Look At Me Like That, 1967), it was not until the publication of Stet (2000) that she came to the notice of the wider reading public. After that, she became a poster girl for “growing old disgracefully” – the title of a BBC documentary, shown in the Imagine series in 2010, which began with the words: “No one writes about sex as frankly as Diana Athill”. She was then 92.

Having disabused a younger generation of Philip Larkin’s claim that “sexual intercourse began in 1963”, Diana Athill came rather to regret this focus on her writing, though she admitted: “I’ve asked for it, I suppose.” When she was 98, she told Saga magazine that she “was never motherly. And nor, I realised, was I wifely. The role I was most comfortable with was that of the Other Woman, and I was good at it.”

While she may have been good at it, the male components of those relationships, as they emerged in her books, were at best erratic and often downright calamitous. After her first great love left her while she was still an undergraduate, she spent years, she later wrote, when “I could only be at ease in a relationship which I knew to be trivial. If I fell seriously in love it was with a fatalistic expectation of disaster, and disaster followed.”

Until the publication of her autobiographical books (ten in all, of which Stet was the fourth, though they were not in chronological order), Diana Athill toiled in obscurity as an editor of literary fiction, principally for André Deutsch. She shepherded into print an extremely distinguished range of authors, including Philip Roth, John Updike, Jean Rhys and VS Naipaul.

Diana Athill was born in Kensington in London during a zeppelin bombing raid on December 21 1917, and grew up at Ditchingham Hall, a substantial country estate at Beckton in Norfolk, which belonged to her mother’s family. Her father Lawrence was an officer with the Royal Artillery, and their own finances were unsettled; her parents’ marriage was also sexually miserable. Though her father was devoted to her mother Alice, she found her husband repellent. Diana later discovered that he was not the father of her younger sister, Patience.

She described her childhood in Yesterday Morning (2002). Diana was educated by governesses until the age of 14, then spent some time at boarding school, where she was good only at composition. Aware that she would have to earn her living, she proved good enough, however, to secure a place at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, reading English. She had already fallen in love with Tony Irvine, whom she had met when she was 15, and he was tutoring her brother Andrew. He became an RAF pilot and they were engaged in 1938, when she was in her second year. On the outbreak of war, he was posted to Egypt, and gradually stopped writing: eventually, he asked to be released from their engagement to marry someone else.

She was devastated – “my soul shrank to the size of a pea” – and, after graduating with a Third, drifted into unhappy promiscuity, working at first for the BBC’s wartime information service. Irvine was killed in action two months after his wedding.

Through the BBC, she met and shared a flat with George Weidenfeld, who introduced her to André Deutsch. Both middle-European Jewish émigrés, each set up in publishing after the war with enormous success. Diana Athill had a brief and not particularly enthusiastic affair with Deutsch, but they became great friends and she went to work with him at his first house, Allen Wingate, and followed him when he set up under his own name in the early 1950s.

Their first great coup came with the publication of Norman Mailer’s war novel The Naked and the Dead, which had done well in America, but which no British house would touch because of its swearing. Replacing the most offensive word with “fug”, Deutsch enjoyed considerable commercial success, as well as a reputation for daring and literary innovation.

Diana Athill expertly oversaw the manuscripts of authors then thought young and controversial, many of whom later became highly distinguished. But publishing, and the bohemian world of Soho in the 1950s, also brought her into contact with more rackety figures, including her particular weakness: “damaged and oppressed foreigners”.

They included the Egyptian author Waguih Ghali, who moved into her flat, despite their sexual relationship being very brief and unsatisfactory, and then committed suicide there on Boxing Day 1968 – about which she wrote brutally frankly in After a Funeral (1986). She also had an affair with Hakim Jamal, a Black Panther and cousin of Malcolm X, which foundered on his increasing conviction that he was God; he left her for another girlfriend, who was killed by being buried alive in Trinidad, while Jamal himself was later murdered. This she described in Make Believe (1993).

Her happiest relationship was eight years with the Jamaican playwright, Barry Reckord, though he carried on living in her flat for three decades after it ended. In 2004 she appeared on Desert Island Discs, and in 2008 won the Costa Prize for Somewhere Towards the End. In 2009, she was appointed OBE, and moved into a retirement home in Highgate.

A book of short stories appeared in 2011, as did another memoir, Instead of a Letter; Alive, Alive Oh! followed in 2015 and A Florence Diary in 2016. She had no children, though she wrote about a miscarriage, aged 43, from her relationship with Reckord.

Diana Athill remained alert and lively, and died after a short illness on January 23.