Remembering Diana Athill

By: Sarah MacLachlan 

It may sound odd to say but Diana Athill’s death today at age 101 took me entirely by surprise.  Such was her spirit, and her engagement with people and the world, that I had pretty much thought that she would live forever.

She was a magnificent person and a real inspiration to women in publishing — hers was an exemplary career.

On her 100th birthday a number of us were asked to contribute to a book celebrating her life.  As words seem to fail me on her death, I think that what I wrote to her on her centenary pretty much sums up how I felt about her: 

Diana Athill with the Anansi team

 

Dear Diana,

 

Ours is a relatively young friendship. We met in the spring

of 2009, when Noah Richler arranged for us to lunch in Primrose

Hill. I’ll never forget it — you then, “rising ninety-three,” as

you liked to say, and contemplating your move into Kekewich

House. I remember how clear-eyed your approach to the

move was, the same quality that impressed me so much in

Somewhere Towards the End — the title says it all. During our

Lunch, you told me of your admiration for the work of Alice

Munro and how you regretted never having had the chance to

meet her. Well, that got me going. When I asked if you’d ever

been to Canada, you answered no, and then to my further

question — would you ever consider making the journey? —

you answered, “Well, yes, perhaps.” And all this came to pass!

A flight with a business-class seat was arranged — you deserved

no less — but I suspected you might hesitate at the last minute,

so I came by London, on my way home from Frankfurt, to

bring you to Canada for an onstage interview with Alice

Munro that was part of a PEN benefit to boot. Was it any surprise

that your event had a sold-out house, or that your

conversation with Alice was one for the ages? That you and

Alice became fast friends and then correspondents? Or that,

as it turned out, shopping for a puffer coat and a new handbag

was something you’d enjoy? Still, none of these things were as

surprising as your desire to see Niagara Falls! All of which we

did and you, ever the good sport, insisted at the tourist shop

that we take the mandatory photo-booth picture of you (in

your wheelchair) being tossed over the edge of the Falls. I’ve

been your proud Canadian publisher — and admiring friend

— ever since. I love our conversations, and my only regret is

that they happen so infrequently. I love your wise insights into

the nature of your fellow humans, your great sense of humour,

your love of beautiful things and good writing, and, above all,

the example of you. I admire you hugely and send you all my

love on this your 100th birthday.

 

Love,

Sarah

 

Diana Athill at Niagara Falls

Books by Diana Athill

 


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