Diana Athill was born in London to an upper-class English family and raised at Ditchingham Hall, the family estate in Norfolk.
She was educated by governesses, and read English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, graduating in 1939. World War II began as she was puzzling over what sort of job she could get to support herself -- she did not then know any women of her class who worked -- and she was hired as a researcher for the BBC, where she stayed for the duration. After the war, Athill joined her friend André Deutsch in establishing his first publishing firm Allan Wingate, where she served as an editor. Five years later, in 1952, she was a founding director of his next publishing company, which bore his name. At André Deutsch, Athill worked closely with many distinguished authors, including Jean Rhys, John Updike, Mordecai Richler, Brian Moore, V.S. Naipaul, and Molly Keane,
and became known as the doyenne of English book editors. After a 50-year career in publishing, Athill retired from André Deutsch in 1993 at the age of 75. She wrote two volumes of short stories, An Unavoidable Delay (1962) and Midsummer Night in the Workhouse (2011), as well as a novel entitled Don't Look at Me Like That (1967). She also translated works from the French. However, she was best known for her remarkable series of autobiographical works and memoirs, the first of which was Instead of a Letter (1963).
These included After a Funeral (1986), winner of the J.R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography; Make Believe (1993); Stet: A Memoir (2000); Yesterday Morning: A Very English Childhood (2002); Somewhere Towards the End (2008), winner of the Costa Prize for Biography and the National Book Critics Circle Award; Instead of a Book: Letters to a Friend (2011); Alive, Alive Oh!: And Other Things That Matter (2015); and A Florence Diary (2016). Diana Athill was appointed OBE in 2009 and in 2010, she was the subject of a BBC documentary, Growing Old Disgracefully.
Throughout her 90s she also wrote for numerous publications about her passions: gardening, fashion, her family, and her continuing old age.