Carmen Callil set up Virago to publish books that celebrated women -
and dreamt of shelves of green paperbacks all over the world. The
Modern Classics list gave voice to generations of novelists who might
have been forgotten - three decades later it is as important as ever.
She remembers how it all began
Saturday April 26, 2008
The Virago Modern Classics really began in a convent over 60 years
ago. It was the sort of Catholic convent that should have been in
deepest Ireland, but was, in fact, in one of the more elegant suburbs
of Melbourne, Australia. There I was sent when I was eight, and from
it I was disgorged at 16. The Loreto nuns who educated me were
semi-enclosed, which meant no speech from dusk to dawn, Mass every
morning at 6.20am, a tomato for supper on Sunday nights and much
Irish brown bread the rest of the time. Rules, censorship and
silence, and above all a sense of disapproval waiting to pounce on
those rare times when you felt most entirely yourself. And an
obsession with sin. What sort of sin? Answers came there none.
Until 1977, when the writer Michael Holroyd insisted I read Antonia
White's Frost in May. This novel, about a nine-year-old girl closeted
in an English convent, is a classic - funny, wonderfully written, its
heroine a young Everywoman up against an authoritarian and
frightening body of adults who insist on subduing her spirit in the
name of God. Rosamond Lehmann used to tell me how often her readers
wrote to her exclaiming of one of her novels: "This is my story."
Frost in May was mine. I had to republish it.
I had arrived in London by 1960, and five years later, with good and
bad luck, I had begun to work in book publishing. I was a "publicity
girl", then one of the few jobs available to women who did not want
to be secretaries. It was the 60s - to me, a decade of nonchalance,
friendships and discovery. Work was my drug of choice, and in those
days it felt as though anybody could do anything.
1968 was a turning point: Paris, Grosvenor Square, the anti-apartheid
movement, the underground press of Oz, Frendz, International Times.
Mostly I spent my time with an Australian mafia who were, in words
Angela Carter later used to describe me, libertarian anarchists. In
truth, at that point, I fear that Angie had no concept of the
Australian bourgeois comfort and attitudes which produced "such as
we". Some of us were hippies, but most were writers, journalists or
in television. We lived well, worked and drank hard, and would not be
seen dead in anything but the very best Ossie Clark.
I came to feminism through the offices of Ink newspaper in Princedale
Road, London W11, led there by my Australian mafia. Ink, an offshoot
of Oz, was a weekly newspaper that Richard Neville, Andrew Fisher, Ed
Victor and Felix Dennis had decided to launch as a bridge between the
underground press of the 1960s and the national newspapers of that
time. Whatever we women did for Ink - and there were many of us - in
my memory the lovely men of the left and of hippiedom treated us like
fluttering tinkerbells, good for making tea and providing sex.
Poor Ink. Launched in April 1971, it collapsed with the Oz trial for
obscenity of that summer, which justifiably took most of Richard and
Felix's energies. By April 1972, Ink was in liquidation, but the
women I met there sent me on my way. The first was another
Australian, Marsha Rowe, so irritated by her experiences - "we were
seen as chicks" - that, with others, she held a series of women's
meetings. Out of these sprang the feminist magazine Spare Rib, which
Marsha started with Rosie Boycott, who was working on Frendz magazine
at the time. I did the publicity for the first issue of Spare Rib in
June 1972, and one day, when having a drink in a pub in Goodge
Street, the idea for my publishing company came to me like the
switching on of a light bulb.
I remember my ambitions clearly. I started Virago to break a silence,
to make women's voices heard, to tell women's stories, my story and
theirs. How often I remember sitting at dinner tables in the 1960s,
the men talking to each other about serious matters, the women
sitting quietly like decorated lumps of sugar. I remember one such
occasion when I raised my fist, banged the table and shouted: "I have
views on Bangladesh too!"
My inspiration was always literary. It was books and writers and
writing I loved. I always believed that books change lives, that
writers change lives, and I still believe it. I also believed - still
do - that injustice corrupts those who are responsible for it, and I
wanted change for our brothers, husbands, uncles, fathers too. I
started Virago to publish books which celebrated women and women's
lives, and which would, by so doing, spread the message of women's
liberation to the whole population and knock on the head for ever the
idea that it was anything to do with burning bras or hating men.
Looking back, the arrogance of our position ("you will change whether
you like it or not, dammit") is striking.
Marsha and Rosie became directors of my new company. Rosie proved to
be exactly my kind of companion-in-arms. We spent hours trawling
through books on goddesses ancient and modern, until Rosie spotted an
entry for a female warrior, a Virago. We chose it for this heroic
meaning: a strong, courageous, outspoken woman, a battler.
Irreverence and heroism, that's what we wanted.
To finance it, I continued to do publicity for publishers and
whatever came to hand, my logo an apple standing on one foot,
underneath it inscribed "Anything outrageous suitably publicised".
The apple was done by a desginer friend who created the first cover
for Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch
I lived off the Kings Road at the time, in an attic bedsitter above a
synagogue. On Saturdays the chant from below mixed with the noise of
Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" bellowing from the shops in the road,
as I strode up and down the street exuding style and commitment: not
just to women and what women did, but to everything that might change
Harriet Spicer, who now chooses Britain's judges as a member of the
Judicial Appointments Commission (an equally difficult task), became
my assistant, her first job, straight from Oxford. Her heroic
activity was to keep the publicity work, which partially financed
Virago, ticking over, while I darted around in pursuit of books to
publish. I have always found it strange that my impatient personality
chose this slowest and most frustrating form of expression. Finding
authors, nurturing their books, and then mothering them through the
publishing process generally takes years. By 1975, the first list was ready.
Women surged up the steep stairs to my attic: some of them were angry
women - why did I give my women's publishing company such an
aggressive, man-hating name? Irony, I would reply. Others toiled
upstairs with manuscripts on Russian women revolutionaries,
goddesses, interviews with women famous and unknown, children,
motherhood, cancer, the vagina and all its works. Most asked: Can I
help? And many did; hundreds of women and men helped me start Virago.
Anna Coote, whom I met on Ink - she was a reporter, a blonde beauty
floating around in a kaftan, this again probably more appreciated on
Ink than her incisive brain - found me my first author when she sent
her friend Mary Chamberlain to climb up my stairs. Her book Fenwoman:
A Portrait of Women in an English Village was the very first Virago.
All my closest friends helped me in those early years. Foremost was
Liz Calder, later the founder editor of Bloomsbury. The writer and
editor John Knowler unearthed Margaret Atwood and Grace Paley for me.
Philippa Harrison, years later, took Virago under her umbrella when
we sold the company to Little, Brown in 1995. Sonny Mehta, now
publisher of Knopf in the US, led me silently (as ever) and patiently
through the complex mysteries of publishing. The literary agent
Deborah Rogers, the presiding literary presence of the 70s, was
another. In all the copious attention given to Virago over the years,
it is rarely noticed how much it was a product of a younger
generation of British publishers and agents who were part of the
rebellious - and generous - times in which we all lived.
Another publisher, Christopher MacLehose, put me in touch with Ursula
Owen, whom I hired as a part-time editor in 1974. Ursula belonged to
the socialist, academic, philosophical world of British feminism, and
had contacts and insights quite different from mine. After her
arrival, and the first books had been published, my literary tastes
encountered the purer waters of European socialism and feminism.
Until 1976, I had financed Virago by my work, a tiny bank overdraft
(all they would give me) and, both then and later, through the deep
eccentricities of my turbulent family.
The first nine books were published in association with Quartet
Books. This was insufficient freedom on all fronts, and the three of
us - Ursula, Harriet and myself - struggled to raise money for Virago
to become an independent publishing company. This we did in 1976.
Harriet bought 20% of the company; I gave Ursula 30% of it (she had
earned it); and the rest remained mine. By 1978, Alexandra Pringle,
now editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury, and Lennie Goodings, publisher of
Virago today, had made us a quintet. Later, with the influx of a
younger generation of women, ownership and the list changed, but
these five women were the core of Virago when the novels re-published
as Virago Modern Classics first entered the world.
Ursula brought to Virago women who formed a part of our advisory
group, 30 to 40 women made up of my connections, and hers. The
historians and academics Ursula knew, already well versed in the new
study of women's history, were experts on women's lives recorded in
memoirs and autobiographies, in most cases books that had been out of
print for decades. Our advisers directed us back to women's writing
of the past, suggested writers, wrote introductions, spread the word
and for each of us, in different ways, became a community of friends
But, until I thought up the idea of the Virago Modern Classics, I
remained uneasy. Rosie and Marsha, after sterling work in the early
years, had disappeared into the hectic life of Spare Rib, and I was
sorely out of place in the sombre waters of socialist feminism. I had
a libertarian dread of preaching to people and an Australian longing
for people to answer back. And, god knows, those early days of
feminism were serious days, which in many ways took me back to the
atmosphere of my convent. In the service of The Cause, we were
monstrously hard on each other. All movements thrive on a sense of
pouncing disapproval in the air.
And so, if founding Virago was my first light bulb, dreaming up the
Classics was the second. How could I publish Frost in May? The answer
came quite easily: here was the celebration and fun I was looking
for, here was a way of illuminating women's history in a way that
would reach out to a much wider audience of both women and men. I
would publish a multitude of novels, I would publish them in a
series, I would market them as a brand, just like Penguin. If one
novel could tell the story of my life, there were hundreds more, and
thousands of readers who would feel as I did.
I consulted my colleagues, my fixation reaching such a degree that
poor Harriet tells of me pinning our designer to the wall, demanding
five colour covers, exquisite paper, washed tops, strings, and every
production frill for my beloved new idea. Penguin used a serious male
thinker - Isaac Newton? - to advertise their classics. The Virago
Modern Classics list was meant to be more ebullient, a library of
women's fiction with Boadicea rather than Newton waving the flag. I
chose green because it was neither blue for a boy nor pink for a
girl. I saw in my mind rows of green paperbacks with luscious covers
on all the bookshelves of the world.
The idea sprang in part from the women's movement, but also from my
past: from my father's vast library in which I had buried myself
during my childhood, and from my mother's love of reading, and of
reading aloud to us, her four children. (A number of the novels we
were to publish as Classics came from my mother: Willa Cather,
Christina Stead, Henry Handl Richardson, and more. To this day, she
remains the only person I have known who read Dorothy Richardson's
four-volume sequence Pilgrimage from beginning to end.) And, of
course, from hundreds of women and men who cared not one jot for
feminism. In the pre-pill and pre-abortion days of the early 60s,
those of us unfortunate enough to need abortions passed around copies
of Rosamond Lehmann's The Weather in the Streets, in hardback
editions bought at secondhand bookshops. This novel, alas, was all
too often "the story" of women before the Abortion Act of 1967.
In the publishing world of the 60s and 70s, women rarely had the
opportunity to choose which books to publish, and paperback lists,
particularly, reflected this. But now the choice of novels was mine.
It was common to think of the literary tradition that runs from Jane
Austen through Ivy Compton-Burnett to Barbara Pym as a clever and
witty women's view of a small domestic world. This was not a ghetto
we accepted. The female tradition included writers of vast ambition
and great achievement: mistresses of comedy, drama, storytelling, of
the domestic world we knew and loved. I saw a large world, not a
small canvas, with all of human life on display, a great library of
women's fiction, marginalised, silenced, out of print and
unavailable. Such writing has always been part of women's history. We
despised the concepts of "woman novelist", and "female imagination",
so often used to dismiss books we cherished.
The first five classics were published in 1978. Michael Holroyd
suggested Mr Fortune's Maggot and The True Heart by Sylvia Townsend
Warner, as well as Frost in May. Holroyd and Angela Carter had a
profound influence on the list. Angie admired the ambitious and
complex novels of Christina Stead as the very opposite of the "small
English novel". Stead's Letty Fox: Her Luck and For Love Alone were
the next Classics. Stevie Smith's The Holiday came next, and the
eighth was Margaret Atwood's Surfacing. Thirty years later, Virago
still publishes Atwood's paperbacks.
Then followed years of dedicated reading, and within four years the
list was a hundred novels strong. In those days I was an insomniac,
but I also curtailed my high life: 10pm and I was off to the stack of
novels, usually borrowed from the London Library, which lay in piles
around my bed. My company was an army of remarkably named women - E
Arnot Robertson, F Tennyson Jesse, Elizabeth von Arnim, EM Delafield
- and enchanting titles: I'm Not Complaining (Ruth Adam), Tea at Four
O'Clock (Janet McNeill), The Brontës Went to Woolworths (Rachel
Ferguson), Cassandra at the Wedding (Dorothy Baker). Those days spent
in the London Library were some of the happiest of my life. One
author led to another, for if Virago itself was very much the product
of a particular generation of British publishers, the Virago Modern
Classics became what Lennie Goodings describes as "a uniquely
collaborative enterprise", as forgotten novels and neglected writers
bloomed like a watered desert. It seemed as though the whole world
entered the fray. First came readers - their letters poured in, about
books they loved (they still write, but on the internet).
Recommendations followed from bookshops, from academics, librarians,
from our friends and relations, from literary agents and publishers,
author's families too.
But the biggest contribution came from writers whose names read like
a roll call of the best of our time. Each of them seemed to choose a
writer they loved best to write about in introductions to our
reissues and elsewhere: AS Byatt twinned herself with Willa Cather;
Victoria Glendinning with Rebecca West and Vita Sackville West; Polly
Devlin with Molly Keane; Janet Watts with Rosamond Lehmann; Sally
Beauman with EH Young; Anita Brookner with Margaret Kennedy. Germaine
Greer wrote about Henry Handl Richardson. Jenny Uglow and Hermione
Lee would turn their hands to any of them, though I always thought of
Hermione as the champion of Edith Wharton. Margaret Drabble wrote
about her friend Nell Dunn. The much-lamented Paul Foot advocated
Olive Schreiner, Penelope Fitzgerald Mrs Oliphant. Susannah Clapp and
Paul Bailey were attached to perhaps my favourite Virago Modern
Classic author, Elizabeth Taylor. Penelope Lively, Lorna Sage, Marina
Warner, Maeve Binchey, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Anita Desai - the names
are legion. Today younger writers - Sarah Waters, Jonathan Coe, Julie
Myerson, Justine Picardie - do the same.
The Classics became a sort of cultural game, one writer connected to
another as in snakes and ladders. Snakes were few, though I became
very tired of writers I was about to republish who would stare at me
pointedly and say "I like men you know"; Christina Stead turned out
to be a Stalinist monster of the very first order. But mostly they
were ladders. Virginia Woolf had expressed the greatest admiration
for FM Mayor. So had EM Forster. Woolf recommended the book to
Elizabeth Jenkins. Rosamond Lehmann led me to Elizabeth Jenkins, and
so the chain became longer. In 1978, many of my heroines were still
alive. Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote to me comfortingly about my lack
of knowledge of classical Greek; Sylvie Ashton Warner wrote, "Dear
publisher with the exotic name, I would prefer it if you were called
Karmin Kahlil." In pursuit of Jane Bowles an amazing correspondence
developed between Paul Bowles and me about the copyright in Jane's
work, which the publisher Peter Owen said belonged to him.
Of the older generation, the writer I loved most was Antonia White,
who provided me with whisky, cigarettes and affection until her death
in 1980, and Rosamond Lehmann, my friend for a decade, who knew or
recommended every writer of her time: May Sinclair, FM Mayor, Sybil
Bedford, Rose Macaulay, Elizabeth Jenkins. Dismissing Tillie Olsen's
worthy sentiments about the limitations of the housewife's lot,
Angela Carter wrote: "I can only say that the only time I ever iron
the sheets or make meringues is when there is an absolutely urgent
deadline in the offing . . ." Margaret Atwood wrote comforting words
about Maggie Thatcher "at least her ears don't wiggle when she
talks". Graham Greene, who approved of me because of Antonia White,
suggested Barbara Comyns (her husband had been a colleague of his
when both were some sort of British spy during the war). The letters
of Rebecca West to Virago are on occasion masterpieces of vitriol.
Stevie Smith's executor wanted me to know how much she disliked George Orwell.
As the list grew, we covered the world. There were Irish classics,
Scottish classics, Australian, Victorian, Canadian, American, New
Zealand, Caribbean, 20th-century classics, but my favourites will
always be the English classics, which reveal more about life on this
island than a hundred history books. I have always loved flawed
novels, as well as those of the great and good. In explaining my
literary stance at the time I wrote: "by the word 'classic' we do not
always mean 'great', though we often do. And then there is laughter:
this is the secret key to instant republication as a Virago Modern
Classic." That said, we had our standards. For some years I chose all
the Classics, but as time went by first Alexandra Pringle and then
Lynn Knight (now a lecturer and biographer of the English potter
Clarice Cliff) joined me, to form a trio that read everything. We had
a limit known as the Whipple line, below which we would not sink.
Dorothy Whipple was a popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s whose
prose and content absolutely defeated us. A considerable body of
women novelists, who wrote like the very devil, bit the Virago dust
when Alexandra, Lynn and I exchanged books and reports, on which I
would scrawl a brief rejection: "Below the Whipple line."
The Virago archive is a treasure trove of correspondence with some of
the best women writers of the 20th and current century, and founded
as the company was before the advent of email, everything is still
there in those files, letters often adorned with my filing
instructions "put wherever". Today, I mourn the loss of my luscious
green covers, but the younger generation - like me, 30 years ago -
always wants change. The Virago Modern Classics are not finished, and
never will be. They remain as a testament to a group of very
energetic, devoted young women, to bad typewriters, often illegible
handwriting, and long hours of deeply non-unionised work, reading and
research. Now commissioning editor Donna Coonan, a toddler in 1978,
is as addicted to, and as passionate about, the list as we all were
then. In February, I went to speak to the Suffolk Book League.
Afterwards a clutch of women, grey-haired like me, came up and one by
one said, "Thank you so much." "My favourite is Winifred Holtby",
"Your Classics got me through every pram I had in the hall" and "I
love my shelf of green Viragos". It was the writers and their novels
they were really thanking, women writing away in thankless times. All
that was required was to know they were there, to love them, and to
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Virago Modern Classics, eight
hardbacks - Excellent Women by Barbara Pym, The Diary of a Provincial
Lady by EM Delafield, A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor,
Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann, A Far Cry from Kensington
by Muriel Spark, 84 Charing Cross by Helene Hanff, Their Eyes Were
Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, The Magic Toyshop by Angela
Carter - will be republished with cover designs by leading female
textile designers (Orla Kiely, Cath Kidston, Celia Birtwell, Barbara
Hulanicki, Lucienne Day, Marion Dorn, Loïs Mailou Jones, Jacqueline
Groag) on May 8, price £10 each.