As Virago Modern Classics celebrates 30 years of publishing great overlooked works of women's fiction, Helen Jennings talks to its founder Carmen Callil about her attempts to redefine the classics.
Another bite of the apple
It all began with Antonia White's Frost in May, a 1933 novel fictionalising the author's childhood in a Catholic boarding school. Without it Virago Modern Classics, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, might not exist at all. "The writer Michael Holroyd gave me a copy and told me, 'This is the story of your life'," the Virago founder Carmen Callil recalls. Having spent her own formative years at a strict convent in Melbourne, the story struck a chord. "I read it in one weekend and decided I had to find a way to publish the book. It was like the switching on of a light bulb."
Callil had moved to London in the 1960s and trailblazed her way through the emerging feminist movement as an Ossie Clark-clad publicity girl. In 1973 she decided to set up the first by-women for-women publisher and aptly named it Virago: "a manlike, vigorous, and heroic woman: a female warrior; an amazon", in the words of the OED. Its early books spread the message of women's lives and liberation, each one embossed with Virago's logo, Eve's bitten apple, as a sign of salacious quality.
By 1978 the company was established as a feminist mouthpiece, but something was missing. "When I started Virago I wanted to change the world, yes, but my colleagues took a more serious line than I did. I had very definite opinions of my own but I never liked the idea of lecturing people. With Virago Modern Classics I just loved the books." With Frost in May she began a new literary series aimed at dusting off fiction by forgotten female authors. This lost tradition of women's novel-writing proved to be an untapped well and the list soon multiplied.
"Michael (Holroyd) recommended Sylvia Townsend Warner, our second VMC. Margaret Atwood came to me through a friend at the New York Review of Books. My mother introduced me to Dorothy Richardson. One writer seemed to lead to another. By the third year suggestions were coming in from everywhere, including the readers." Not all the authors were pleased to be exhumed, however. "Christina Stead thought we were all a bunch of lesbians. She was the most unpleasant author I've ever come across. A great writer but ghastly!"
Callil had the last say on which books made it into one of VMC's iconic green dustcovers and her exacting standards helped redefine a "classic". "An important aspect was whether the story illuminated women's history, which has everything to do with family, children, the war and what makes women laugh. Female irony in English goes back to Jane Austen so I always looked out for authors who wrote in that vein such as Elizabeth Taylor and Stevie Smith. Also important was a certain sense of independence in the spirit of the book. A man friend said to me at the time, 'You've made women the centre of the universe' which may sound ridiculous now but up until the late 20th century women placed men at the centre of their universe."
Of course many well-meaning books didn't make the grade. "We called it the Whipple Line. Dorothy Whipple's subjects were intrinsically interesting but her writing was simply too bad. Some authors we published weren't first class but she was fifth class so we wouldn't publish any book that fell below the line." At first alongside her close friends Marsha Rowe and Rosie Boycott, who started the feminist magazine Spare Rib, and then with the help of her original colleagues Harriet Spicer, Ursula Owen, Alexandra Pringle (now editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury) and Lennie Goodings (now publisher of Virago), the list continued to expand to include the likes of Willa Cather, Edith Wharton and Callil's dear friends Angela Carter and Rosamond Lehmann. It was a close-knit, fiery team. "The press said I am an appalling boss but that can't be 100 per cent true if so many of my staff are still friends. I'm an old crone these days so I can say I was an entrepreneur and a foreigner so I didn't know how to behave."
She also proved a reluctant adversary to other women who misunderstood Virago's message. "We had a Barmy Letters and Abuse File. One time this woman representing the League of Women came to complain about using a word like Virago for a women's publishing house," Callil chuckles. "Lots of women didn't like feminism and thought it was all about burning bras. I couldn't have existed without bras! None of that man-hating stuff applied to me but if you declared yourself as a feminist people were terrified. I had to put up with it."
For every letter of complaint, however, there have been countless contented customers. "So many wonderful people tell me they still have their shock of green Viragos. One lady said they'd helped her get through bringing up her children. She'd have her baby in one arm and a VMC in the other. Lots of men come up too of course. What they all talk about is the enjoyment of reading." In the early 1990s Virago suffered financial upheavals and Callil left in 1995 when the company was sold to Little, Brown. Still under its umbrella today, Virago is thriving with a turnover of £5 million (Dh36.6m) and a backlist of over 500 titles. Donna Coonan, current commissioning editor of Virago Modern Classics, remembers her first taste of Virago. "I was about 13 when I discovered the green spines in my school library. The first one I read was I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Later on I fell in love with Willa Cather and Margaret Atwood too."
The green spines are long gone but the detective work continues as Virago reincarnates more authors for a new generation of readers. Coonan has personally championed Daphne du Maurier and Janet Frame and is excited by the upcoming release of Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons. "Cold Comfort Farm is a favourite for so many people but nothing else of hers was in print. I started trawling through her books and found this 1930s Cinderella story that is just perfect for modern audiences."
It's undeniable that Virago has changed the publishing landscape; the glass ceiling for female authors has been smashed. But Coonan feels Virago still has prejudices to battle. "The canon of writers who are considered 'greats' remains very testosterone led. A book by Rushdie or McEwan is seen as a big literary event. Meanwhile the fact that female authors do well in the marketplace isn't as recognised." She also counters the claim that women's writing is too domestic. "There are plenty of men who write brilliantly about love, the home and families yet somehow they're not criticised for it like women are. Of course these everyday issues are life itself. And so we will continue looking for great hidden gems by women writers who have been neglected for whatever reason and make them successful. It's what we stand for."
Virago opened Pandora's box 30 years ago, but thankfully its delights are far from exhausted. Helen Jennings writes for Touch, Eyemazing, Oyster, and the BBC.