What a great name for a publisher of literature by women writers: Virago.
Following a brief look at Penguin publishing house a few weeks ago (here), I thought I’d take a look at another favourite publisher with a strong ethos. When setting up Virago in 1973, founder Carmen Callil wanted a name that signalled a particular attitude. ‘Virago’ can be used in a variety of ways—shrew, harridan, harpy… all signalling a bad-tempered and domineering woman. Further back historically, though, it was the term for a female warrior, a woman of strength and spirit. So. It was time for women to re-claim the word. Not only that, the books’ distinctive dark-green spines featured a bitten-apple logo, another feminist reference, evoking Eve, mother of humankind and great disruptor.
A slew of my favourite authors have been published by Virago. Let’s take a sprint through the alphabet: Atwood, Bainbridge, Carter, Dickens (Monica), Ephron, Frame, Gibbons, Highsmith, Jenkins, Keane, Lehmann, Mackay, Nesbit, Pym, Roberts, Thomas, Waters… And many more are missing from that brief round-up.
The launch of Virago Modern Classics in 1978 led to the discovery (for many readers), or rediscovery of half forgotten, often overlooked, and sometimes out-of-print women authors and gave them or gave them back a prominence they deserved. I am looking at a eclectic cross-section of titles on the shelf now: Elizabeth von Armin (Elizabeth’s German Garden, and many others); Elaine Dundee’s The Dud Avocado; Daphne du Maurier (so much more than just Rebecca); The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay; Steve Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper…
Most of these are the original green-spined copies, and my, what gorgeous covers they were given. Each book making use of an original painting or other artwork, as you can see from the photo of my copy of Celia by E.H. Young. You can see below, next to a much creased spine, a painting, ‘Gertrude in the Kitchen’ by Harold Harvey (who, Dr Google informs me, was a Cornish artist of the Newlyn [in Cornwall] School).
But who was E.H. Young? An author, of course, one writing in the early twentieth century, writing for children as well as adults. A supporter of the women’s suffrage movement, her themes (as is the case in Celia), tell of the limitations women typically found (and can still find) imposed upon their lives. And in common with many of the other afore-mentions authors and titles, I would not have discovered her if it had not been for Virago Modern Classics.
Virago has reissued many of its titles in rather lovely, often delicate, newer designs. However, I retain a nostalgic preference for the sturdy-looking green spines of yesteryear. Handily, Goodreads features a (long!) list of favourite Virago Modern Classics here for your perusal. Personally, I couldn’t pick my clear winners.
Since 1996, Virago has been an imprint of Little Brown, but their ethos remains in place. What a service they have done to women writers – and to women per se.
In an article marking the 30th anniversary of Virago Modern Classics a few years ago, Callil wrote, “I started Virago to break a silence, to make women’s voices heard, to tell women’s stories, my story and theirs.”
So glad that she did.
Carmen Callil, ‘Stories of our Lives’ in The Guardian, April 2008, retrieved 09 February 2020.