What women want
Can the feminist imprint Virago woo a new generation of readers with its classics, asks ARMINTA WALLACE
ASK A LINGUIST what “virago” means and you’ll get a gloriously convoluted explanation that combines the Latin root vir, meaning man, with the feminine suffix ago to produce something along the lines of “like a man, only better”. Ask your online thesaurus and it will go all judgmental, suggesting “harridan”, “shrew”, “termagant” or, when it really gets into its stride, “fishwife”, “witch” and even “hellcat”.
To a reader, though, “Virago” is just a label you find on the cover of a reliably high-quality book. Since it was founded, in 1973, the feminist publishing house has created a distinctive identity in a publishing world that has become steadily more homogenised. In that time it has published everything from polemical works by Kate Millett and Adrienne Rich to irresistibly readable novels by Angela Carter and Marilynne Robinson.
Virago has always been particularly clever about repackaging writers we may have forgotten or neglected. Its latest series, the Coming of Age Collection, features half a dozen hardbacks: Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue, Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann, My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters, The River by Rumer Godden and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.
The idea, explains Rowan Cope, a Virago editor, is to appeal to both adult and young adult readers. “Next year we’ll be doing books for younger readers, and this is a way of getting close to that,” she says. “We’re pushing the boundaries a bit. There are several publishers who are doing hardback classics, but we want something that will look, and read, a bit different.”
The books look good enough to eat. Penguin has recently come under fire for unveiling a series of classics with saucy covers – Romeo sporting designer stubble and a vest, Wuthering Heights emblazoned with a strip that reads “Bella and Edward’s favourite novel” – in an attempt to appeal to the Twilight and young-adult market. Virago has taken a less aggressively commercial line, but Cope admits that the cover art has been a crucial element in the mix.
“The illustrator, Mira Nameth, is based in New York, and although she has done lots of book jackets she has also done magazine work for perfumes and so on.”
The red theme came from Nameth; the jewel-like turquoise detailing was Cope’s idea, “to make the covers pop”, as she puts it. The textured paper also feels good in the hand, a declaration that in a digital world, the paper book is still an artefact to treasure.
In the end, of course, it’s what’s inside the covers that counts – and there’s a “teenager with attitude” theme running through this collection. Cope laughs. “Yes. They are wayward women,” she says. “And the stories are exciting. The historical fiction, particularly, is something we hope parents will encourage their young adults to read.”