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.”
Virago clearly hopes that the runaway success of Emma Donoghue’s Room, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010, will inspire readers to embark on the spirited Slammerkin, set in 18th-century London, while the robust naughtiness of Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet, with its music-hall ambience, offers a muscular challenge to the hegemony of Fifty Shades of Grey.
The first volume of Maya Angelou’s fiery memoir of her childhood in the American South in the 1930s, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is a million miles from Rosamund Lehman’s beguiling Invitation to the Waltz, the story of 17-year-old Olivia Curtis on the occasion of her first dance. Angelou has always been one of the stars of the Virago list and something of a hero to this reader. Lehmann was a new discovery. I gobbled up her book in a single sitting and was almost as entranced by her person: one of the great beauties of the jazz age, a celebrity and cornerstone of the Bloomsbury set whose life spiralled into grief and addiction following the death of her daughter. Rumer Godden, another writer from the same period, weaves a compelling spell with her depiction of an Indian colonial childhood in her short novel The River, made into a classic film by Jean Renoir.
Then there is Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career. Here, alas, I have a confession to make. I thought Franklin was a man. “Everyone does,” says Cope. Eat your hearts out, JK Rowling and EL James. It’s nothing new for women writers to fudge the name issue. Franklin, whose full moniker was Stella Maria Sarah Miles, wrote My Brilliant Career when she was just 16. Its publication in 1901 brought her instant fame in her native Australia – and such notoriety that she forbade its republication until 10 years after her death.
Franklin’s novel was an inspiration to the founder of Virago, Carmen Callil, who was also born in Australia but moved to London after she took a degree in history and literature at the University of Melbourne. She conceived the idea of what she described as “the first mass-market publisher for 52 per cent of the population – women”. The first set of books was published in paperback by arrangement with their original publishers. Callil joined forces with the creators of Spare Rib magazine, Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe, and the first Virago title, Mary Chamberlain’s Fenwomen, was published in September 1973.
But it was five years later, with the publication of the first Virago Modern Classic, Antonia White’s Frost in May, that the enterprise came to maturity. The aim of Virago Modern Classics was to broaden the accepted definition of the term “classic” and claim it for a range of women writers, from George Eliot to Pat Barker, Molly Keane to Willa Cather.
“Carmen Callil decided to do this modern-classics list because there were so many stories that she couldn’t believe were no longer in print, and she wanted to create this collection to make them available,” says Cope. “She felt they revealed things about women’s lives that weren’t being articulated.”
Callil, for her part, has become a publishing legend. Stories abound about the vibrant – sometimes overheated – atmosphere in the Virago offices in the early days of the imprint, when it was squashed into a tiny space in Soho, high above Wardour Street. Editors recall Callil dictating letters on the rooftop – and their scrambles to gather up flurries of correspondence snatched by the wind. Margaret Atwood sent it all up in her hip-hop ode to the imprint on the occasion of its 30th birthday, in 2003:
They had leather satchels and sensible
though some mistook them for upmarket
And though there WAS the odd bit of
they took on the task of – women’s writing!
(A notion THEN some set great store on
was that women’s writing was an
But though doubters pointed and quipped
they rolled up their sleeves and
persevered . . .
Virago is now part of the Little, Brown publishing group. But the gender issues it was founded to address appear to be as contentious as ever. Articles regularly appear asking whether the Orange Prize is a sexist institution or whether male writers win more coverage and kudos than their female counterparts. There is still, according to Cope, plenty of room for a specialist imprint with a feminist slant.
“Virago still does have a very clear identity as the home of great women’s writing and women’s stories. That will always be at the core of what we do,” she says. “And I think more than ever there’s an appetite for reclaiming some of those values that were at the heart of Virago and Spare Rib in the 1970s. We’ve done very well with Natasha Walter’s book Living Dolls. There are lots of people asking questions again about whether things have really changed.”
Next year Virago will celebrate its 40th birthday with a series of high-profile publications, among them an anthology put together by the authors on its list. It used to be considered a dangerous age for a woman. Virago at 40, happily, has more to do with dangerous women for our age.