A Bite of the Apple: infectious enthusiasm of Virago publisher

Review: Lennie Goodings loops in narratives of authors and movements, building up rich and textured historical fabric

Author Lennie Goodings. File photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images

Author Lennie Goodings. File photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images

When Lennie Goodings arrived in London from Canada in 1977, she had a temporary working visa for visiting “the mother country”. After a short while, she landed a part-time position at Virago, a recently-established feminist press running off a low-budget and a lot of dedication. Eventually, Goodings would become the Publisher at Virago, one of the most influential and renowned presses of the 20th century. A Bite of the Apple tells the history of over 40 years of the publishing house, through its books, its characters, its finances, and its drama. It is part memoir, part history, and part an exploration of feminism, publishing, and the place of literature in affecting social progress.

The founder, Carmen Callil, is a colourful presence: determined, strong-willed, occasionally difficult, but always highly-effective. Goodings, at the start of the book, recalls asking Callil: “Why did you start Virago?” She looks up and, without missing a beat, replies, “To change the world, darling. That’s why.” Nearly 4,000 books and a list of 1,000 authors later, it is undeniable that Callil and the ‘Viragos’ achieved their mission. In fact, looking back over the list of writers discussed here, it is unthinkable to imagine the literary landscape of the West without them: contemporary writers such as Margaret Atwood, Marilynne Robinson, Angela Carter; classics by writers such as Kate O’Brien, Vera Brittain, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, and Zora Neale Hurston. That these names and their works are thankfully so fundamental to our canon is a testament not only to how effective Virago are, but also to how necessary their intervention was.

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