Carmen Callil obituary: Founder of feminist press Virago and self-confessed ‘difficult woman’

Australia-born editor championed women writers and revived forgotten classics but was an at-times tyrannical boss

Born: July 15th, 1938

Died: October 17th, 2022

Carmen Callil often recalled the night she lost it at a dinner party in London during the Swinging Sixties. It was a typical evening: the men were talking politics, the women were “sitting quietly like lumps of sugar”, and Callil had had enough.

“I have views on Bangladesh too!” she shouted, banging her fist on the table. As she would say later: “I always wanted to change the world. It simply wasn’t good enough.”

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Callil (pronounced cah-LILL) would go on to found the feminist publishing house Virago and its enduringly popular imprint, Virago Modern Classics, which expanded the literary canon by reissuing the work of then-forgotten women authors such as Rebecca West, Margaret Kennedy and Antonia White, and in so doing upended the clubby male landscape of British publishing.

Callil died on October 17th at her home in London. She was 84. Her friend Kathy Lette, an Australian novelist, said the cause was leukaemia.

Rosie Boycott chose the name — a virago is defined both as a strong, heroic woman and as a harpy — and it fit the mission, and perhaps also Callil’s persona

Virago began in Callil’s apartment, an attic bedsit off the King’s Road. It was 1973 and she had been helping to publicise Adam’s Rib, a feminist magazine started by two journalists, Marsha Rowe, who like her was Australian-born, and Rosie Boycott, when one night in a pub she had what she called a “lightbulb” moment and decided to form a mainstream company that would publish books by and for women. Boycott chose the name — a virago is defined both as a strong, heroic woman and as a harpy — and it fit the mission, and perhaps also Callil’s persona.

“It is an unlovely and aggressive name,” author Anthony Burgess famously sneered in The Observer in 1979, “even for a militant feminist organisation.”

But hundreds of women — and some men, among them future Knopf publisher Sonny Mehta — were eager to lend a hand to the venture with contacts, introductions, financing and design advice.

Virago’s first book was Fenwomen: A Portrait of Women in an English Village (1975), a social history by Mary Chamberlain about impoverished women in a remote town. Ten more titles followed that year. Among them was Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden, a compendium of women’s sexual fantasies that was already a bestseller in United States; Virago’s proofreader, alarmed by its contents, scrawled a protest in the margins of Page 18: “I can’t bear to read any more of this!” At a news conference held that year, one male journalist asked how, going forward, they could possibly find more works of woman authorship to publish.

‘I had to republish it’

Rowe and Boycott ultimately moved on, and Callil was joined by Harriet Spicer; Ursula Owen, who added intellectual and feminist heft to the endeavour, according to Callil, whose own tastes were more purely literary; Alexandra Pringle, who would go on to be editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury Publishing; and Lennie Goodings, who many years later would run Virago. Callil, Spicer and Owen used their mortgages as collateral to finance Virago, along with a small but constant running overdraft of Callil’s bank account.

Then, in 1977, author Michael Holroyd handed Callil a copy of Frost in May (1933), an autobiographical novel by Antonia White. Its heroine was a spirited nine-year-old trapped in a repressive convent school, and her experience spoke to Callil, who had suffered a similar upbringing. It was her story, Callil declared in an article in The Guardian in 2008, adding, “I had to republish it.”

Callil created the Virago Modern Classics imprint to exhume work such as White’s and to broaden the reach of the new company. Inspired by the Penguin Classics series, she gave the imprint a visual identity: a green cover — a gender-free hue, unlike pink or blue — that she envisioned “on all the bookshelves of the world”.

The next year, Virago published five Modern Classics, and it would go on to publish hundreds more, by authors including Molly Keane, Margaret Atwood, Zora Neale Hurston and Eudora Welty. And as she predicted, that green spine would become ubiquitous in certain circles, a signifier of a particular literary taste and sensibility.

Securing the publishing rights was not always easy, and some living authors disavowed the mission: ‘I like men, you know,’ was a phrase Callil heard way too often

Men stacked Virago Modern Classics by their beds to impress dates with their discernment and enlightened ways, Goodings recalled in her 2020 memoir, A Bite of the Apple: A Life With Books, Writers and Virago.

Contemporary authors would suggest their out-of-print or forgotten favourites, and then write the introduction to the new edition — AS Byatt for Willa Cather; Anita Brookner for Margaret Kennedy; Victoria Glendinning for Vita Sackville-West. Callil described it as a literary version of the game Snakes and Ladders. Securing the rights was not always easy, and some living authors disavowed the mission: “I like men, you know,” was a phrase Callil heard way too often.

In 2008, Callil, by then heralded as a publishing superstar, gave a talk to a literary organisation, after which, she said, “a clutch of women, grey-haired like me, came up and one by one said, ‘Thank you so much.’”

“It’s not too much to claim,” author Margaret Drabble was quoted as saying in Goodings’ memoir, “that Virago Modern Classics changed the course of English literary history.”

‘Catholic bubble’

Carmen Thérèse Callil was born on July 15, 1938, in Melbourne, Australia, the third of four children of Frederick Callil, a barrister and lecturer in French at the University of Melbourne, and Lorraine (Allen) Callil.

Callil grew up devouring her opera-loving, bibliophile father’s books — he had a capacious library of the classics — and “in a Catholic bubble”, she told The Financial Times in 2020. Her father died when Callil was young, and she was sent to a convent school, where the rules, censorship and silence, as she put it, nearly flattened her.

She studied history and literature at the University of Melbourne and left home in 1960, just after graduating, arriving in London by way of Italy and settling in, as she said, with the corps of “an Australian mafia” who were working in publishing or television. She was a “publicity girl,” one of the few jobs open to women who didn’t want to be secretaries. “We lived well, worked and drank hard,” she wrote in 2008, “and would not be seen dead in anything but the very best Ossie Clark.”

In 1962, she would also try to kill herself — “swallowing a large bottle of inadequate sleeping pills” after a doomed affair with a married man — which sent her into therapy for the next eight years.

The early days of Virago were tense, often unbearably so, but they were exhilarating, too, Pringle said by phone. The diminutive Callil was a tiny tyrant clad in festive sweaters knitted with koala bears; she did not like to share, Owen wrote, and was seemingly allergic to the pronoun “we”. She used the word “darling” like a weapon and was known for withering statements such as: “I’m less than not interested in your personal life.” She had a file called “All Pain and Anguish”, Pringle said, into which she would throw the correspondence of whomever she was having a fight with. It was a very large file.

Pringle said she woke up most mornings in tears, but she stayed at Virago for 12 years and ended up choosing the titles for the Modern Classics. “I learned everything I know about publishing from Carmen,” she said.

In 1982, Callil, then a rising star, was wooed by the venerable publishing house Chatto & Windus to become its managing director. She took the job, but she took Virago with her and remained its chairwoman for the next tumultuous decade as it regained its independence through a management buyout in 1987, and then lost it again through a forced sale to Little, Brown in 1995. Callil’s was the deciding vote.

‘He goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe’

Callil then turned to writing her own books, including Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family, Fatherland and Vichy France (2006), an investigation into the life of her psychiatrist’s father, who turned out to be, as Janet Maslin noted in her review in The New York Times, “a minor but monstrous eminence”. The idea for the book was born when her doctor killed herself and Callil set out to discover why. It was well reviewed, but it drew fire when Callil equated the treatment of Jews by the French during the second World War with that of the Palestinians by Israel.

Ferocious ways

In 2011 she drew fire again when she withdrew from her role as a judge on the panel for the prestigious Man Booker International Prize because her two male colleagues had voted to give the award to Philip Roth, of whom she said, according to The Guardian: “He goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.”

She later rued her ferocious ways — sort of. In 2020 she gave a speech at an annual dinner held by Chatto & Windus in which she apologised for being “a difficult woman.”

“But, you know, sometimes you have to be difficult if you want to change the world,” she said. “You can’t do it by being mimsy.”

Callil’s brother Julian is her sole immediate survivor.

In 2017, Queen Elizabeth II made Calill a dame, the woman equivalent of a knighthood, for her “services to literature.” — This article originally appeared in The New York Times.