So it really was like discovering a huge supply of treats. Like her, I think about those days with no little pleasure but, in this instance, I also have a reason. So funny, and so true'. In , the list was diminished down to titles from more than , and some authors once again were out of print: if you fancy reading Spinster or Red Pottage now, your best bet is Abe books online or a secondhand shop. But, in other ways, it marches on. This year, Virago has republished both An Angel At My Table, Janet Frame's memoir of her time in psychiatric institutions, and Daphne du Maurier's Hungry Hill - which means, thrillingly, that every one of her books is back in print Virago has almost singlehandedly rescued Du Maurier from her long-standing reputation as a writer of potboilers, and with good reason - as Stephen King has put it: 'Du Maurier created a scale by which modern women can measure their feelings'.
These days, though, you feel that as a company it cares at least as much about inspiration and simple joy as it does about sexual politics and in that sense, I would say, it has been the victim of its own hard-won success. At first, the plan was to publish new work by women writers; Virago was unashamedly a feminist publishing house.
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But in , Callil had the idea for 'my beloved Classics'. How did it come to her? In the kitchen of her house in west London, still stuffed to the roof with green spines, she tells me. I thought: I have got to find a way of publishing this book. But I had the sisters to contend with. Some of the early feminists were socialists. There were jolly socialists, and there were wretched socialists who didn't have any joy in life.
I had to think of a way of not offending them. I thought: I'll do a series. They'll look uniform, with fabulous covers, and they'll be beautiful. But it would never have happened without Frost in May. It was not hard to find other suitable books. Bookshops would ring, and the public, and friends. I read every novel in that book: all the Victorians came from it.
Red Pottage! I love Red Pottage! What standards were the books required to meet? Betty Miller: her books are so badly written, but two were very evocative. Whipple does, however, have her fans; she is now published by Persephone, which also revives out-of-print work by women. Not everyone, of course, thought as highly of the list as Callil.
Collins, for instance, would not let her publish Lehmann, whose rights it owned, for several years. Do you want to see my abuse file?
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Collins didn't even mention it to her. I spent years of my life explaining that I didn't hate men. The tedium of it! Some women were suspicious of the list, too, even some writers. Marghanita Laski [the novelist] hated feminism. Women like her didn't want to belong to anything that they thought would alienate them from men. Christina Stead [the Australian novelist] thought she was being published by a bunch of lesbians, and said so.
Oh, the disagreeableness of some of these women must be discussed! The woman with whom Kate O'Brien [the Irish novelist, still published by Virago] had lived all her life had hysterics if you mentioned her lesbianism. She used to say that he hung like an albatross around her neck.
The story of Virago was not always a happy one. In the early s, the company struggled financially; various buy-outs and sales followed, and the women who ran the business, or at least some of them, fell out. Through all this, the classics survived - though it was obvious that the swollen list would have to pruned.
Some of its more obscure authors just did not sell in sufficient numbers. Did the list get too big? I loved it too much. It's an impressive sight.
I turn it over. On the other side is an illustration. Three women are in a rowing boat laden with green-spined books. They are heading towards a desert island. One of them already has her nose in a book; another is gazing at the island longingly, three books tucked protectively under her arm. Did the Virago Modern Classics really change anything? Of course they did. People are apt to forget, now, how much Virago shifted the landscape not only of publishing, but of academia, too. In , publishers ignore women readers and writers at their peril, while schools and universities have been forced, after decades of neglect, to include women writers in syllabuses.
I remember thinking that the world had changed while my back was turned, and changed very much for the better, as if a subtle rebalancing was occurring. Probably young women won't realise what it was like before.
A List of Virago Modern Classics | The Virago Modern
The star names among women - Murdoch, Spark - were treated like honorary men. Older, less-known women writers were only to be found in tatty library editions. Suddenly, women had become powers in the publishing industry, and they were using that fact to publicise the vitality and enduring quality of women's writing I remember a man sneering at me at a dinner party circa "Women have no tradition.
Mantel herself was particularly fond of Elizabeth Jenkins's The Tortoise and the Hare, for which she has just written a new introduction. Women wrote about life around them, rather like keeping a diary. That's important. War is not only about putting on a uniform and going off to fight. But this is not to say that the battle of the sexes, at least in literary terms, is over. Add to watch list Unwatch. Watch list is full. No additional import charges at delivery!
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