Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Two Hundred (and ten) Virago’s - and counting

It sometimes seems that my mission in life is to accumulate; books of course, but also shells, little pebbles, shoes, postcards, pictures generally, bits of ribbon, odd socks (though I swear they start out as pairs) theatre programmes, stuff for the kitchen – well you get the idea, and all of it collects dust like nobody’s business, but within the general accumulation there are little hoards which are genuine collections and the one dearest to my heart is my collection of Virago books.

I currently have just over two hundred volumes – which is almost double the number I think I had a year ago – the sudden acceleration is due to (mostly) friendly rivalry with the blonde – last time I checked she was about 2 books behind me – but she’s sneaky so I may be behind now... I should admit that I behaved shamefully in the Astley Book Farm a couple of weeks ago over a Nina Bawden – there wasn’t a tussle but only because I moved with uncharacteristic speed and snatched the book moments before she got her outstretched hand on it. In my defence... hmmm can’t think of a defence, but it did turn out to be an ex library copy and the blonde likes her books pristine so we stayed friends this time. The lovely ladies who run Astley have threatened to hold back Virago’s for the purpose of setting up a bidding war between us; they might be on to something.

My love for this publisher stretches back over 18 years which I realise (though not entirely willingly) is half my lifetime. I first discovered those nice green books when I was fresh at university and beginning to realise there must be more to the canon than men and Virginia Woolf. Those were the heady days of discovering Molly Keane, and Rosamond Lehmann, Dodie Smith and E. M. Delafield’s ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady’. After graduating I worked in a bookshop for a while (the Blonde was my boss) and that’s when I started collecting (though I must admit to not really reading many at the time) and then for a while my reading tastes veered off in other directions.

My rediscovery of Virago was a happy moment (Florence King’s ‘Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady’, Mary Renault’s ‘The Friendly Young Lady’s’ Dorothy Baker’s ‘Cassandra at the Wedding’) and the point where I started looking for apples rather than authors on books – a strategy which has lead me to all sorts of happy discoveries – F. M Mayor, Muriel Spark, Barbara Pym, Alice Thomas Ellis, Elizabeth Von Arnim, and Barbara Comyns are all writers I would probably never have read without Virago’s livery to recommend them. I have a list almost as long of writers waiting to be read on my shelves all there for the same reason.

Virago have become more than just a publisher to me, some of the best days I’ve spent over the last couple of years have been with the blonde scouring the countryside for second hand bookshops and those distinctive spines. For someone as unathletic as me hunting down books is as close to sport as it gets. There are rules, sort of, I won’t buy a book I don’t think I’ll read (one of the reason’s I really admire Verity and her Virago Venture) which is why I don’t have a copy of ‘The Well of Loneliness’ (don’t know why, never fancied it). I don’t (generally) buy duplicates of books I already have but then find a Virago edition of (The exception is ‘Mrs Miniver’ but the duplicate copy I now own is going to a new home soon). Amazon purchases are allowed, but we both agree that they just aren’t the same – it’s the thrill of finding a book that makes this such fun for us – finding F. M. Mayor’s ‘The Squire’s Daughter’ or Barbara Comyns ‘Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead’ were almost euphoric moments because I’d wanted both for a while, as was finding Catherine Carswell, and Christina Stead, both new to me, both yet to be read, but both very promising looking.

I’m not fussy about the colour of the cover, although I’m fond of the old green ones; something I like about my collection is the mix of sun bleached old books, pristine bottle green ones, and the whole rainbow of the current covers. The blonde likes her books as immaculate as possible and will buy on that basis; I’m more likely to be attracted by a title (‘Moonraker’!). I’m not entirely sure how many modern classics there are – but I know its well over 600. I hope there are about another 100 or so old and probably out of print again titles waiting for me to find (obviously I really hope it’s far more), and thankfully they keep publishing more so Virago truly should be a publisher for life and not just for Christmas. Meanwhile my little sister is visiting this weekend, and the blonde and I plan to take her out – should we see a bookshop I’m particularly looking for ‘The Thorn Birds’ (don’t judge me) and Ethel M Dell’s ‘The Way of an Eagle’ (really, don’t judge me). Oh and wish me happy hunting!


  1. This struck a real chord with me. The glimpse of a green spine in a second hand book shop is such a thrill and there are so few that then get rejected. I too have has so many happy discoveries: Rosamund Lehmann, Mayor, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth von Arnim, none of whom I would have discovered otherwise. I really don't like the non-green spines though!

  2. We have a shop (well more of an aircraft hanger), by us, called 'Book Barns'. They must have just about every book imaginable in there, we spent about 3 hours and didn't get to see them all. Some of the stock, I have to admit, was in less than perfect condition, but he has a whole section of all the old classics.

    I didn't specifically notice any 'Viragos', but there must have been some there, as he had a whole floor to ceiling section of all the old 'Penguin' editions that caught my attention, so I can't think there were no 'Viragos.'

    You would have some great fun and competition with your friend in there!!

    We all have to have some vices, and if yours is collecting a few harmless books and giving them a loving home, then so be it, so long as the rivalry is all good natured of course

  3. Readers,
    Don't believe a word of it. My hand was actually on the book.................

  4. Such a wonderful collection - I think I may beat you, but only very slightly. I shall put a link up to this post on my Virago blog :)

    (PS: it's not actually as many as 600, I think it is about 560).

  5. Verity pointed me here! My VMC collection currently stands at 140. I'm also part of a Virago discussion group on LibraryThing, and we created a master spreadsheet of all published VMCs (over 550). It's in GoogleDocs; you can easily save a copy or export to Excel if you wish to keep track of your own collection: Virago Collection Tracker.

    Thanks for a wonderful post! I'll be following your blog regularly now.

  6. Spotted this today and thought of you.

    Do you have this 'Virago Classic'?

    Click on the 1p link and it takes you to the Amazon page, for illustration of cover and full details.

    May the best collector win!!!

  7. I didn't know Virago published an edition of King's Confessions...she is one of my favorite writers and I have yet to add my own copy of this (what I consider to be) classic...thank you for making me aware of it and I will be on the lookout.

  8. Brilliant, Hayley! I have a fair few but not nearly as many as you. Like you I only buy ones I'll read and I love the discovery of new authors too. Such a wonderful series!

    In America Viragos are not as plentiful though I've seen a couple so far - a bit more expensive than those 25p charity shop finds at home though!

  9. Really beautiful and inspiring! I love your collection.

  10. Spots of time - I love the old green covers - there's such a thrill of recognition when you see one, but I like the new ones too, the Von Arnim's look like a very stylish rainbow on the shelf which I find very cheering.

    Fiction Books - despite the allegations Ruby (the blonde) makes I don't believe she was touching the book... It is friendly rivalry - really and truly, there's a lot of overlap between our reading tastes, but enough differance to mean we've never had a falling out yet. Your book barn sounds amazing.

    Ruby - you know you didn't really want that book - not like all the others you got - no sympathy or shame from this quarter!

  11. Verity - I want to visit you one day to look at your books and compare cake recipes.

    Laura, I'll look that up, I did join LibraryThing but never seem to have the time to explore it properly. I don't know where all the time goes, and thank you for your lovely comment:)

    Fiction Books, I do have 'Our Spoons Came From Woolworth's' - I thought I was buying 'The Brontes went to Woolworths' and had to go back... it's the sort of mistake I don't mind making

  12. Book Psmith, I love this book and gave it to a couple of people (Including the blonde) one christmas. I haven't read any other Florence King but would love to if you've got any particular recommendaions to look out for.

    Rachel - I imagine you'll catch up with me. My books generally, but virago's specifically feel like a record of my adult life with lots of really happy memories attached to them, as well as a lot of reading moods, aspirations, and fads. I try not to invest to much emotion in objects, but can't help myself with books.

    Sunt Lacrimae Rerum - thank you, it's lovely seeing that others share my obsession:)

  13. I dont think I heard the words Ethel M. Dell for about 30 years!!! Thornbirds for me was glorious so good luck.

  14. What a great collection, I'm another who loves spotting a apple spine in a pile of second hand books.

    While I don't have anything like as many as you the other day my two year old looked over at the bookcase and told me I had 'apple books'

  15. What a wonderful collection. I don't have my Viragos together, they're scattered throughtout the shelves but I wouldn't have anywhere near 200 of them. I love finding them second hand but I'm like the Blonde & only like pristine, non-smelly second hand books so I've reluctantly left several behind because of the smell factor.

  16. Karoline, sure they're the start of a mighty orchard of apple's.

    Lyn, it's only recently that I've put them altogether, and now we conscentiously look for Virago's it's amazing how many we find, but even so it's a pretty cheap hobby which has provided a lot of fun. It's because so many ar out of print that I grab anything that looks like I'll enjoy it. Don't have a clue when I'll read half of them, but sooner or later the moment always comes.

  17. I think I have one Virago...Susan Spray...don't remember the author's name. I have Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, but it's an ex-library copy.

    I won't judge you...I love The Thorn Birds!

  18. I don't suppose you have a list of the Viragos that you own, do you?

  19. I do Thomas, and could email it to you if your interested.