Thursday, January 27, 2011

Virago, not just for Christmas.

Due to events of a festive nature my contribution to Virago reading week is a little late in coming, but Virago is defiantly a publisher I want to celebrate (though a week seems like an awfully short time for such a big passion). My relationship with Virago stretches back across half my actual life and all of my adult reading life. I keep them in my bedroom now, partly because that was the only place that I had left to fit a bookcase, but not least because these books have so many memories attached and I like to see them so by way of homage to Virago here are a few of the reasons I sleep with these books...

One of my first forays behind the green covers came through Molly Keane. I found ‘Young Entry’ in Waterstones in Aberdeen and during my university career bought and read all her books. Broadly speaking Keane’s pre-occupations with family and lifestyle were very sympathetic to my state of mind but what sealed the deal was finding that my grandfather knew her. I knew when I started reading the books that he had been familiar with that world, but just before I graduated and when he was already becoming quite frail he and dad took refuge with me for a night waiting for a flight back to Ireland. I was reading a Molly and we had a chat about her. It was the first time I think we ever had a conversation as adults, before then he had told us amazing stories or taught us things, he was always courteous and charming – but my sister and I were always children, and he was very much a grown up. It was also the last conversation I had with him like that, we only met one more time and by then he wasn’t sure who we were, but I still have Molly who’s given me a link to my own history I’ll always prize.

My one big fail with Virago is Ivy Compton-Burnett’s ‘A Heritage and its History’ I’ve tried to read this so many times and given up 20 pages in. I just don’t get her, but I very clearly remember carefully selecting the book in Blackwell’s Oxford from a stand of Virago’s just after leaving university. I was convinced the world was mine for asking (apparently not) ‘A Heritage and its History’ stands as testimony to unmet aspirations (not least to actually read the damn thing) and challenges me when I’m feeling complacent. Truthfully it’s rare for me to keep a book I know I won’t read but this one is so pretty I can’t let go of it, and maybe one day...

Rosamond Lehman was a discovery from when I was working in a clearance bookshop (sadly these don’t seem to really exist anymore), this enthusiasm must have coincided with Little Brown taking Virago on and a lot of the back list being trimmed because all the cheap bookshops were full of virago titles and I bought loads, Lehman stands out because I actually read them straight away. Her complicated love affairs were a revelation to me after a steady diet of Georgette Heyer, what I read in those books without doubt left me better equipped to deal with the first relationship break up that I took seriously which came not so long after.

I have an undoubted crush on Vita Sackville-West, but struggle a bit with her books (though unlike the Ivy Compton-Burnett fiasco I don’t try very hard to read them) it’s a copy of her letters to Virginia Woolf which fuels the fire and bring both women to life for me. (There was also a really good play based on these – I can’t actually remember what it was called, but it’s due a revival.) So far no other publisher has come near to mirroring (or forming) my personal fiction fixations, possibly another reason the books are in the bedroom is because taken together they say more about who I think I am than I’m prepared to share with any casual visitor – because obviously when the man comes to read the meter he’s only really interested in judging the inner most depths of my soul through the books I read and not with getting on with his job. Nope it’s only those who are initiated into the Virago cult who get to have a look at my books.

Which brings me to Andrea Dworkin ‘Life and Death’ is one of those books ‘that changed my life’ or at least helped me sort out where I stand on all manner of fundamental issues relating to feminism. It’s also one of the books over which my friendship with the blonde was forged, I bought books from her, she gave me a job and hasn’t been able to shake me since. Her Virago obsession is equal to mine and we have a book hunt planned for Sunday...

F. M. Mayor is another Virago find which has sort of changed my life in so much as she lead me into blogging. Such is my enthusiasm for Mayor that when I found a copy of ‘The Squire’s Daughter’ second hand I was almost high with excitement. I briefly flirted with the idea of calling my blog The Squire’s Daughter – the plan was that it would be in a sort of Provincial Lady style and then I realised that it would be extremely hard to do well, embarrassing to do badly, and that either way I’d struggle to talk about books. Rather neatly (I think) this brings me round to Book Snob, someone asked me if I was Book Snob after reading her review of ‘The Rector’s Daughter’ which I was also talking about a lot at the time. I had to admit I wasn’t she, went and had a look and thought why am I not doing this myself? It was a stop dithering and get on with it moment.

I could go on but think this is probably enough for now beyond saying Thomas at My Porch has a competition and there are more on the host sights Book Snob and A few of my favourite books – go and win great books.


  1. Magnificent, Hayley! I love that your grandfather was friends with Molly Keane. If you ever feel like sharing his memories, I'd love to hear them.

    How funny that someone thought you were me! I'm glad that comment introduced you to blogging though!

  2. Wonderful post, Hayley! I had no idea you had that many... and I'm so glad Virago led to you blogging :)

    My Viragos are kept together in Oxford, but separated in Somerset, so I don't really know how many I have - one day they will all live together!

  3. Excellent post Haley! I linked your page on our Virago Reading Week Thread in the Virago Group on Librarything!

  4. This is inspiring, I'm just discovering Rosamond Lehmann this week and will have to get to some Molly Keane too! I also keep my favourite books in my bedroom, just because I'm living in a very small space right now! I do love looking at them from bed.

  5. Virago Week is shaming me. I remember the imprint in its earless days and then I bought as many as I could afford, no, more than I could afford, but somehow I have become a lapsed Virago. But this week has shaken me out of my lethargy and this morning I'm going to pop into my local Oxfam bookshop and see what I can pick up. That way I can feel I'm doing some good in the world as well.

  6. I love this post Hayley! I think I need a bookcase devoted to VMCs, or at least to rearrange my books that way as a one off to see quite how many I have (I think we probably have collections of a similar size). So many of my favourite authors mentioned!

  7. Booksnob - it was a case of serendipity I think. The Rector's Daughter is an incredible book and we were both ery enthusiastic about it. I wonder if it was a hint that I should get blogging. I should add that you made it look far easier than I actually find it.

    My grandfather wrote some memoires - bits of which are great but a lot of which are about hunting shooting and fishing. He makes almost no mention of his children (there were 7 of them) there are a few more understandable ommisions as well. I do miss him.

    Simon - it's a bit of a competition with a very good friend, I've picked up about 2 thirds of this collection in the last 2 or 3 years, it's a mostly harmless hobby.

    Thanks Cate - I tried library thing and promptly forgot my password. I need to get more organised and find more time for online stuff because the virago group there sounds great.

  8. Carolyn, Lehmann is great, Keane is maybe more of an aquired taste - brilliant if you're interested in the end of the anglo-Irish way of life and messed up family relationships, a bit dark and spikey if that's not your cup of tea.

    Annie, I found Virago in the early 90's when there was nothing else like them, but I guess they did a good job because there's no shortage of woman's writing in print now. I seem to have grown up with a homing instinct for older fiction and for good writing on a domestic scale so Virago suits me in a lot of it's guises.

  9. Verity - all my books used to be arranged chronologically by author but I needed more space and when I got the new book case it sort of made sense to divide out the Viragos. I think you probably have more than I do, and will certainly end up with more than I will. Another thing I love about Virago is how many people have great memories about how they discovered them. The story behind Verity's Virago Venture is one which makes total sense to me - it's such a brilliant project.