The well worn track is virago, of which I acquired quite a few last week – pay day lead to some shopping excitement in three of my favourite second hand shops. Two of them are local charity concerns, the third is the mighty Astley Book Farm. The Blonde and I were very flattered to be recognised (we don’t go that often, honestly we don’t) and identified with this blog although we were a little concerned when asked if we could look for things other than Virago’s because they were struggling to get hold of enough... In the end there was no need for panic, we both came away with nice a collection of things (I’m particularly pleased with a Mrs Oliphant) and left plenty for future customers.
We both agreed as we left that if bookselling offline has a future it’s in places like this. Knowledgeable but not intrusive proprietors, thousands of interesting books, and a cafe coming soon – it’s a bookselling fantasy, because yes, I do fantasize about going to bookshops with a choice. The Scottish one despairs but the blonde understands.
As a result of the frenetic book buying I spent quality time rearranging and feel very pleased with the results and whilst I was doing that Simon Stuck In A Book’s post was very much on my mind. I think I’ve probably talked as much as anyone about how I felt Virago books gave me a voice, or introduced me to women’s voices generally and Simon wonders where that leaves men like himself who find their reading home in these same books.
I very specifically went off one afternoon to look for novels by women after one of those stupid arguments about there being no great women artists – you know the sort, someone will say “Well show me a female Dickens” which of course you can’t – but then there’s only one male Dickens, and I wish that was the response I’d come up with 20 years ago. Even so back then I was convinced that there had to have been a whole lot of really good (if not necessarily really great women writers), there was plenty of evidence pointing that way but all I could ever think of were genre writers (someone show me a male Agatha Christie please)(actually don’t that’s purely rhetorical). I found what I was looking for and never looked back.
But what’s easy to overlook is how things have changed in the last 30 odd years. Only that long ago the idea of a lady vicar was as outlandish as the concept of a same sex marriage, drinking and driving was vaguely acceptable, perfectly nice people could talk about ‘queers’, and it wasn’t so outrageous to pay women less to do the same jobs as men. Hopefully things change. It’s also been easy to forget that half the reason I went looking for these particular books was to be able to win an argument, and had I got Rebecca West, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Rosamond Lehmann, and Elizabeth Bowen at my fingertips than it might have been a more grown up discussion, but to win the argument the books needed to be read not just by women like me but by the men we were at variance with.
As I look at the shelf next to me I see plenty which strikes me as feminine and domestic and plenty which doesn’t seem to fit either category but nothing which feels exclusive. When these writers started to slip out of print it was men as well as women losing the voices of their mothers and grandmothers. A collective loss, and a collective gain when they were resurrected.