I'm much of an age with Virago, whose books I discovered when I was around 18, a fresh faced first year at university with a point to prove. I've talked about the plenty of times before, but looking through my shelves for yesterday's post has made me want to write about it again.
I can't now remember studying any female writers for GCSE or A Level English. I read 'The Mill on the Floss' from a suggested reading list, and had found Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell and assorted Brontë's by then. I'd even battled my way through a Virginia Woolf. Most of the children's books I'd loved had been written by women, and so was the classic detective fiction I preferred. And then there was Georgette Heyer.
And yet. The books that made the curriculum, that filled the canon as I encountered it, and the bulk of modern classics that I came across (I was reading a lot of F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Golding, and Evelyn Waugh back then) were all by men (mostly white, western, men).
Which is okay, white men with a western sensibility have written a ton of really great books and you could do worse than choose to focus on nothing else. The problem for me back then was it didn't really feel like a choice. Logically it seemed unlikely that Jane Austen had emerged from nowhere, or that the George Elliot or Elizabeth Gaskell were anomalies that proved an exception to some more general rule. It didn't make sense that all those golden age Queens of crime weren't part of a tradition either, and then there was Georgette Heyer.
What I couldn't do was name those missing women, which lost a few arguments with smug young men, and that's what sent me Waterstone's and Dillon's in Aberdeen one afternoon with a point to prove. I wanted to find and read more books by women, and that's when I found Sarah Maitland's 'Women Fly When Men Aren't Watching'. It was enthralling. It's also where I found Molly Keane and learnt to look for green spines.
After graduating I found myself working in a discount bookshop for a while, it was the later end of the 1990's, Virago had been bought up by Little Brown, and life was not unrolling in the smooth untroubled way I might have hoped for. Outlet bookshops like the one I worked suddenly had stacks of classic green Viragos going cheap, and I had discount too. I read a lot of Rosamond Lehmann.
A decade later in a job I hated I found that local charity shops had stacks of old VMC's - not just 'Frost In May', 'The Well of Loneliness' and similar. Over the next couple of year I built up the bulk of my collection with those charity shop finds. I was more or less out of work and flat broke for a lot of that time, those books were a lifeline and a luxury.
Since then Virago have republished a whole lot of authors (Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark, Beryl Bainbridge) who I would otherwise more or less have missed, along with a whole lot of other innovations which I hope are encouraging new generations of young women to look for green spines or apples.
Looking at my books today though, what really hits me is the range of the original series. Here are 18th and 19th century women making their living writing. Respectable (more or less) middle class women supporting their families. Scandalous women not ending up repenting their sins under a bridge somewhere, but doing very well out of best selling novels that have a good dig at contemporary morals. There are women travelling the world, doing War work, exploring their sexuality, and generally upsetting the impressions we've somehow inherited about our past. There are also working class voices here (rare, but they are here).
It's that range that makes Virago so unique and so important, they've restored 200 years and more of women's voices. Shown us that those handful of names that everyone more or less knows weren't anomalies, but part of a rich tradition. I can't overstate how many times that's helped me.
It's also a reminder that if women aren't actually the property of their menfolk anymore, nor have we come anything like as far as we might have in the last two centuries. Or as far as some of these women might have hoped, or expected. Still, having them at my back is a tremendous source of inspiration and hope - so thank goodness for Virago and those who have followed them in restoring so much that was in danger of being lost or forgotten.