Sunday, January 19, 2020

Writers as Readers: A Celebration Of Virago Modern Classics

I didn’t pay this book any attention when it came out in 2018, although I think I must have been vaguely aware of it, and would have carried on in ignorance if it hadn’t been abandoned on top of a display of something else in my local Waterstones. It’s a collection of 40 introductions either from Virago Modern Classic editions or to their writers (2018 marked the 40th anniversary of the VMC list).

I suppose if I thought about it at all when it came out I assumed I had the books already and that was enough, or it may have been because it’s in a smart hardback that I ignored it. As it turns out most of my VMC’s are old green editions collected either in the 1990’s when that’s how they came, or from charity shops ever since. They have introductions, but not these introductions which are generally from the more recent reissues.

Where there is overlap such as Nora Ephron on her own book, ‘Heartburn’, taking the introduction out of context like this has just reminded me how much I love that book and made me want to read it again. Reminding me how good a lot of these books and writers are (Jilly Cooper talking about E. M. Delafield is possibly my favourite juxtaposition - they simultaneously seem such an odd and obvious match) would probably have been reason enough to buy this book but it does something more.

Virago is such a unique publishing house because of their modern classics list. Before Virago finding a history of women’s voices in an average bookshop was not easy. Beyond the Brontë’s, Austen, a bit of George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf (who isn’t always much fun to read unless you’re lucky enough to pick up Orlando first time round) you might have found ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ in the Classics section. There were also the queens of golden age crime (Christie, Sayers, Marsh and Allingham - possibly Josephine Tey) who seemed both incongruous (where did they come from, all these writing women) and suggestive of an untold story.

The Modern Classics list changed that. It had hundreds of years of women’s voices, and possibly even more unusual for something available on the U.K high street at the time they weren’t all British, and they weren’t all white*. Reading through ‘Writers as Readers’ is a further demonstration of how these writers are part of a long tradition and how important that shared history is. They filled in the gap that I knew had to exist between the past and the present (this was pre Internet).

Re-printing old books is a boom industry these days but I still think what Virago do with their Modern Classics is unique. Persephone Books which have to be the nearest U.K. comparison have an interesting list with some great stuff on it but it’s focus is slightly different, it’s image deliberately nostalgic, and it’s books deliberately exclusive. They verge on prohibitively expensive if you can’t buy direct from the shop, and if you’re not part of the club they’re not particularly visible.

In short, better late than never. This book is a gem that I’m happy to have finally discovered.

*I know they’re mostly white, but so was rural Leicestershire and Aberdeen in the 1990s and those green spines were a badge that could be trusted when it came to trying something new to me, an encouragement to explore, and to question assumptions about who’s voices to listen to.


  1. I have this on my shelves but I haven't read it yet. Maybe I should soon since I am going to be on vacation in the U.K. in a few weeks and I always look for Virago Modern Classics while I am there. This might give me some titles to look for.

    1. It should do, and it’s a lovely book to dip in and out of. I hope you have a brilliant trip, are you going anywhere in particular?

  2. I've dipped into this on and off and I think I've enjoyed all of the pieces I've read so far, a real pleasure.

    As you say, VMCs played a really massive role in revolutionising how we see women's writing from the past. I love them in a way I can never quite love Persephone, I think you put your finger on it by saying they're a bit exclusionary.

    Also, do you remember The Women's Press? Whatever happened to them?

    1. I see Women’s Press books around in charity shops but never followed them in the same way so not sure what happened to them. Virago on the other hand was huge for me and I’m endlessly impressed by the work they’ve done to recover and encourage women’s voices whilst making them easily available.

  3. Actually, on a similar theme, you might enjoy this:

  4. Thank you, that is interesting and I’m really enjoying reading through her posts now.