Sunday, June 25, 2023

Virago at 50 Part 1

This week Virago celebrated its 50th birthday - or at least the 50th anniversary of Carman Callil starting a publishing venture - the first Virago Modern Classic came in 1978 with Antonia White's 'Frost in May'. My Virago journey didn't start until around 1992 when I was a fresh new undergraduate just beginning to understand that whilst every writer I'd read for GCSE and A level had been male that couldn't be the whole story. 

I thought I'd make the effort to read more women so I took myself off to Dillon's on Union Street in Aberdeen and scoured the shelves for something suitable. I found Molly Keane, discovered that the green spines and apple logo would bear further investigation, and I'm still at it. 

A couple of years earlier in an A level English class, an otherwise excellent teacher was telling us how great D. H. Lawrence was, how nobody wrote women like Lawrence did. I didn't much care for Lawrence then, I don't appreciate him anymore now, partly because I do not find his women convincing. It's probably just as well I was too ignorant to point out that to really understand how women think and feel it might be worth reading some of them and maybe listening to them too. 

I think things are better now - there's no shortage of reprints across a plethora of publishing houses and imprints - and there's Google - you don't even need to leave your chair anymore, never mind your house, to do the research or get the books. But it wasn't so in 1992 and Virago was life-changing for me in all sorts of ways so the next few posts are going to pick over some of the highlights from my collection.

I have to start with Molly Keane. I loved her black humour, the faded elegance of the Anglo-Irish community she described along with its grotesqueries. It was a world a grandmother who died long before I was born, had been part of before the war, and introduced her husband to when they moved back to Ireland together after the war. One of the last times I saw him I was reading a Molly Keane, he told me he used to dance with her at parties. I regret not having the chance to ask him more before his memory faded too far. Molly Keane was probably the first woman I read who sounded like somebody I'd want to know, but who also sounded like a complete bitch. There's still not much tolerance for women who don't care about being nice or kind so the impact of that has not faded.

I came away from university with a modest collection of VMC's which grew quite fast in the late 1990s. The net book agreement had been ditched, Virago had come under the Little Brown umbrella, bargain bookshops were proliferating and those green spines were being sold off cheap in all of them. I bought lots of them. Then came the Donna Coonan years and a list that grew again in all sorts of interesting ways. 

Florence King's Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady was one of a number of books that was remarkably explicit about lesbian and bisexual women. This was a time when larger bookshops might have an LGB (it was too early for T and Queer was still considered a slur) section, bookshops in provincial cities like Leicester or Aberdeen less so. If you weren't LGB those sections didn't really feel like they were for you. It's an entirely different world now, though still one in which Florence King isn't read widely enough in. Whatever you think this book will be I would be prepared to promise it's better. I did the whole laughing and crying thing, but more it was a view of a world I knew very little about - but which also turned out to have a rich literary and female history. 

Last up for tonight is Alice Thomas Ellis's 'The Sin Eater'. It turns out I cannot resist a spiky catholic woman - Ellis is another education all by herself, and another woman seemingly not afraid to be difficult. The Sin Eater was so very good that when soon after I read it in an edge-of-the-seat, stay up late, marathon, the absolutely terrible Heath Ledger film of the same name came out I insisted on going to watch it. There were seven people in the audience, it;s as close as I've ever come to walking out of a film, but int he end we got our money's worth with the entirety of the small audience yelling abuse at the screen in increasing disbelief at how shit it was. I have since read everything I could find by Alice Thomas Ellis, she has never disappointed me. 

1 comment:

  1. I remember being knocked out the first time I read The Sin Eater, and I still feel the same way. I love Alice Thomas Ellis’ spikiness and dark humour, and the way she seemed to subvert what could almost be a fairy story with a happy ending into something far more disturbing.