Sunday, May 13, 2018

Virago Modern Classics at 40

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.


  1. Lovely post -- I really enjoyed hearing your story about how Viragos have had an impact on you. I wasn't an English major but I think the only books by women that I studied in college were Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea. I didn't read a lot of classics in my youth but when I did I realized how much of the "canon" is white males. I've read a lot of classics now by both men and women and most of my reading is dominated by women writers now -- I'm just more interested in what they have to say. I'm really not very interested in modern fiction by men either.

    I didn't actually discover Viragos until about the past ten years when I started book blogging and I'd moved on from most of the male writers. I found Persephone and VMCs and that's really the type of reading that interests me the most. I have at least 20 VMCs unread on my shelves and look forward to reading them and lots more!

  2. I find that having read more women I get more out of reading classics by men too. Never more so than reading Mrs Oliphant's Carlingford Chronicles along with Trollope's Barchester books. Waugh is better for reading Mitford too - for the underlying snobbery they both have.

  3. What a lovely post!

    My mother accumulated a lot of the old VMCs during the 1980s which is when I too started reading them, I was very lucky in this regard. I think the original series was really radical and wide-ranging, and I'm sorry they had to reduce the list in the end.

    There's something about Virago, they do have a special place in readers' hearts that other publishers just don't, perhaps because they revolutionised literature so much for us. I think a lot of us remember discovering them, and find or have found them to be a bit of a lifeline at difficult times, as you have.

  4. Pushkin come close in my affections for opening up a world of fiction in translation, but for anyone of a certain age Virago truly were revolutionary, and stylish with it.

  5. You probably already know my Virago Genesis story. It was 1992 and I was 22 working in London for 6 months. I had a library card (Holborn was my local) and didn't have money to buy books. But the lure to do so is strong with the likes of us. Plus I lived in the West End and walked down Charing Cross road about twice a day. The only book I bought during those 6 months was a used copy of All Passion Spent--I'm not sure why I bought it, but I had a good feeling about it for some reason. I remember reading the parts where Lady Slane was travelling the Northern Line while I was on the Northern Line and the list of stations that she was going through were the same one that I was going through as I read the book.

    I loved the book and learned to look out for green spines from then on. Years later there was a used bookshop here in DC that had a rather expensive pricing policy. Half off the original cover price. That meant that a used trade paperback could still cost about $8. But, the Viragos were all old enough and had low enough list prices that the pricing structure worked in my favor with each one costing less than $2. I literally bought every green (and in some cases with US versions, black) spine they had in the store.

  6. Same year I was finding Virago's in Aberdeen. And how I loved those covers. Made it so much easier to find the books that talked about things I was interested in (women writing about women, rather than being told if I wanted to understand women I should read DH Lawrence) and the sbook nose of finding the other half of the picture generally.

  7. I so agree with your comments here. Have spent the last few years reading books by women as an antidote to all those white male authors imposed on us during our formative years. (I'm 25 years older than you). It was through Virago that Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby were re-discovered by new generations, too, two of my all-time favourite reads.

    1. So many brilliant writers in the Virago modern classics range, and fascinating to see how many of them have been picked up by other publishers of classics since, and become so much more mainstream. Why did we ever let those women disappear in the first place?