Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Carmen Callil

I'm genuinely sad to hear about the death of Carmen Callil yesterday, Virago, the publishing house she founded changed how I saw the world, as I know it did for many women of my generation. I can't show you a picture of the 400 or so Virago Modern Classics I own because they live on a set of shelves that's impossible to get a decent picture of, and because there are a lot of jars of quince jelly and damson jam in front of them at the moment - but they're there and although I've told this story here before I'm going to share it again because what Carmen did really mattered.

When I was a very young woman there was very little sense of a canon of women writers. We had Jane Austen (love her), assorted Bronte's (hit and miss) and Virginia Woolf (frankly ambivalent). A.S. Byatt had won the Booker prize, the queens of crime and Georgette Heyer were familiar, and there were the great 80's bonkbusters to enjoy but there were considerable gaps. I knew from Heyer that Austen had had contemporaries but in that pre-internet age I didn't know much more.

And then I got into an argument with an especially smug fellow student on my history degree. It ended with him asking if I could name 10 famous female writers from history. Of course, I could not. So later that day I went to a bookshop and started looking for women to read. I found Molly Keane in a distinctive green jacket, I bought a book and loved it. 

When I'd worked through Molly I found Sara Maitland (Women Fly When Men Aren't Watching) which I loved so much I photocopied individual stories from to send to friends (probably breaking copyright laws in the process). From there I found Rosamund Lehmann, Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Mrs. Oliphant, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Taylor, Susan Ferrier, Mae West, Elizabeth Jenkins, Barbara Comyns, Rachel Ferguson, Fanny Burney, and then more and more and more - a whole history. 

For years I'd scour bookshops for those green covers. I went on day trips to anywhere within a 40 mile radius with my best friend to find second-hand copies of by then out of print Virago's giving ourselves endless good memories in the process. We both built up decent collections, found online friends who shared our enthusiasm, and most importantly found versions of ourselves, our mothers, and our grandmothers in those books. 

Meanwhile, Persephone came along, and so did a host of other independent presses that found more women writers. Women got further into the Penguin and Oxford classics ranges, and now I could name any number of writers from any number of countries or cultures to that idiot from my first year at university. 

I suppose if Carmen Callil hadn't done it somebody else eventually would have - but she got there first and changed things for all of us which is some kind of legacy.

As a footnote she was a guest on a couple of episodes of the Backlisted Podcast which I highly recommend listening too. 


  1. 'versions of ourselves' - a perfect summation of Carmen Callil's genius and gift to us all, women and men.

  2. Like you, I was greatly saddened by the news of Carmen Callil's death. The discovery of Virago changed my reading life, my first being Angel by Elizabeth Taylor. I still look out for them whenever I visit secondhand bookshops!

  3. This s a lovely tribute and makes me want to dig up some of my old Viragos!

  4. You are right, those Backlisted pods with Carmen Callil are marvellous. She is so positive and tells some lovely stories. Virago Modern Classics changed my reading too, as I found they published the writers I had first come across on my grandmother’s shelves. Whoever was running Barnes Library in London in 1984 had got an impressive number of green spines onto the shelves, and I read them endlessly on the long bus journeys to work in Bloomsbury.