Happy 40th Birthday Virago!
1st Jul 2013
Founded in 1973 by Carmen Callil, Virago began life as a publishing house before becoming a Little Brown imprint. They’ve published some of the most talented writers in the English language and the fact that their authors are mainly women just makes us love Virago even more.
Virago built their brand on forgotten female writers who had fallen out of print and where no one was interested in renewing the copyright because duh, women, etc.
They can be directly credited with reviving public awareness of cult classics like The Yellow Wallpaper (see below) and salvaging the career of writers like Alice Hoffman and Daphne du Maruier.
With an impressive back catalogue including Rebecca West, Rummer Goden, Angela Carter, Marilynne Robinson and basically every female author of note for the last 40 years; it’s not difficult to see why this publishing house inspires such loyalty.
In addition to that honour roll, Virago has managed to weather all the usual bullshit that gets chucked around over feminist institutions bedding down with capitalist corporations. Today its brand remains a mark of excellence and Virago is still big news in both publishing and feminism.
We’re taking a look back at the last 4 decades of this publishing giant and reminiscing about our favourite Virago titles – don’t forget to tell us yours in the comments section!
Over a century since it was first published in 1892, The Yellow Wallpaper has become literary legend, remaining as dark, disturbing, powerful and important as ever.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote other short stories, along with numerous non-fiction works (including work on gender, class, economics and much more besides).
But her 6,000-word tale loosely-autobiographical tale of an unreliable narrator’s descent into insanity when prescribed the ‘rest cure’ for her ‘hysteria’ (now more likely to be recognised as post-natal depression) is so seductively sinister, masterful and memorable that it’s become her best known work.
The Yellow Wallpaper doesn’t just describe the narrator’s hallucinations and mental unravelling; it makes the reader complicit, an accomplice.
With layers on layers of possible readings, it deserves to remain a classic for at least another hundred years. Initially derided by critics who claimed ‘it was enough to drive anyone mad to read it.’ CPG retaliated in her 1913 essay Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, explaining:
It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.“The best result is this. Many years later I was told that the great specialist [who she had been treated by] had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading The Yellow Wallpaper. It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.”
[1983-1993] Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead – Barbara Comyns
For me this is the original post-apocalyptic novel, and Barbara Comyns is the quintessential Virago author. Her speciality was giving idyllic England and English manners a sinister twist and Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead was her tour de force.
A small village is flooded, ducks sail through the drawing room windows, Ebin Willowd punts his daughters around their submerged garden, plates and tortoises are thrown around the dining room.
As the flood-madness sets in the villagers start dying, cottages burst into flames and funerals take place at sea. Willowds daughters are caught up in a genteel world gone to pot and hysteria abounds.
It still astonishes me that we’re not all worshipping at Comyns feet; that if it weren’t for Virago her books would have ceased to exist.
Her voice is so disquieting and devastatingly bleak in its humour (and this is a very, very funny book) that it seems impossible that it could have been extinguished by The Patriarchy’s hackneyed view that a book gains prestige depending on the contents of the author’s pants.
Comyns stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Daphne Du Maurier and Shirley Jackson, and I am eternally grateful to Virago for not allowing her to be forgotten.
Beulah Maud Devaney
While preparing this piece I stumbled across bad reviews of The Blind Assassin. Which bothered me. Each to their own of course, but disliking this book is just demonstrating Bad Taste.
I bought my Virago copy a couple of years after Margaret Atwood’s Booker triumph with the novel in 2000, and it’s the copy I still have.
It’s well-thumbed and tea- and chocolate-stained because, despite the heartbreak and emotional voids that run through its narrative, it remains one of my go-to comfort reads.
The language is vivid, her narrator’s voice and relationships beautifully realised, and Atwood’s remarkable imagination is on overdrive throughout (anyone who thinks she moved into sci-fi only with Oryx and Crake needs to read this).
The story is also achingly sexy, shocking, hilarious in places, and sad, increasingly so as it nears its conclusion. The major revelation is not actually much of a revelation, but Atwood knows that (her narrator acknowledges as much) and anyway by then we want that ending. And then it ends, and leaves us bereft.
It’s a brilliant emotional pull from start to finish. In fact I’ve just re-read the last two pages and I’m feeling a tad weepy.
[2003-2013] The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters
Although I had already of heard of Sarah Waters (thanks to her infamous bodice-rippers) The Little Stranger was my introduction to her work.
But the novel I got was far from the one I expected. Instead of a worldly-wise lesbian or a chain-smoking Wren, the novel’s protagonist was a male doctor – likeable at first, but gradually unpeeled to reveal a cold and controlling character.
As a ghost story it utterly succeeds, but the beauty of the novel for me was that it also reflected perfectly the inequality, war trauma and grief that shaped British society in the 1930s.
Virago published The Little Stranger in 2009, the same year that Sir David Nicholson announced that the NHS needed to make cuts of £15-20 billion by 2012.
Waters’ novel – though far from political – showed the suffering that Dr Faraday’s poorer patients faced when they couldn’t pay for the doctor. It chimed perfectly with the moment I read it because the NHS that the novel so longed for is now being quietly dismantled.
The Little Stranger gave me a new appreciation for the role of the doctor in contemporary life, as well as excitement to dive into Waters’ backlist.