Viva Virago!

Who loves the dark green elegance and quality of Virago Modern Classics? They took paperback design to a new level but not just the design, also the content. I didn’t realise how much their publication matched my own coming of age as a reader, until I caught a BBC4 documentary about them on iplayer (at the time of posting this is available for 12 more days).

Beautiful covers

In the 1970s and 80s I worked in academic holidays in my father’s bookshop, usually in paperbacks. I know there are conventions nowadays about how specific genres should look, but in fact it was easier then to second guess a book by its cover. Picadors – loved by hippies, tending towards fantasy and allegory – were white and seemed taller. Penguin Modern Classics were a pale grey with fine art reproductions on the front. (My career aim at 17 was to emulate Germano Facetti, their designer. What better job than reading books, then searching in art galleries for pictures to represent them? Naively I thought that was all it amounted to, but biographical material about him shows there was a lot more to it.) Penguin Classics were mostly black, crime green, modern fiction had an orange spine. A brick shaped book with a shiny cover was probably  down market, an “airport novel”., especially if it had gold or silver lettering. Sphere books were thin, printed on cheap paper with narrow margins. Everyman Classics were accessible hardback editions of wonderful works, cheaper even than Penguins and so kept with paperback ranges.


But when Virago Modern Classics came along, initially shelved alphabetically with the rest of the fiction and then on a special revolving display stand of their own, they upped the ante. We tried to keep them facing outwards because they were so beautiful – an astute marketing exercise as well as (at the time) a revolutionary concept. The BBC4 programme tells me the art director of Virago actually did do what I thought Germano Facetti did: browsing in art galleries (fun) and establishing copyright ownership of the pictures she wanted to use, or could afford (not fun). Virago (initially called Spare Rib press like the magazine that started the same year) had already existed since 1972 when they began the Modern Classics imprint in 1978. Their first books were non fiction feminist history and sociology – now themselves classics. Our daughters have much to thank them for.

Why was Virago needed? These three statements give an idea. Carmen Callil, the founder, quotes from the New Yorker: “Women generally – especially women writers – have no use for destiny. They wouldn’t compose a Hamlet if they could.” She remembers the Inland Revenue’s header on her tax return: “If you have a husband, this form is addressed to him.” Margaret Atwood quotes a letter to Alice Munro: “Well, you might be a good short story writer but I wouldn’t go to bed with you.” 


Publishing was a man’s world – my literary agent, who started work for WH Allen in the 1980s, remembers women only present as secretaries. Although my father’s bookshop was a place of liberal debate, he also for a time banned female members of staff from wearing trousers (he found the shape of one member of staff displeasing). Despite Jane Austen, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, it was harder for women to get published and once published, harder for them to remain in print. Their books were considered of less value, parochial, unimportant. Virago – whose first offices were above a massage parlour in Soho’s Wardour Street – changed all that.

virago-smithConsider the names published by Virago: Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Michele Roberts, Sarah Waters, Linda Grant, Maya Angelou… These were and are contemporary writers, but  Virago also rehabilitated many fading gems: Rosamund Lehmann who wrote delicately of unwanted pregnancy; Susan Ferrier who wrote in 1818 (!) and Mary E Braddon (1862) of unhappy marriage. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)and Emily Holmes Coleman (1930) put postnatal depression and insanity at the heart of their fiction. On a lighter note, did you know that Dodie Smith of The Hundred and One Dalmatians fame also produced the enchanting I Capture the castle? You have a treat in store!

The lists (fiction and non fiction) were diverse: Paule Marshall wrote of a Barbadian girl growing up in New York (1959) and Zhang Jie of life in 1970s China. Amrit Wilson threw a stone into a rippling pond with Finding a Voice, about the lives of Bangladeshi women in the East End (1978). Maya Angelou was published in the US in 1969, but UK publishers showed no interest until Virago took up I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1984 and had an immediate huge bestseller. In 2001 Virago as part of the Little, Brown group published the Somalian model Waris Dirie’s memoir Desert Flower, one of the first books to describe what was then called female circumcision.

During various house moves, I jettisoned books. Some I don’t regret: at a certain point the greasy yellow mustiness of old books becomes unpleasant. I’m interested to find the few Women’s Press editions I’ve kept have lasted better than most, pages still quite white and crisp, and the covers of the Viragos have withstood time better than the insides (I’m sneezing from musty spores as I type this). But I’m sorry now that I threw some of them out and I keep my charity shop eye open for replacements. Watching Carmen Callil, the indefatigable founder of Virago, climb ladders in her elegant late seventies to run her finger along the spines of her collection, I feel very jealous. Do visit the Virago website for details of all 687 Modern Classics and their other lists. And do watch the documentary while you can – the nostalgic enjoyment of writing (and hopefully reading) this blog post wouldn’t have been possible without it. It’s not only about nostalgia though: long may Virago continue to give women a voice and let’s hope it’s heard in the White House.


©Jessica Norrie 2016


13 thoughts on “Viva Virago!

  1. I too remember both Spare Rib and Virago in their early days. And my mothers horror of the former especially. Not that she would ever have bought a copy. Why are these women so bolshy was her line. I wonder if, had she been alive now, she would have changed very views and actually read Atwood, Grant etc. I would like to think so. Lovely piece Jess.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life and commented:
    We are often so focused on our own writing and books of contemporary writers that we can forget those who paved the way for us in modern literature. The 1960s and 1970s heralded a new age not just in publishing in general but in the advancement of women writers. Jessica Norrie explores the era based on her own experience of working in her father’s bookstore at that time and also her own love of books from those revolutionary days.

    Liked by 1 person

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