The Virago Story
Assessing the Impact of a Feminist Publishing Phenomenon
Protest, Culture and Society Series
Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2018
Paperback. 190 p. ISBN 978-1785338557.£19
Reviewed by Krista Cowman
University of Lincoln
The distinctive green spines from the feminist publishing house Virago defined the bookshelves of a generation of British women who had even a passing connection to the feminist movement that emerged from out of the late 1960s counter-culture. The novelist Hilary Mantel described coming back to Britain in the mid-1970s and finding ‘the green spines were everywhere. I remember thinking that the world had changed...very much for the better, as if a subtle rebalancing was occurring’ [Riley : 43]. Virago titles are inseparable from the history of this period of feminism, the high point of activism of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Recent histories of this period of radicalism have been more attentive to the spaces through which connections were made and ideas circulated. The radical bookshops and women’s centres were obvious outlets for Virago titles and those of a number of other feminist publishers such as Pandora, The Women’s Press, Sheba and Onlywomen. These physical spaces of radicalism have recently begun to attract historical attention, but studies of the feminist presses remain rare.(1)
Catherine Riley’s book offers an overview of Virago, arguably the best-known and certainly the most enduring British feminist publishing house from its birth in 1973 up to the present day. The name ‘Virago’ chosen, founder Callil explained in an interview with Riley, after the founders ‘were going through books of goddesses’ [Riley : 16] connected the press with a mythical feminine past, an association that was strengthened through the its logo, a bitten apple that echoed the biblical story of knowledge entering the world through Eve’s appropriation of this forbidden fruit.
The work is divided into four chronological sections, describing the changing contexts in which Virago operated. The press was founded in 1973 by Carmen Callil with Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe. Boycott and Rowe had set up the women’s liberation journal Spare Rib the previous year, and the new venture was initially set to be called Spare Rib Books. The press was explicitly feminist; each book carried a statement of intent lifted from Sheila Rowbotham’s Women, Resistance and Revolution that reminded readers ‘it is only when women start to organise in large numbers that we become a political force’ [Riley : 20]. In Virago’s early years, described in the first section of the book, its feminist politics were very much to the fore. One key aim of British feminism in the 1970s and 80s was a determination to reclaim ‘forgotten’ women and place them into a wider historical narrative. The first Women’s Liberation Conference – held in Oxford in 1970 – grew from discussions at a History Workshop event the previous year.(2) Virago’s initial contribution to this project was a new series, the ‘Virago Reprints Library’ which republished facsimile editions of texts such as Barbara Drake’s Women in Trade Unions and Life as We Have Known It from the from the Women’s Co-Operative Guild. In 1978, Virago launched a separate ‘Modern Classics’ series, dedicated to uncovering and reissuing the work of women novelists no longer in print. Riley traces the series’ origins to contemporary debates about the mechanisms through which women’s voices had been silenced. In Hidden from History, published by the radical but not explicitly feminist press Pluto in the same year that Virago was launched, Sheila Rowbotham had suggested that the literary records of women’s lives had ‘become lost or deliberately obscured’ [Riley : 45]. ‘Modern Classics’ was Callil’s answer to this. Antonia White’s Frost in May was the first title published in the series. Others by writers such as Sylvia Townsend Warner, Winifred Holtby, Rebecca West and Rosamund Lehman soon followed. Riley explains how this was more than an important feminist project, it also made sound business sense as reprints tended to sell well and were less expensive to produce than presenting a new book from scratch [44-45]. The books also had a distinctive look, with covers selected by Callil from provincial galleries across the country, and the decision to number the series appealed to serious bibliophiles determined to own a complete run.
Virago Modern Classics were a great success and shaped the literary taste and knowledge of a generation of new readers, many of whom went on to have notable literary careers themselves. Writing on the series’ thirtieth anniversary, journalist and critic Rachel Cooke recalled her excitement when, on finishing her first ‘Modern Classic’ – Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper – she discovered that ‘there were lots more of these green-spined books, several hundred of them’ and that her local university bookshop in Sheffield had ‘a carousel devoted to them, which meant (cash allowing) that I could perform swooping raids on the store…’(3) The recollections of the novelist Jonathan Coe,who was also drawn to the ‘distinctive bottle-green spines’ in his own university bookshop (Heffer’s in Cambridge), show how Virago was achieving its aim to restore women to the literary cannon. Coe, reading English, believed himself familiar with the classics, but was puzzled by the new series:
[W]ho on earth were these people? Dorothy Richardson, F.M. Mayor, May Sinclair, Rosamond Lehmann….I could see only two things that these mysterious writers had in common. They were all women, and I’d never heard of any of them’.
Calling the series Modern Classics, he believed, ‘was in itself a boldly political gesture'.(4) Riley reinforces this point by noting Virago’s simultaneous publication of new works of feminist literary criticism, Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own and Nicola Beauman’s A Very Great Profession which contextualised the series and fed into the developing curricula of a number of new university courses .
The second section of the book deals with Virago’s second decade from 1983 to 1994, a period which saw ‘a new, flourishing network of feminist writers, publishers and bookshops’. Virago expanded and opened its own shop in Covent Garden. The press also published several important non-fiction titles, which reflected and shaped contemporary feminist debates. The women’s movement of the 1980s was more diverse than that of the 1970s, meaning that Virago (and other publishers) became increasingly aligned with certain positions. Riley uses the example of debates over sexuality, pornography and censorship as a means of exploring this, describing Virago’s more libertarian stance epitomised in texts such as Angela Carter’s The Sadian Women and Ann Snitow’s Desire : The Politics of Sexuality. The Woman’s Press, by contrast, favoured the more radical, separatist approach of work such as Susan Griffin’s Pornography and Silence and Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography : Men Possessing Women. Riley also notes how at the same time Virago mirrored diversity in feminism through expanding into different forms of genre fiction such as feminist science fiction and feminist crime novels. While these in some ways reflected the challenges of a growing move towards an identity politics in feminism which emphasised women’s differences, Riley suggests that they helped Virago retain readers by offering ‘a feminism outside of the complex and often heated debates’ of theory . Sometimes, titles could do both. Barbara Wilson, one of Virago’s first and most popular crime writers, often used her books as a means of exploring different sides of debates through fictionalised situations such as in The Dog Collar Murders set at a feminist pornography conference or Murder in the Collective that explored the tensions between a left wing and a separatist lesbian print collective.
Riley gives excellent detail of the difficulties Virago faced in being at once a radical, politically committed feminist enterprise and a successful commercial publisher. As the work of Virago, The Women’s Press and other publishers succeeded in pushing women’s writing and establishing beyond doubt that there was a market for it, larger, richer players were keen to poach the authors independent presses had championed. Ali Smith is one author cited who left Virago because it ‘paid me almost nothing’ . For several years Virago vacillated between being independent and a subsidiary of a larger publisher (variously Quartet Books, Chatto and eventually Little, Brown). The mechanisms of these various mergers are quite difficult to follow (a timeline would have been a useful addition to the text). What is clear from Riley’s descriptions is that when change in a feminist publisher was controversial, it was reported in a very particular way. Virago’s board were ‘demonized as egotistical mismanagers who would rather see their company torn apart than lose their influence of it…it is hard to imagine such descriptions being made of a change in personnel and structure within a male company’ . This tension runs throughout the book as Virago attempted to strike a balance between keeping its feminist priorities and remaining solvent.
It is possibly because of this tension, which some readers may feel ended with Virago’s ‘incorporation into a mainstream conglomerate’ in the 1990s, that the last chapters of the book appear somewhat sketchier than the early ones. The feminist priorities of the 1970s and 80s were easy to identify with clear links and priorities that connected obviously to Virago’s publications. The increasing diversity of twenty-first century feminism offers a less clear connection, particularly given Virago’s decision to remove the word ‘feminist’ from its mission statement. Today’s feminism, Riley points out, is less connected to the academy  hence has less need of a publisher with an advisory board determined to reshape university curricula. While the final section sets out to cover the years up to 2017, there is little discussion of later texts beyond Naomi Wolf’s 2012 Vagina : A New Biography, leaving a sense of fragmentation and questions as to where Virago actually is in relation to a women’s movement today. The work is at its strongest in the two sections describing Virago’s early decades. Its material addressed key goals of second-wave feminism ‘parity of pay, equal sharing of domestic and parental responsibilities, freedom from sexual exploitation and the right to an empowered sexuality’ . Its texts reflected and influenced debates as well as recovering the work of unjustly overlooked authors who are now recognised as significant voices in shaping twentieth-century fiction. Riley’s book serves as a valuable addition to a growing scholarship of this period of British feminism and will provoke some sentimental recognition in any reader who has a treasured pile of green spines on their shelves.
(1) Recent histories of radical spaces include Daphne Spain, Constructing Feminism : Women’s Spaces and Women’s Rights in the American City. London: Cornell University Press, 2016; Rosa Schling, The Lime Green Mystery : An Oral History of the Centerprise Co-Operative. London: On the Record, 2017; Lucy Delap, ‘Feminist Bookshops, Reading Cultures and the Women’s Liberation Movement in Great Britain, c.1974-2000’. History Workshop Journal 81 (2016) : 171-196; Jane Chomley, ‘A Feminist Business in a Capitalist World : Silver Moon Women’s Bookshop’. In N. Redclift and M. Sinclair, eds., Working Women International Perspectives on Labour and Gender Ideology. London, 1991; Christine Wall, ‘Sisterhood and Squatting in the 1970s : Feminism, Housing and Urban Change in Hackney’. History Workshop Journal 83 (2017) : 79–97. On print culture more broadly see Laurel Forster, ‘Spreading the Word : Feminist Print Cultures and the Women’s Liberation Movement’. Women’s History Review 25/2 (2016) : 812-831; Krista Cowman, ‘Carrying on a Long Tradition : Second-Wave Presentations of First-Wave Feminism in Spare Rib c.1972-80’, European Journal of Women’s Studies 17/3 (2010) : 193-210.
(2) Sheila Rowbotham, Threads Through Time : Writings on History and Autobiography. London : Penguin, 1999 : 82. See also the various autobiographical accounts in Michelene Wandor, Once a Feminist. London : Virago, 1990.
(3) Rachel Cooke, ‘Taking Women Off the Shelf’. Observer, 6 April 2008.
(4) Jonathan Coe, ‘My Literary Love Affair’, Guardian, 6 October 2007.
Cercles © 2019
All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.
Please contact us before using any material on this website.