Mary Chamberlain was the first author to be published by pioneering women’s press, Virago. As this week marks the 45th anniversary of the company’s founding, Mary remembers those early years.
On 18 June 1973 Carmen Callil registered Virago Limited at Companies House. Its business? Book Publishing. Marsha Rowe and Rosie Boycott were listed as directors. This year is Virago’s 45th anniversary and a strange moment for me, as I segue from historian turned novelist into – as Virago’s first author – historical curio.
Carmen Callil arrived in London from Australia in 1960 and drifted into book publicity, one of the few jobs in publishing open to women. She hung out with fellow Aussies such as Richard Neville in the radical world of the underground press – of Oz, Ink and the like. Another émigré on the circuit was Marsha Rowe who, with Rosie Boycott, went on to found Spare Rib, feminism’s answer to the counter culture, in 1972.
Carmen’s publicity company helped launch Spare Rib and in the spirit of making women’s voices heard, Carmen hit upon the idea of launching a publishing house, run by women, publishing women but for a mass audience. Although women were the largest book reading market, they were poorly represented in the industry: women writers struggled to be commissioned, published or to stay in print, editors and literary agents were predominantly male. The working title for Carmen’s brainwave was Spare Rib Books, until the idea of calling it Virago – a tongue-in-cheek title – took hold. Harriet Spicer, a newly minted Oxford graduate, was appointed as Carmen’s assistant in 1973 and a year later, Ursula Owen, with a background in non-fiction editing, joined the company.
I first met Carmen in April 1973. I was twenty five years old and had an introduction to her from Anna Coote, a university friend who had founded Women’s Report, of which I was a member. Carmen lived and worked in her flat on the top floor of 27, Smith Street, in Chelsea. It was a small apartment, the main room dominated by a red-tiled fireplace, large plants and three Persian cats. Carmen and Harriet and, later, Ursula, worked off the dining room table into the early hours, fuelled by wine, wit and adrenalin, drawing up that first list which included Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden, on women’s sexual fantasies and Merlin Stone’s The Paradise Papers, on early goddesses.
At the time I was living in a remote village in the Cambridgeshire fens with my then husband, the writer Carey Harrison. Anna had suggested that I was ideally placed to write a feminist counterpart to Ronald Blythe’s hugely successful Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village published in 1969. Despite its critical acclaim, it had one major flaw: most of the interviews upon which the book was based were with men and the collective story it told – like George Ewart Evans’ classic Ask The Fellows Who Cut the Hay (1956) – was one in which the women’s experience was excluded.
I made a ‘pitch’ to Carmen – a highly amateur affair, based on no track record of publication – and Carmen told me to return with a synopsis and a sample chapter. I did. Carmen commissioned me, gave me a minuscule advance and a deadline of September 1974. Somewhere, deep inside my attic, I have the contract and the original manuscript for what became Virago’s first book, Fenwomen: A Portrait of Women in an English Village.
It was published in September 1975. Carmen’s background in publicity ensured that she, Virago and Fenwomen, were featured in full page spreads in national and local papers, in weekly magazines and on radio and television. The book received critical acclaim (and commercial success), was the inspiration behind Caryl Churchill’s award winning play, Fen, and has been published now in three editions (the latest in 2011 with Full-Circle Publications.)
A feminist publishing company, however, was unlikely to have a smooth passage, particularly one that had appeared with such fanfare and with such a provocative name. On 7 September – the day before the book was launched – the News of the World ran a double page exposé. Headlined ‘Why Mary Unveiled A Village’s Love Secrets,’ it was subtitled, ‘There’ll be red faces on the farm when this book comes out.’ The substance of the article was sexual innuendo and fabrication. The villagers, who’d not had a chance to read the book, were outraged and felt, rightly, betrayed. The ‘scandal’ was exploited by the Cambridge Evening News who fuelled the fury in editorials, updates and often libellous correspondence every day for a week.
The ambitions of Fenwomen were a far cry from its tabloid portrayal, and I still receive letters from the public saying how much they enjoyed the book, and thanking me for telling the women’s stories.
And telling the women’s stories was what Virago was about, albeit on precarious finances. In 1976 Virago broke away from its initial publishing partnership with Quartet books, and raised the money to go it alone, with a working capital of £1,500 and an overdraft. Money was tight in the early days, and we all – writers particularly – made sacrifices by foregoing advances. Two years later, in 1978, Carmen launched the Virago Modern Classics series with Antonia White’s Frost in May, the bitter account of a convent education which chimed with Carmen’s own experiences under the Loreto nuns in Melbourne. Other titles followed and the series placed the company on the road to both fame and solvency. Another anniversary to celebrate in 2018.
The classics became the hallmark of Virago and stood out in bookshops with their distinctive green livery, as instantly recognisable as a Penguin paperback. But when WHSmith refused to stock them – or any Virago books – on the grounds that there was no demand, it was the authors and the advisory group who walked into every WHSmith store to demand a Virago title until they eventually relented.
The same year, 1978, Alexandra Pringle (who now runs Bloomsbury Press) and Lennie Goodings (who ran Virago between 1996 – 2017) joined the company. In addition to the Virago Modern Classics, the list included the Virago reprint library with titles such as Maud Pember Reeves Round About A Pound A Week, or Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, launched the careers of contemporary writers, such as Angela Carter and Pat Barker, or brought writers such as Maya Angelou or Margaret Atwood to a British audience. It is perhaps invidious to single out names, for many of our best known fiction and non-fiction authors cut their teeth with Virago at a time when few others would dare to publish them.
It was an eclectic mix of titles in those early days. In my study I write facing my Virago collection, a phalanx of green spines commemorating those feisty, mouthy heroines, and stare at the work of formidable novelists and campaigners, of Edwardian travel writers and pioneering journalists, at books on health and vaginas, on divorce and Russian revolutionaries. Women – young as well as old – still come up to me singing the praises of Virago for saving their sanity or inspiring them, or transforming their lives in one way or another.
I’ll say this too. Virago was serious, but it was also fun. Virago’s parties were noisy, cheerful and boozy affairs held either in their miniscule offices in Soho or in the wonderful but short-lived Virago bookshop in Covent Garden. Those were great days.
How has it transformed lives? Writing by women reflects the world as they see it, and in that reflection, women see themselves. The books Virago has published have given meaning and credence to so many women’s lives. In Virago’s wake other feminist publishers opened their doors – Sheba, the Women’s Press, Only Women Press, Pandora – but Virago was the pioneer, remaining independent until Philippa Harrison bought it for Little, Brown in 1996. Women are now more likely to be commissioned, published, and to stay in print than they were 45 years ago. The publishing industry, and literary agents, are dominated by women.
Except, except… books by male authors constitute the majority in the review sections of newspapers and journals, and reviewers themselves are predominantly men. The industry has become increasingly corporatised, with fewer top executive jobs which are more often than not held by men, although the balance is redressed in the independent presses. There is a gender pay gap in the salaries within publishing, and possibly (guesswork here) in the advances paid to authors. The industry may have diversified in terms of gender, but it is still full of the white, middle classes at all levels…
Virago transformed my own writing life. I went on to publish three more titles with Virago, and many more with other publishers as my writing interests switched. Now, I write fiction – my debut The Dressmaker of Dachau, was published in 2015 by HarperCollins in the UK, and (as The Dressmaker’s War) Random House in the US (and a further 16 countries.) My next novel, The Calling, will be published by OneWorld early in 2019. But if it hadn’t been for Virago, and Carmen’s early faith in an unproven young writer, my story would have been different.
Find out more about Mary and her work at marychamberlainbooks.com.
- Recent photo of Mary Chamberlain (r) and Carman Callil (l) © Lisa Martinson
- Original cover of Fenwomen.
- Virago modern classics © Virago via Twitter @ViragoBooks
- Mary Chamberlain at the Virago 15th anniversary party in 1988.