We wise women

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith muses that “The best books… are those that tell you what you know already.”

By that logic, Virago, founded 40 years ago at a kitchen table and now the world’s foremost publisher of books by and about women, publishes the best books.

You see, when I was younger, I planned to change the world. I was going to discover dinosaurs and stars. I was going to wear pretty silver dresses and sing and dance for everyone. I was going to be President of All, with the panache and style of an ass-kicking princess.

I was raised to assume that I could do whatever I wanted, that my gender was no barrier, that you could be girly AND powerful. I feasted on fairy tales while the women around me set strong examples: managing cockroach factories, raising families, starting schools, mobilizing the disenfranchised.

As I’ve grown older my ambitions have sadly become far more modest. I’ve realised that equality can’t be taken for granted. But my values are essentially unchanged. I still believe that feminism and femininity can go hand in hand, and the ways in which women are different from men and from each other should be a matter of celebration not discrimination. I always will.

This  simple but steadfast worldview has been echoed and eloquently put in countless and diverse ways by Virago’s fairy tales, historical fiction, memoirs and feminist manifestos. Like George Orwell’s hero, I find that most Virago books seem to articulate what I already know, deep inside, about life, about love, about all that’s weird and beautiful.

Recently, I attended a Virago Book Club in which Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls prompted a roomful of women (with a few token men) to reconsider the state of feminism over pink wine and chocolate cake. I may not have agreed with all Walter had to say, but I found that she was able to put in words a lot of what has been itching underneath my skin since I acquired extra body parts.

Founded in 1973 by author Carmen Callil (she who recently took aim at Philip Roth), Virago boasts an impressive rollcall of literary legends old and new, many of them prize winners and AB authors, such as Margaret Atwood, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Angela Carter, Elizabeth Taylor, Willa Cather and Zora Neale Hurston. (A lioness’s share of the women on the list.) And it’s not just about these authors’ biggest splashes, Virago has also gone to pains to highlight their lesser known works and forgotten contemporaries.

I had Viragos on my shelves and in my school bag long before I recognized the significance of the bitten apple. It was Carter and then Daphne DuMaurier who really brought me over to the tart side. (Unfortunately Carter’s Apocalypse Book Wise Children is one of the few of her books not published by Virago while DuMaurier is entirely snubbed.) Earlier this year I was lucky enough to intern at Little, Brown, which acquired Virago in 1996. As I mentioned in my inaugural post, editor Victoria Pepe kindly donated all the Apocalypse Books that Little, Brown had in print, which were sadly fewer than I had imagined. (Sad because there are many Viragos that really ought to be on the list, and sad because there is no such thing as too many books.)

During AB’s Women’s Week, I featured Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont and The Blind Assassin. It’s about time I cracked those virgin spines of my remaining AB Viragos – Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Cather double whammy My Antonia and Death Comes to the Archbishop – and shared the subtle delights that no doubt lurk within. Because I’m worth it – and so are you.

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