Friday 28 January 2011

Virago Reading Week

I think, sadly, I've read all the VMCs I'll manage this week (total: one) so I'll talk about Virago in general instead! A few bloggers have written about how they discovered the world of Virago, and I thought I'd join in. And tomorrow I'll muse on some of my favourites, time permitting...

I had quite an odd journey to Virago, which started with a little Everyman book called Modern Humour. Putting 'modern' in the title of anything is a risky business, and this volume was published in 1940. I bought it because it featured something by AA Milne that wasn't collected elsewhere, and AAM was my first grown-up literary love (that sounds odd, given his status as a children's writer, but he was also the first writer-for-adults whom I really loved.)

Anyway - included in this volume were two pieces by E.M. Delafield (which, incidentally, you can read here). I'd never heard of Delafield - I didn't even know if 'E.M' was a woman or a man, although the tone of the piece led me correctly to suspect the former - but I loved these pieces. They're actually from As Others Hear Us, which is one of my
very favourite books, but at the time I only had Delafield's name - and took myself to Worcestershire's library catalogue. All they had in Pershore Library was a large print edition of The Provincial Lady Goes Further - so that was my induction to the world of Delafield.

Ok, that - and the 4-in-1 Provincial Lady book I subsequently bought - wasn't actually in a Virago edition. The first Virago Modern Classic I read was about six months later: Provincial Daughter by EMD's own daughter, R.M. Dashwood. But it was the Provincial Lady books which gave me a taste for Virago Modern Classics, even before I knew what they were...

Fast-forward about 18 months, and I was a member of an online reading group that, seve
n years later, I am still a proud member of. They love all things Persephone, but they also enthuse about Virago like nobody's business - which led to me buying those green spines wherever I spotted them at a reasonable price. Elizabeth Taylors flocked to my house. Elizabeth von Arnims gathered on my shelves (and I've still only read one of them.) Many more than I have read have arrived. And aren't the matching green spines something to behold? I will always choose one of those over the latest VMC - whoever chose to get rid of the green spines made one of the worst marketing decisions in the world. (By the by, for the background workings of Virago and their takeover by Little Brown, from being an independent press, is detailed fascinatingly in Simone Murray's Mixed Media: Feminist Presses and Publishing Politics).

Thankfully, however, old VMCs turn up in a lot of charity shops, and my collection has grown steadily over the years. Some seem impossible to find; some proliferate. They have provided me with some of my favourite reads - they have also included some I thought dreadful, but the good outweight the bad. Virago don't seem to embody a reading taste in quite the way they used to - perhaps because, when they were an independent press, all VMCs had to pass the taste level of a small group of people - but, looking at those 1980s reprints, all of which were originally published before I was born, and many of which were reprinted before I was born too - I can be confident that I'll find something that will at least intrigue me. Check back tomorrow to see which titles I've loved most over the years... although I suspect you can already guess some of them.

If you've blogged about your introduction to Virago, do let me know - and if you haven't, then tell me about it in the comments here!


  1. Love this post, Simon! And the picture! It's so interesting how randomly people came across Virago - I can't even remember how I did, though I'm sure it's not half as interesting as your story!

  2. Great story! I just wish we had more of the lovely green Viragos here in the U.S., they are few and far between. I might have to make a book-buying pilgrimage to the U.K. someday -- I'd have to bring an empty suitcase just for books!

  3. Nice story, and I love the picture. :) I think of all my Virago authors, I only have ONE of the famous green spines. I guess it takes a while for them to drift all the way over here.

  4. Never got the chance to get a Virago but I so love the posts and also getting to know people's favourites.

  5. Love the comic! I began collecting Viragos from the only secondhand shop in Calgary that seemed to carry them last year after Persephone reading week and seeing how many Persephone fans also liked Virago. They also seemed like the next best thing to Persephones, which I certainly couldn't find in a used bookstore in the Canadian prairies! I'm now thoroughly enjoying them for their own virtues, not just for the Persephone connection.

  6. I can remember browsing the shelves in a second hand book shop and being drawn to a bookcase full of Virago books. They looked beautiful and then I picked out the authirs and the titles and was immediately 'converted'!(despite the things said of V by teasing OV!)

  7. I love that you, like myself, came in a roundabout way to VMCs. And I have benefited from borrowing from your collection!

  8. Great post -- thanks. I've also written about Virago today.

  9. And I have commented briefly upon Virago, and The Women's Press, on Harriet's weblog, so I won't repeat myself here.

    There's a cat you might like on MCS if you haven't seen it.

  10. What a brilliant post Simon, I also love the picture you have done which really made me chuckle.

    I think my introduction to VMC's is all accidental and mainly down to the fact, as I said on Harriet's post today, that the green editions seem to just draw me to them. I have on many occasion simply picked on up because it looked lovely. I have started one of those very books this week specially and will be reporting on it in due course.

  11. Rachel - thanks, m'dear :) I thought I couldn't remember how I came across Virago, then I remembered this story... I don't remember how I came across my first green-spined Virago, or even what it was, though! Maybe Mother and Son by Ivy Compton-Burnett??

    Karen - oh you definitely should! We are so blessed here - even though the secondhand bookshops are disappearing fast...

    Susan - thanks :) Only one green spine! How sad! They proliferate here - but I don't trust Viragos as implicitly as I do Persephones; lots of gems, but quite a lot of dross too, especially more recently...

    Mystica - I can feel your frustration at being so far away from the Viragos!

    Carolyn - thanks very much :) That is quite unusual, to come to VMCs through Persephone - most people seem to go the other way around! But well done for finding a supply of them :)

    Mum - yes, I can't imagine Dad will be participating in Virago Reading Week!

    Verity - at least someone is reading my Virago collection! They are sadly all too neglected by moi...

    Harriet - thanks for the mention in your post! I loved reading your post - those sort of behing-the-reading stories always appeal.

    Peter - I hied myself over to both sites, and duly appreciated!

    Simon S - thanks Simon :) And I look forward to reading your Virago post - those green spines are so attractive, they draw me in... can't imagine why they ever got rid of them.

  12. My friend and I have a running joke about australian Virago's - for some reason we always end up not buying them (so I got her the thornbirds for christmas...) whilst I think the variety of things they printed over the years is what makes collecting them so much fun, I have to admit that the over all quality of what's in print seems to have improved since the Little Brown takeover.


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