Thursday, 25 August 2016


Far too hot tonight to make dinner so I settled down instead with a tub of ice cream and BBC Four's The Virago Story. I love my dark green Viragos, three shelves in alphabetical order (chaos everywhere else but my bookshelves are always well-ordered).  And I definitely remember the excitement surrounding the launch of the Modern Classics in 1978. I'd read all about it in Cosmo which was my bible. (I liked the idea of Spare Rib but found it too drab and boring.)
In 1978, I was fresh out of university, working in my first job (blithely unaware that the glamorous older woman who had interviewed me was paid considerably less than her male colleagues). I still have my musty old copy of Frost in May - the first VMC title - that I discovered that winter in a secondhand bookshop; in fact, not a Virago edition but when I saw it there I recognised the title from all the publicity.
I don't think I've ever parted with a Virago. Even The Well of Loneliness, toe-curlingly boring and never read again, is still on the shelf. But mostly, they were treasures ... all the Elizabeth Taylors, Rebecca West, Sybille Bedford, FM Mayor and EH Young, and of course Mrs Miniver. Christina Stead was their 'most disagreeable writer,' Carmen Callil claimed in the BBC programme - but she didn't say why.
Yet Anthony Burgess - applauding the re-issue of Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage, which I've never read and doubt I ever will (13 volumes of stream of consciousness, no thanks!) - thought it was too important a book to have been published by the 'chauvinist sows' at Virago.


I don't read all that many books in translation, and those I do read are probably European - but I came across an old radio programme the other day with a thread on contemporary Chinese literature. And that led me to The Chilli Bean Paste Clan ... doesn't it sound wonderful?

I'm now aching to read it ... but it hasn't been translated into English. ('Fewer writers are translated into English than into any other language': Carmen Callil again.)
Here's an excerpt, so I'm hoping it's coming soon.

5 comments:

callmemadam said...

Oh, I'm looking forward to that programme.

I also bought all the Elizabeth Taylors and E H Youngs as they came out. Others have been picked up here and there and very mixed they are. I couldn't get through the volume of Pilgrimage I started. I'm obviously not highbrow enough.

Anonymous said...

I thought THE VIRAGO STORY was on UK tv BBC4 in the Autumn 2016?

Sue in Suffolk said...

Dark green Virago, Grey Persephone and Orange Penguin is how I refer to them, people wonder what I'm talking about! :-)

mary said...

I didn't even attempt Pilgrimage, Callmemadam - flicked through it in the shop and knew it wasn't for me. Guess I'm not highbrow, either!

Sorry, Anonymous - should have made it clear, it's not on for a while - Oct, I think.

I know exactly what you mean, Sue! Not forgetting black/red Penguin classics!

Veronica Cooke said...

Hello Mary,

I've just discovered your blog and am enjoying it so much.

I saw the BBC 4 Virago programme last Monday, for the first time, and like you I've a collection of neatly arranged Virago books - 4 shelves! I find it hard to find a title I haven't already got but occasionally one turns up - usually in a charity shop. I'm slowly but surely working my way through them...

I've also started to collect and read Persephone titles which run to one and a third shelves but I'm hoping the numbers will swell with Christmas presents. It's on the Persephone blog that I saw the link to your blog so thank you Persephone Books.

Enjoy your week

Veronica