The apple bites back

Publisher Lennie Goodings survived a mauling by the 'paper tigresses' of Virago Press to emerge as its figurehead. As the beloved imprint hits 30, Mark Bostridge talks to her about fun, feminism and feuds
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The Independent Culture

Since Virago split up in acrimony eight years ago, no one would have put money on the original founders ever seeing each again. But this week, Carmen Callil and her former colleagues, along with many of Virago's distinguished writers, will be getting together to celebrate the imprint's 30th birthday with a party at the Chelsea Physic Garden. Margaret Atwood, a Virago author for nearly a quarter of a century, will propose the toast. A collection will be taken to raise money for the Women's Library in East London, a reminder of the central role that the publishing house continues to play in uncovering the hidden past of women's lives.

The world of today seems light years away from the one that saw the birth of Virago on the crest of the wave of the women's liberation movement of the late 1960s. In 1973, Spare Rib was just over a year old, the Equal Pay Act had recently passed into law, and the Sex Discrimination Act was still two years off. It was an exhilarating time for feminists everywhere, and Virago caught and moulded the mood of the moment. Its first catalogue proclaimed, at last: "an imprint for 52 per cent of the population". Within a decade, its distinctive green-spined paperbacks dominated independent bookshops throughout Britain, and were soon invading high-street booksellers as well. In 1984 WH Smith supported the first Feminist Book Week with huge window displays.

Yet, by the late 1980s, tensions among Virago's five directors - Carmen Callil, Ursula Owen, Harriet Spicer, Alexandra Pringle, and Lennie Goodings - were palpable, and soon bitter divisions were threatening to dissolve the success story. For a while, Virago faltered, editorially and financially. Then in 1995, after a huge row, the company was sold to Little, Brown, where it still exists as an imprint, with Lennie Goodings, the sole survivor of the five, at its head.

Even today, Goodings can't believe her luck. "Here I am," she says, "a small town kid from Canada, who came to England on a whim, and ended up running a company whose ideals and welfare I care passionately about."

Her passion was vitally needed. Virago now had corporate muscle behind it, but could it maintain its identity? Goodings says that she never had any doubt that it would. "Virago's bigger than all of us. Even with all the frictions and factions, I never thought that its brand name, or what was special about it, would die. The question was, how could it be nurtured?"

Although Goodings pays generous tribute to the team at Little, Brown, especially to Philippa Harrison, who was at the helm when Virago was purchased, it's clear that her own vision and input have been decisive in turning Virago round. It's an especially impressive achievement when you consider the bitterness of the break-up. "The final split was horribly acrimonious," Goodings recalls, a bit reluctant now to remember the extent to which the dream was poisoned by personal feuds among the women known as the "paper tigresses". "But when you have that kind of intense working relationship, the power that holds you together becomes devastating when you turn it in the opposite direction, against one another." In particular, Callil, all velvety-gloved charm one moment and spitfire temper the next, and Owen, with her endless zest for life and fierce anger, fell out so badly that they are rumoured never to have spoken to each other since.

These days, Goodings' results speak for themselves. In six years with Time Warner (as the parent company is now called), Virago has doubled its turnover to a gross of nearly £4m, with 600 titles in print. Talk to any of her authors, and one quickly gains an impression of a kind of individual who's now all too rare in modern publishing: the committed editor, involved at every level. Michèle Roberts, who's been at Virago since 1992 when she published her Booker shortlisted novel, Daughters of the House, describes Goodings as "a marvellous editor. In moral terms, she's utterly loyal and supportive. As a reader, she's not afraid to wrestle with you when she feels that something's not right." Sarah Dunant refers to Goodings' "gentle tenacity", and praises her for being prepared "to stick with a book for as it long as it takes to make it work", an aspect of Goodings' editorial repertoire echoed by Sarah Waters, author of last year's Booker-shortlisted Fingersmith, who had "major problems" with the ending of her novel.

Lenore Goodings was born in 1953, in Cornwall, Ontario. She studied Film and English Literature at Queen's University in Kingston before travelling to London in 1977 on money saved from waitressing tips. She planned to stay for just a year, but soon found herself working for a new publicity company set up to meet the demand for splashy campaigns to advertise books. Her first publicity tour was for Colleen McCullough's The Thorn Birds, followed by a voyage round Britain in the back of a Phantom VI Rolls Royce, promoting the paperback of Robert Lacey's Majesty.

Goodings' blonde, gamine appearance belies an essential toughness. There's something of the daredevil about her (she's also devotedly maternal, with a daughter and son, Amy, 14, and Zachary, 10, and an emergent career as a children's writer). At 20 she rode the Niagara River rapids on a raft which overturned, drowning four people (this incident, repeated to Margaret Atwood, was fictionalised in one of Atwood's stories in Bluebeard's Egg). In London she took up street theatre, and once found herself locked up overnight at Bow Street police station for demonstrating against people being arrested for performing on the streets. But it took some brazen nerve at 25 to write to Carmen Callil at Virago that "I want to work for you and I know about publicity and I think I can help you." To this day, she still blushes at the memory of discovering that Callil herself had run her own publicity company for 15 years before setting up Virago (Callil's original insignia of an apple on one leg was later transformed into the Virago colophon of a red apple with a bite taken out of it).

Those first years at Virago, at an office in Wardour Street, above a pinball arcade and gentlemen's hairdresser, were heady, exhausting times. "The best thing about a small company is that you get to do a bit of all the jobs, and you learn so much," she says, recalling the chore of sticking stamps on all the review copy packages before dragging the heavy sacks out to post. Fay Weldon's 1997 novel, Big Women, with its fictional women's press Medusa, clearly based on Virago, captures something of the astonishment with which the male establishment greeted the arrival by storm of this feminist pretender: "The gossip columnists took pleasure in referring to the Harpies of Medusa, the bra-less harridans of the publishing world. Publishers themselves, though male, were helpful. It had become apparent that there was a woman's market out there. Let Medusa develop it."

And develop it Virago certainly did. The successful republication of Vera Brittain's First World War memoir, Testament of Youth, in 1978, allowed Virago some financial security, and was accompanied by a host of other modern classic reprints, non-fiction, and new fiction by women, which together have become the stuff of publishing legend.

"The world may have caught up with us," Lennie Goodings admits, "but we're still putting women centre stage." She points to recent successes, like Sarah Waters' lesbian love stories, and the publication of The Vagina Monologues, as well as to the continuation of the tradition of reissuing women's classics, with the recent acquisition of the paperback rights to 25 of Daphne du Maurier's books. "The vision that Virago began with - to explore women's lives, to publish breathtaking new fiction, and to champion women's talent - stubbornly remains the reason to publish," she says. "And the reason we continue to flourish."