The Blagger's Guide To: Virago

All you need to know about the hottest literary topic of the week

The publisher Virago is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year with a free ebook containing 40 pieces of writing by 40 of its authors, all inspired by the number 40.

“Sometimes we publish to entertain, sometimes we publish to give readers the sheer pleasure of beautiful writing,” the publisher tells the Blagger, “sometimes we publish to change the world.” This particular publication is intended as “a thank-you to everyone who has been part of the Virago family over the years”.

Writers whose work appears in the collection include: Maya Angelou, Lisa Appignanesi, Margaret Atwood, Joan Bakewell, Nina Bawden, Susie Boyt, Stella Duffy, Victoria Glendinning, Linda Grant, Claire Messud, Kate Mosse, Chioma Okereke, Frances Osborne, Michele Roberts, Tracey Thorn, Sandi Toksvig, Sarah Waters and Naomi Wolf. The pieces include poetry, short stories, essays, fragments of autobiography, fables and lists.

Virago’s official birthday was 5 July 1973. Its first board meeting was held on 21 June and included Carmen Callil, Rosie Boycott, and Marsha Rowe. Virago was to be “the first mass-market publisher for 52 per cent of the population – women. An exciting new imprint for both sexes in a changing world.” Its aims were, and still are: to put women centre stage; to explore the untold stories of their lives and histories; to break the silence around many women’s experiences; to publish breathtaking new fiction, alongside a rich list of rediscovered classics; and above all to champion women’s talent. 

According to the Chambers Dictionary, a virago is: “A violent or bad-tempered woman; a heroic or man-like woman; an amazon”.

Virago’s first book, Fenwomen by Mary Chamberlain, was published in association with Quartet Books in 1973.

Virago Modern Classics launched in 1978 with  Frost in May by Antonia White. The imprint is dedicated to rediscovering and republishing lost literary gems including, recently, Mary McCarthy’s The Group – a satire about eight college graduates in 1930s Manhattan.

In 1979, Virago published Angela Carter’s first non-fiction book, The Sadeian Woman, and in 1984 the first UK edition of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

By its 20th birthday in 1993, with Harriet Spicer as MD and Lennie Goodings as publisher, Virago’s list had grown from 11 books to nearly 100 and its staff from three to 19. In 1995, the company was sold to Little, Brown.

In 2000, Margaret Atwood won the Man Booker Prize for the Virago-published The Blind Assassin.

By its 30th birthday, Virago had a phenomenon on its hands in the form of Sarah Waters, whose Tipping the Velvet it published in 1997. By 2013, Waters had been shortlisted for the Orange and Man Booker prizes for Fingersmith and won The South Bank Show Award for Literature. In 2004, three of the six Orange shortlisted titles were published by Virago: Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire and Gillian Slovo’s The Ice Road.

Virago is 40: A Celebration is available in different formats through Amazon, Apple, and all other ebook retailers allowing free downloads.

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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