Education: Passed/Failed Carmen Callil

Carmen Callil, 60, founded Virago Press. She has been managing director of Chatto & Windus, chair of the Booker Prize committee and a member of the Channel 4 board. She is co-author of The Modern Library: The Best 200 Novels in English Since 1950 (out last Thursday), and she is writing a book about Vichy France
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The Independent Online
Star wars

I hated nuns, I hated the way they looked, the things they told me to do. They beat my sister with the bamboo handle of a feather duster - and I never forgot. I hated being a Catholic. I was four when I first boarded at Star of the Sea Convent in Melbourne. It was wartime, not a good time. Germaine Greer went to the Star of the Sea Convent and stayed there but I was taken away because my mother thought it was too rough and I was then sent to Loreto Convent, which is also in Melbourne.

Nun but the brave

I hated this convent even more. It was much more Jansenist: Jansenist Catholicism is very narrow, very Irish. I know there are worse places; I didn't go to a concentration camp... but it was full of hell and mortal sin. I was a rabid Catholic but they never asked me to be a nun - or a Child of Mary. (God knows what that is, but it seemed very important at the time.) I took notice of the nuns; if you took no notice, it was fine. I'm told it's different now. The Loreto Convent has just published a book about its being around for 100,000 years - and there's not a word of criticism in it. An apology, an admittance that they damaged children, would have been welcome.

The good books

I did have a wonderful nun who taught me English literature and who has since gone on to be an outstanding and very outspoken nun. I also loved the Latin teacher. I was always reading; I think that was my real education. My father, a barrister and university lecturer in French, died when I was eight, but he had collected this enormous library and I had that to play with. Books were coming out of the pores of the house. I think that this was my education.

BA: He's making eyes

at me!

I always did well at my lessons, in particular English, history and languages. I had a very high IQ, they said. I was always being tested like some bloody freak. We had the "Leaving" exam a year before we left and then "Matriculation". Very few people went on to university from my convent because we were expected to get married instead.

Practising Catholic makes perfect:

They didn't tell me you could do an Honorary Degree at Melbourne University and I did an Ordinary Degree, a BA in History and English. I loved the work. I didn't love being a student. I wasn't a big joiner and I didn't do anything except work. I lived at home for most of the time, about eight miles from the university. I was still a practising Catholic and I couldn't have a boyfriend, which would have been a mortal sin. The only man you were allowed to have was the man you were going to marry - and I wasn't going to get married.

See Naples and live

I left Australia the week I graduated and got a one-way ticket to Naples. I grew up late. Nothing really happened to me until I left home and lost my virginity and started living.