Philip Hensher: Dead white male seeks publisher

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Virago, the doyenne of women's publishing in this country, has gone back to its roots and has started republishing some of the once-neglected classics with which it made its name. When it was first established in the late 1970s, its purpose was to rediscover novels by women which had been forgotten, and bring them out again as "modern classics". It was a provocative move, but quickly led to a substantial and fascinating list.

Novelists as varied as Ada Leverson, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Angela Carter, Elizabeth Taylor and dozens of others quickly found themselves re-clad in that distinctive racing green, and it's not too much to say that the house changed English reading habits forever.

In recent years, it has slightly lost its way, and the available "classics" seemed to shrink substantially, though it made up for it by establishing a much stronger contemporary fiction list, including the huge success of Sarah Waters. Yet the 20th-century classics dried up somewhat.

That seems to be changing, however, and in the last months, I've been sent new editions of half of Elizabeth Taylor's wonderful novels. Just this last week, Antonia White's four-novel cycle arrived. This latter carries an especial historical weight. They were almost the first novels that Virago republished in 1978 and, with a very popular and still well-remembered BBC dramatisation in 1982, established Virago's future and re-established White's reputation.

As it happens, I hadn't read White's novels until last week, and sat down to enjoy them in the sunshine. The first one, Frost in May, I quite enjoyed in its naive way; it is a very simple and fresh story about convent-school life. But after that: what a load of old rubbish. The three other novels are extraordinarily technically inept. She can't describe anything other than through a film of tremulous awareness. She can't contrive incidents naturally at all. The characters have nothing to say apart from how they feel about each other. The whole thing is swathed in the most appalling snobbery - "each piece of furniture, old or new, had that inimitable air that comes from being acquired in the century it was made." Lots of people like it, but I find it terribly difficult to regard it as in any sense a "classic".

As it happened, the same week I was trying to acquire a copy of a real classic, Thackeray's Pendennis. I'd taken my old copy on holiday in a suitcase which Olympic Airways had lost. Pendennis, which must be one of the most entertaining novels in the world, was utterly out of print. John Sandoe of Chelsea, which can find anything, couldn't find a modern edition at all. In the end, they kindly produced a 19th-century edition with eye-aching print, which will have to do.

Of course, publishers aren't really arbiters of literary quality. All they do is publish books which they believe will sell, and the label of "classic", in this context, is really only a marketing tool. But I do find it rather odd that, these days, it seems much easier to sell books by dead women authors than even the most famous of male authors.

Looking at the 19th century, there is no difficulty in finding novels by most famous women authors. All sorts of male authors, on the other hand, have fallen off the map - not just Thackeray, apart from Vanity Fair, but Disraeli, Meredith, Peacock, and the wonderful Surtees. If interesting minor women authors of the 20th century have a Virago Press or - just as fascinating - a Persephone Press to revive their fortunes, who is there to put a CHB Kitchin or an Aubrey Menen back into print?

I'm not really complaining about Virago and similar publishers, who have done a wonderful job in bringing neglected women novelists to our attention. Plenty of them, indeed, deserve to be described as classics. But perhaps the balance has swung away from a large body of classic work, to nobody's advantage. For instance, many more university departments routinely teach Aphra Behn these days than the immensely superior Dryden who, like Pope (amazingly) is pretty well out of print. Publishers assume that no particular effort needs to be made on behalf of classic male authors, and the sad and frustrating result can be that it's impossible for a reader, for instance, to find a new and affordable copy of Pope which includes all the imitations of Horace.

It may be that we've got to the point where a gap in the market is starting to become evident, one comparable to the gap Virago noticed in the late 1970s. If an enterprising publisher decided to start producing cheap editions of famous but overlooked classics by men, then they might find that there is a real market out there.