Profile: Virago was the only name to pick: Carmen Callil, no ordinary feminist publisher

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THERE is a mystery here. What is one to make of someone acclaimed as a brilliant businesswoman who has, nevertheless, sometimes lost money hand over fist? Of a woman, said to be a brilliant publisher, whose colleagues complain that her list is patchy? Of a woman with a record of feminist achievement who can treat women, especially those who work for her in junior positions, with startling and unnecessary cruelty? Carmen Callil, founder of Virago, the publishing phenomenon that celebrates its 20th birthday this month, is no ordinary citizen.

Twenty years on, it requires some imaginative effort to remember how marginal the Virago idea once sounded: a publishing house run by women, to publish women and uncover the buried traces of earlier feminists, at a time when men's tastes and preoccupations were still assumed to be the universal standard.

The project began around Callil's kitchen table in 1973, financed by overdrafts and the profits from her publicity company. It published its first title - Fenwomen, by Mary Chamberlain - in 1975. Virago was to be one of the publishing phenomena of its time and Callil was to become a mainstream publishing superstar - managing director of Chatto and now, at 55, named as global publisher at large for Random House. For admirers, it is the latest in a long line of Callil triumphs; for critics, she has been kicked upstairs. Is it the end for Carmen Callil, or another new beginning?

Carmen Callil? people say. I don't want to talk about Carmen Callil. Perhaps not, but once they start you could be there for days, reliving the drama, passion and pettiness. Not all seek revenge: many love her. Yes, they insist, absolutely love her. Independent-minded women such as Liz Calder, the publisher, or Helena Kennedy, QC, cannot tell you strongly enough what a wonderful, courageous, generous, considerate, inspirational, funny and brilliant woman she is.

But stop there and you miss the others - those who can barely speak her name without risking a sleepless night. It's not fear of the consequences, however. It's the reliving of it, the stirring up of those emotions, that rage at oneself for allowing her to do that to me.

Carmen Callil has got away with quite a lot, but has never quite escaped her demons. These go back a long way, to a narrow, impoverished and pious middle-class upbringing in Melbourne, Australia. Her father was a barrister, of Lebanese descent, not an easy thing to be in Thirties Australia. His passion was books, bought in job lots at auction then sifted for the treasured volumes. The rest were piled in the garden shed. Her mother's family is Irish. There were four children, some affluence, then tragedy: when Carmen was five, her father began the slow, painful process of dying from Hodgkin's disease. When she was eight, he died.

She had been sent to a Catholic boarding school during this agony, to be educated by nuns whom she has described as narrow, joyless and bent on making a lady of her. They failed, but they marked her indelibly with the sense of a vengeful God watching, waiting for her to stumble and, she says, a powerful sense of personal guilt. Escape, in the holidays, was into the garden shed, reading the discarded volumes of her dead father: biographies of obscure 19th-century English characters, forgotten novels by such writers as Henry Handel Richardson.

University offered no escape, except into books. She lived at home, read English at the dogmatic, Leavisite English department of Melbourne University and, she says, never met anybody who wasn't Catholic. The day she graduated, aged 22, she left home and Australia. It was 1960.

IF THIS account - her own - is accurate, there is a further mystery. So far we have a story of repression and escape, not rebellion. But by the time she was noticed in England, there was a very different Carmen Callil. She had tasted adventure in Italy, discovered sex, freedom and parties - an adolescence postponed. On the way, she had reinvented herself. Gone was the Catholic girl from Melbourne, in her place the Australian abroad, crashing through British mores with the energy of a coiled spring. She had adopted an Australian bully-girl persona, borrowed from the tough guy Australian male - one foot on the bar and lots of swagger - for whom good manners were just another kind of Pommie bullshit.

It is a style that has lots of admirers. 'She has wonderful qualities,' says Helena Kennedy, 'that people admire in a man and find terribly frightening in a woman.' And the sheer force of it was always shot through with intelligence, energy and a dazzling charm. It was Swinging London and there were plenty of jobs and nightlife. After a brief spell working, implausibly, for Marks & Spencer, she found work doing publicity in a succession of publishing houses. She helped with publicity at Ink, the Sixties weekly, and met Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe, two of the founders of Spare Rib, Britain's first feminist magazine. It gave Callil an idea: if they could do that in magazines, she could do it in book publishing.

Virago worked for a number of reasons. There was Callil's energy and genius for publicity and packaging. Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe left, but Ursula Owen's discernment and confident good humour and Harriet Spicer's calm efficiency were added. And there was an enthusiastic public, as the Virago women had hoped. Run on cheeseparing financial principles and long hours of work, Virago's turnover reached pounds 1m in 10 years. The works of neglected writers, from Vera Brittain to Tillie Olsen, were celebrated again. Virago became a cultural force. Callil was on the way to becoming a legend. In 1982, she moved into mainstream publishing when she took Virago into what was then the Chatto, Bodley Head and Cape group and became managing director of Chatto.

What makes up the Callil legend? The publisher Andre Deutsch has described her as on a par with Allen Lane, founder of Penguin. She, too, has a large measure of personal idiosyncracy - monstrous rudeness and temper tantrums, fierce favouritism and a passion for books.

'Publishing,' said Marsha Rowe, 'is still run on feudal lines - it's all master to serf relationships.' Chatto, despite the oft- repeated notion that it was a gentleman's world, had been ruled for many decades by Nora Smallwood, one of several female tyrants in the publishing firmament. Callil's style was equally tyrannical, but different.

'Carmen,' said a former employee, 'has no boundaries between professional and private life. She behaved to her staff like an over-possessive mother, which gave her the absolute right to treat her children abominably, cuffing them round the ear if she felt like it. But if anyone outside the family attacked them, she would defend them like a lioness.'

SUCCESSIVE Chatto offices were redecorated in Callil taste, filled with the overspill of kitsch from her home. And like a tiny, jealous mother, she was ferociously intolerant of any sign of an independent emotional existence in employees. 'Beautiful young men survived better with Carmen, but it was particularily hard for women because she could not bear any reference to family or private life. Pregnancy was intolerable,' said a former colleague.

Only one emotional entanglement was tolerated: Callil is mad about cats. One of the men who worked at Chatto recalled a long period of hostility in which Callil refused to talk to him for weeks. 'It was only broken when my cat died. She rang up and said, 'Darling, I've heard about your cat. Are you all right? Would you like to take the afternoon off?'. I said, 'No, it's OK, I'm fine'. She said, 'Are you sure? Do take the afternoon off'. The next day she wasn't talking to me again. I'm sure if a child had died, she would never have offered me the afternoon off.'

'All the good things about Carmen,' said another former colleague, 'were inseparable from the reprehensible things: her energy was marvellous and inspiring when well directed, but misdirected it was appallingly destructive.' There is little neutral ground in this discussion. 'She called secretaries 'thing',' said a former Callil junior. 'She was dreadful to people who were weak or subordinate. You dreaded going to the loo because there was always someone in there sobbing.'

At the same time, there was inspiration. She is generous with her knowledge and flatteringly indiscreet. If you survived, you could learn a lot from her. And for her favoured authors there was nothing quite like being published by her. Within 48 hours of sending a manuscript, authors could receive pages of comments that demonstrated both her gift for editing and her commitment to the text. Many, such as Angela Carter, became close friends, for whom she could not do enough.

Others have less fond memories. One author, who had just heard that her daughter needed spinal surgery, went to see Callil about her novel. 'I walked in and she said, 'Is it because you believe in God that you write such appallingly bad books?'. It was the most humiliating experience of my life. I spent three hours with her, in the course of which a secretary brought Carmen four cups of coffee. She never offered me one.' The next day, the author's agent called Carmen. 'How did you get on?' she asked, disingenuously. 'Oh, fine,' said Carmen. 'I made a few suggestions and I think she agreed with them. It went very well.'

'It's both pathological and useful to her,' said a former Chatto executive. 'You could win a fight with Carmen, but it was so exhausting that you only fought if it was absolutely necessary. So mostly she got her own way: the people she wanted shafted were shafted. The people she wanted promoted were promoted. The money she wanted spent was spent.'

And the money was spent. Under Callil's stewardship, in the free-spending Eighties, Chatto's modest losses soared. Authors and agents benefited, but it opened the way to takeover and the rule of accountants. Chatto, minus Virago, went independent in 1987 before being taken over by the American publisher Random House. Callil always survived.

But was the energy beginning to fail? 'Sometimes,' said one of her favoured authors, 'she looks terrific. At other times, you think, 'Who is this pathetic old lady?'.' She began to cultivate private pleasures - a house in France, the endless reading, music - and, at 55, began to talk of leaving Chatto.

Her new arrangement is highly paid, part-time and out of the managerial mainstream. 'I think,' said Liz Calder, 'she is just beginning.' A long-standing colleague added: 'She has grappled with being alone and made peace with herself about that. But she is eaten up with getting her due. Those things feel better over time and she has had a lot of due. I am just surprised things haven't felt better enough for her.'