Carmen Callil: Pioneering feminist publisher behind Virago Press

Her company served as a beacon for a generation of readers looking for books that were written by and for women

Harrison Smith
Sunday 30 October 2022 00:01 BST
‘I started Virago to break a silence, to make women’s voices heard, to tell women’s stories, my story and theirs,’ said Callil
‘I started Virago to break a silence, to make women’s voices heard, to tell women’s stories, my story and theirs,’ said Callil (PA)

Carmen Callil never lacked ambition. When a young job applicant walked into her London office in the 1970s and asked why Callil had started Virago Press, one of the first publishing companies devoted to the work of new and neglected female writers, she replied that her goal was simple: “To change the world, darling.”

Callil, who has died aged 84, may well have succeeded. Although Virago was far from the only women-led publishing house to emerge out of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s, the company helped redefine what a commercial publishing house could look like, serving as a beacon for a generation of readers looking for books that were written by and for women, in contrast to the male-dominated offerings of traditional publishers.

Guided in its early years by Callil and four other female directors, Virago published contemporary writers including Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood, Pat Barker, Helen Garner and Adrienne Rich. The press also launched a popular Modern Classics series, complete with signature green spines and radiant cover illustrations, that gave new life to books by Vera Brittain, Willa Cather, Rebecca West, Edith Wharton, Henry Handel Richardson (the pen name of Australian author Ethel Florence Richardson) and Elizabeth Taylor (the deft English novelist, not the actor of the same name).

Virago “became such a reliable brand”, Guardian journalist Emma Brockes later wrote, “that you could buy a book on the strength of the green spine alone.”

After decades spent publishing other writers, Callil left the industry to write books of her own, devoting eight years to Bad Faith (2006), a critically acclaimed biography of Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, the antisemitic Frenchman who deported thousands of Jews to their deaths while serving in the Vichy government. She also wrote a family memoir, Oh Happy Day (2020), that traced her ancestors’ journey from the English Midlands to southeastern Australia, where she was raised.

“In its often tearful compassion, its eloquent rage and its vengeful delight in proletarian snook-cocking, Oh Happy Day deserves to be called Dickensian,” wrote literary scholar Peter Conrad, reviewing the book for The Observer.

Callil remained best known for her years at Virago, which was founded around her kitchen table in London and later moved to a Soho walk-up. The idea for the company “came to me like the switching on of a light bulb”, she recalled, and was inspired in part by the British feminist magazine Spare Rib, which was founded in 1972 by her friends Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe.

If they could create a magazine for and about women, she decided, why couldn’t she create a publishing house to do the same?

“I started Virago to break a silence, to make women’s voices heard, to tell women’s stories, my story and theirs,” she wrote in a 2008 essay for The Guardian. “How often I remember sitting at dinner tables in the 1960s, the men talking to each other about serious matters, the women sitting quietly like decorated lumps of sugar. I remember one such occasion when I raised my fist, banged the table and shouted: ‘I have views on Bangladesh too!’”

By then, Callil had worked as a book publicist for a half-dozen publishers and began helping the underground press. She supported her new publishing company with the proceeds from her publicity business and with the overdraft on her bank account. Its name, Virago, came from a classical term for a warrior woman, and was plucked from a book about goddesses that she was reading with Boycott.

From her attic apartment above a west London synagogue, Callil met authors including Mary Chamberlain, whose nonfiction book Fenwomen: A Portrait of Women in an English Village became Virago’s first title when it was published in 1975. Three years later, Callil launched the Modern Classics series, selecting green for the books’ spines because she considered it a neutral colour – unlike a masculine blue or feminine pink – that would suggest the titles’ broad appeal to all readers, not just women.

At the time, the idea of a women-led press was practically unheard of. One bookstore refused to stock their books, saying there were no feminists in town. Anthony Burgess, the author of A Clockwork Orange, dismissed the women behind Virago as “chauvinist sows”. Some female authors were also sceptical of the business: “What a name!” Belgian-born novelist Marguerite Yourcenar said. “They publish only women. It reminds me of ladies’ compartments in 19th-century trains, or of a ghetto.”

Yet the books sold, the press made money and the publishing house grew. By the late 1970s, Callil was part of a quintet of publishing executives that included Ursula Owen, Harriet Spicer, Alexandra Pringle and Lennie Goodings, the young woman who had once asked her why she created Virago. (Goodings is now the company’s chair.)

By all accounts – including her own – Callil could be demanding and difficult to work with. “She behaved to her staff like an over-possessive mother,” one former employee told The Independent, “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.”

Callil once described herself as a “seething pot”, and acknowledged that she and her colleagues sometimes fought over feminist ideology. She had little interest in debates about “make-up or bras,” she said, and preferred to focus on the practical work of running a publishing house. As an Australian expat, she also chafed at English culture, which she considered overly inhibitive.

“What came naturally to me was always considered outrageous and rude,” she told The Guardian in 2007. “You’re never allowed to lose your temper… you’re never allowed to say you’re absolutely hopeless at what you do, you’re never allowed to say anything. I came to the conclusion that I should never have come here. I should have stayed at home. Definitely. Or lived in France.”

The third of four children, Carmen Thérèse Callil was born in Melbourne in 1938. Her mother was of Irish descent, her father Lebanese, and they sent her to convent schools, where she said she was bullied by nuns and developed an abiding sense of personal guilt. Her father, a lawyer and university lecturer in French, died of cancer when she was about nine.

On vacation she would read her way through his vast library, devouring books by Charles Dickens, George Meredith and George Bernard Shaw. There were no female writers on his shelves, but her mother introduced her to authors including Cather and Richardson, who were later published by Virago.

Callil studied history and English at the University of Melbourne and left Australia in 1960, the week she graduated, buying a one-way ticket to Italy and then making her way to London. “I grew up late,” she wrote in an article for The Independent. “Nothing really happened to me until I left home and lost my virginity and started living.”

Still, her early years in Britain proved difficult. She was suicidal, she later said, and found help while visiting a therapist, Anne Darquier, who was later found dead in 1970 with drugs and alcohol in her system. Only a year later, when Callil was watching a TV documentary, did she discover Darquier's family history, which she explored further in her book Bad Faith.

Callil was named managing director of the publishing house Chatto & Windus after it acquired Virago in 1982. By then, Chatto had been bought by Penguin Random House, where Callil held the title of publisher-at-large before leaving in the mid-1990s to write books and literary criticism. Her first book, The Modern Library: The 200 Best Novels in English Since 1950 (1999), was written with Irish novelist Colm Tóibín.

Callil remained active in the country’s literary scene, serving as a judge for the Booker Prize and making headlines in 2011 when she withdrew from the panel of the Man Booker International Prize after her fellow judges decided to honour Philip Roth. “He goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book,” she said. “It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.”

In 2017, she was awarded the Royal Society of Literature’s Benson Medal, a lifetime achievement honour, and named a dame commander of the Order of the British Empire.

“I have actually enjoyed not being married very much,” she told the Financial Times in 2020. “I’ve had such fun. You get to know all sorts of different people. And you can work. I loved work.”

© Washington Post

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