The Celebration of the 30th anniversary of Virago Modern Classics event at the du Maurier Festival brought together Virago editor Donna Coonan, Stella Duffy (left) and Linda Grant (right) staged in a very intimate little offshoot tent so we
were all close up and friendly.
The space filled with Stella's
fabulous laugh constantly, the best when Linda cited her university lecturer in the early 1970's who had flagged up D.H.Lawrence as the only writer who understood women.
Stella was hard pushed not to fall off her chair laughing as were the rest of us.
There was a general offering of 'what Virago meant to me' and the consensus that Virago had appeared as a life-saving defib to the barely pulsating heart of literature written by women available in print back in the 1970's. Now we're tripping over it every way we turn (though still not enough thinks Stella) but 'twas not ever thus. The significance of the timing and context within which Virago launched with Frost in May by Antonia White (interestingly recommended to Carmen Callil by Michael Holroyd) vitally important as the texts became available to support the arguments of the burgeoning feminist cause.
It seems a lot of reading ago now and I'll be honest I was so busy flogging myself to death and up to my neck in starched uniform, sick babies and towelling nappies on the wards in the 1970's, that the early days of Virago slightly passed me by, so thank goodness there were others out there fighting the cause. There was much nostalgic reminiscing of early meaningful Viragos, Good Behaviour by Molly Keane for Linda reminded me that I have been meaning to read that one for ages.
Then readings from favourites.
Despite a residual native New Zealand (since the age of five) twang Stella does a mean Southern lady and read from Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady by Florence King with much hilarious conviction. I've read bits of this and will now read the rest because it's very funny and Stella did it great justice.
Linda gave possibly the funniest reading I will ever hear of Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M.Delafield, the March 18th Trip to London and subsequent make-over in preference to visiting an art exhibition. I never stop reading this book, it's perfect for every occasion and this one was no exception.
Donna shared an extract from A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark and now I most certainly want to read that one again.
Stella did a great promotional job on me to seek out some of Janet Frame's writing. Mea culpa and there is more coming into print from Virago, she didn't just write biography, her novels are fantastic apparently and I want to read them yesterday.
Helen Taylor popped up again, in the audience this time and paid tribute both to Virago but also to the work of Elaine Showalter and her ground-breaking book A Literature of Their Own. Resounding here heres as we all remembered reading that and emerging with great long lists of women writers we'd never heard of.
Some great books in the pipeline too, Daphne du Maurier's short story collection Breaking Point (considered by many to be her strongest) and Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbon coming soon. Mention also of a book that hasn't done well and Virago can't understand why, Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker.
I wonder how many of you know of this book?
I actually hadn't heard of it but no matter I thought, can't know everything as I dashed to Amazon to find it and...well, it's the cover. I know we've all had interesting discussions here and elsewhere about the changing image of Virago covers, the demise of the bottle-green to market them successfully and competitively alongside popular contemporary fiction and I'm trying hard to overcome all my nostalgic prejudices about that now, but if I'd seen this I honestly don't think I would have bought it. A quick glance and it has pastel chick-lit writ large and I feel oddly excluded from the content before I even pick the book up. Or is that just me?
However I think I can forgive in the very big scheme of things. We owe a huge debt to Virago and the vision of that ground-breaking editorial team who have bequeathed us this lasting legacy.
All in all a great session and look out for that fabulous and free little Virago 30th anniversary booklet in a bookshop near you.