Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 18, 2022

Vale Carmen Callil, founder of Virago Press (1938-2022)

One of the most significant publishers of my lifetime died in London yesterday.

Born and educated in Melbourne, Dame Carmen Thérèse Callil, DBE, FRSL (1938 – 2022) was the founder of Virago Press in 1973.  She was a champion of women’s writing and published some of the most important writers of our age such as Angela Carter, Maya Angelou and Margaret Atwood while also bringing back into print a backlist of authors such as Antonia White, Willa Cather,  and Rebecca West.

Virago covers were always distinctive — I can pick them out on my paperback shelves in an instant just by the cover of the spine.  They featured superb art works such as the detail from ‘Carolina Morning‘ by Edward Hopper on the cover of Their Eyes were Watching God.  All the titles I have also have insightful introductions such as the one by Drusilla Modjeska for Winged Seeds, Book 2 of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Goldfields Trilogy, (with cover art by Sidney Nolan).

Amongst the Australian authors on my shelves who were published by Virago and (mostly) reviewed on this blog are

This article at the Guardian traces the career and achievements of this remarkable woman.  The books she published have been such a part of my reading life and that of my generation, that the debt we owe her for the cultural contribution she made to world literature seems immeasurable.


Responses

  1. Couldn’t agree more, Lisa. What a pioneer and what a legacy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes she was a game changer. Don’t have quite the selection you have Lisa but quite a few sit on my bookshelves.

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    • That little collection is pure luck. There used to be a secondhand bookshop called Diversity Books near me, and somebody who brought their used books to recycle there was a really keen reader of OzLit and a feminist as well. Almost all the Viragos I have, came from there. I owe that unknown reader a great deal!

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      • Book talk always attracts my interest. My relationship with books is almost visceral and as an OP Shopper have found so many beautiful literary Australian treasures. You dear Lisa bring such knowledge and joy to my reading world.

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        • Thank you Fay, that’s kind of you to say so, and it has brightened my day.

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  3. When I was in London for 6 months in 1991, the little library nearby had a delightful array of Virago’s. I used to borrow half a dozen every couple of weeks. I discovered so many gems, I wish I had kept a book journal back then, as most have slipped my mind since. But I do remember that for many of the books, I chose them purely on the pleasing cover!

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    • Was Virago one of the first to feature classic art on its covers? Penguin, if what I have on my shelves is any indication, shifted from quite nice covers with line drawings to awful 70s photography in that period… though their grey classics (like my copy of The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney) had classic art work on the covers, and their black Ancient Greek and Roman titles had scenes from Greek pottery and so forth. I wonder if anybody is researching cover art for an interesting book about the subject…

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  4. Absolutely Lisa… I would scan bookshops for new Viragos, by their spines. They were vital to the rekindling of my passion for women writers and introduced me to so many as well as reminding me of forgotten others. She was a wonder and should be celebrated.

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    • There’s a whole generation of us whose lives were transformed by her initiative. She’s up there with Germaine Greer for the impact that she had IMO!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Agree, and yet she’s so little known.

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        • I was interested to see at WP that she worked with Colm Toibin on the Modern Library … but it’s his name on the cover.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    A sad loss but what a creative person!

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    • I hope someone is writing a bio of her.

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  6. Somehow I missed this yesterday. Didn’t get time to catch the Guardian. Had she been a footy or rugby league player it would have made headlines. A sad event for sure.

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    • I sometimes find with the Guardian that their bookish news is well hidden. Unless it’s really high profile like the death of Hilary Mantel or the Booker, the Australian edition doesn’t have book news on its home page and you have to remember to look for it.

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  7. She founded a great press – even if I do own rather more than I have read. And I’m grateful for the old Australians she republished.

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    • I’ve read more than I own. Before she retired to the bush, I shared books and Wednesday night dinners with a friend, and she lent me heaps of them. Another cause for regret that I didn’t keep a reading journal then.

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  8. I was so sad to read this news and the Guardian article is lovely, isn’t it. She affected my reading life so strongly, from my teens when I first read the Antonia Whites to my life-long habit of looking out for green spines (latest one bought last Tuesday!). Thank you for honouring her here.

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    • Thanks, Liz…
      You know, it strikes me just now, that I’ve never done an obituary for a women publisher before this. She really was so very special.

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  9. Lovely post. I can’t imagine not reading Viragos. So many wonderful writers I wouldn’t have discovered without them. We definitely owe Carmen Callil a great debt.

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    • That’s the thing, isn’t it? When we cast our minds over the writers we love, so many of them are discoveries we made through Virago.

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  10. Perhaps you should start your own independent publishing company?

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    • That’s a strange suggestion. I’m a consumer of books, not a producer of them. It’s not something I have ever wanted to do.
      I did self-publish some teaching resources for teachers of Indonesian, but that was a long time ago and it was only successful because I had contracted the distribution and marketing with a retailer beforehand.

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