Fenwomen

Fenwomen: A Portrait of Women in an English Village by Mary Chamberlain (Virago/Quartet Books, 1975)

Introduced by Carmen Callil

Since the beginning, over forty years ago, when readers sent us letters and postcards about the books, the covers, the titles, alongside ideas for the Virago Modern Classics, our Virago readers – and indeed Virago authors – have never been backward in coming forward.

I did the publicity for the first issue of Spare Rib in June 1972, and one day, when having a drink in a pub in Goodge Street, the idea for my publishing company came to me like the switching on of a light bulb.

I remember my ambitions clearly. I started Virago to break a silence, to make women’s voices heard, to tell women’s stories, my story and theirs. 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!”

Marsha and Rosie became directors of my new company. Rosie proved to be exactly my kind of companion-in-arms. We spent hours trawling through books on goddesses ancient and modern, until Rosie spotted an entry for a female warrior, a Virago. We chose it for this heroic meaning: a strong, courageous, outspoken woman, a battler. Irreverence and heroism, that’s what we wanted.

To finance it, I continued to do publicity for publishers and whatever came to hand, my logo an apple standing on one foot, underneath it inscribed “Anything outrageous suitably publicised”. The apple was done by a designer friend who created the first cover for Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch.

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I lived off the Kings Road at the time, in an attic bedsitter above a synagogue. On Saturdays the chant from below mixed with the noise of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” bellowing from the shops in the road, as I strode up and down the street exuding style and commitment: not just to women and what women did, but to everything that might change the world.

Harriet Spicer, who now chooses Britain’s judges as a member of the Judicial Appointments Commission (an equally difficult task), became my assistant, her first job, straight from Oxford. Her heroic activity was to keep the publicity work, which partially financed Virago, ticking over, while I darted around in pursuit of books to publish. I have always found it strange that my impatient personality chose this slowest and most frustrating form of expression. Finding authors, nurturing their books, and then mothering them through the publishing process generally takes years. By 1975, the first list was ready.

Women surged up the steep stairs to my attic: some of them were angry women – why did I give my women’s publishing company such an aggressive, man-hating name? Irony, I would reply. Others toiled upstairs with manuscripts on Russian women revolutionaries, goddesses, interviews with women famous and unknown, children, motherhood, cancer, the vagina and all its works. Most asked: Can I help? And many did; hundreds of women and men helped me start Virago. Anna Coote, whom I met on Ink – she was a reporter, a blonde beauty floating around in a kaftan, this again probably more appreciated on Ink than her incisive brain – found me my first author when she sent her friend Mary Chamberlain to climb up my stairs. Her book Fenwoman: A Portrait of Women in an English Village was the very first Virago.

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Post content courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd. To read the full article, click here.

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On page two of every Virago book was printed:
Virago is a feminist publishing company: ‘It is only when women start to organise in large numbers that we become a political force, and begin to move towards the possibility of a truly democratic society in which every human being can be brave, responsible, thinking and diligent…’

 

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