Viva Virago

Feminism is in an odd place at the moment. In the 90s young women decided they didn’t need it, they were above or beyond it. The culture was postmodern and ironic, no one could possibly take those earnest rantings seriously. And anyway post-industrial consumerism meant men and women were valuing the same things; health, beauty, lifestyle, stuff; men were as obsessed with the house, car, holidays, soft-furnishing as we were meant to be; and we all had to work to pay for it. Old-fashioned feminism was not only obsolete, it was embarrassing, it was bigoted. The patriarchy sounded suspiciously like the world Jewish conspiracy and the separatism was impractical and mean.

The modern world inspired four attitudes – do whatever those around you were doing and don’t think too much about it, fall into despair and wait to be rescued, forge ahead with a self-help zeal or protest for rights in general, or to save your job, or for the environment. Eventually you could say you were a feminist – because you wanted to earn money and have as much autonomy as anyone can – and no one would think anything of it, and you wouldn’t have to say or do anything to prove it. Then and now, it’s become a nice, safe, meaningless word that only a paranoid loser could be threatened by and only an old battle-axe would object to (you know the type – could take on a battalion single-handedly but likes to say she’s a fluffy-fluffball who couldn’t function without the support of her husband, who usually lives in terror of her). The label can even bestow a slight boost in status since it gives mulchy old cosmopolitan you a bit of definition.

Then we had 9/11 and the relentless obsession with the Muslim World, which in the absence of more manly things to argue about has come down to ‘aren’t they a bunch of sexist pigs’. And while the old tropes were being trotted out to belittle fervent clerics, and Yemeni farmers, and ordinary British families who untill 2001 never heard a word about their faith in our mainstream media – vague suspicions started stirring that women were being used.

The sisterhood would not have heaped pressure, scrutiny and negativity on communities already under extreme pressure, scrutiny and negativity. The sisterhood would have agonised about how white, Western and imperial it was before arranging a festival of lesbian poetry at their local commune. If feminism can be co-opted, and used in ways that women would not have used it, for purposes that have nothing to do with female liberation (yes, arranged marriages can be an ordeal – but that’s not why you’re reading about it, you’re reading about it because we need to interact with majority muslim countries for their oil and their markets, and they’re struggling to maintain our idea of a nation-state in the face of economic extremes and old tribal loyalties, which occasionally means the only thing they can agree on is that the West is a bad thing, and if we tell ourselves – and often really believe – that they’re all bomb-detonating barbarians it means we can use retaliation and menaces as leverage without being exposed as ruthless creeps)  then maybe even Western women are still playing second fiddle to men.

And while we’re saying ‘Mmmmmm?’ on this issue – maybe it’s time to remember and celebrate the achievements of the original bra-burners, and in terms of publishing and women’s literature the single greatest achievement has to be Virago Press.  

Virago was started in 1973 by Carmen Callil – who recently caused a scandal by withdrawing as a judge from the International Man Booker prize because she hated the novels of the winner Philip Roth so much. Naturally there’s been squealing about what a tasteless man-hater she is but since almost no women win these things – and we can write novels as well as men can – lots of male judges must have consciously or unconsciously been rejecting our subject matter and execution for decades without the honesty, or the opposition to make them come clean, so meh to that.

In 1978 they launched Virago Modern Classics to ‘demonstrate the existence of a female tradition, broaden the often narrow definition of a classic, to celebrate rediscover and reprint women writers’. Of all the publishers that I love, their list contains the most gems. Books that are surprising, moving, relevant, witty and previously unjustly neglected.

I love ‘The Well of Loneliness’ by Radcliffe Hall. Written in 1928. Famous for being the first openly lesbian British novel, ridiculed as ‘The Sink of despond’, put on trial for obscenity, it’s a heartbreakingly conventional work. The inversion (as it was called in those days) of the characters leaves them bewildered. They’re perfectly normal, respectable people and they can’t understand how they came to be considered ‘bad’, ‘wrong’ or ‘bohemian’.  

I must have an affinity with the 1920s because another favourite of mine is ‘Lolly Willowes’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner, another tale of a perfectly conventional respectable woman, in this case living as a spinster, who, after years of living with first her father and then her brother’s family, takes herself off to the countryside and discovers her true vocation is witchcraft. The part of the book where our heroine is subjugated by loving relatives is all tell and no show. It passes like a slightly feverish dream. The story doesn’t truly begin till she (at the age of 47! Yay! There’s always hope) is free.

Moving on to the 60s we have ‘In A Summer Season’ by Elizabeth Taylor (the writer, not the actress), we’re still in respectable territory, a middle-aged English home counties widow, Kate Heron, marries a spoilt Irishman, Dermot, ten years her junior. As he struggles to escape his rich doting mother and forge a career, she struggles with her guilty feelings as she gets closer and closer to a recently bereaved friend who, should they get together, would return her to her old social position. By the time tragedy strikes it becomes apparent that Dermot too was seeking a more usual life to lead.

All three of these novels turn on the daily worries and compromises most women have to make to integrate their inner needs and drives with their responsibilities and social expectations. Most of it would be dismissed as trivial, domestic, dull – not the big brave world of politics, war, religion, commerce – that male writers take on. It’s all too little and girly – and yet – should the domestic be disturbed – it becomes obvious just how important this mundane, confined reality is. It’s a given, a backbone, vital.

And without feminism or gay rights these books may have been lost. A woman writer needed to get and keep a popular readership to survive the years. Eventually an academic would wonder why the title was still read, might sniff round it, say a few nice things – as long as it was clear that the lady writer wasn’t quite as serious as the male writer (like sport – we just can’t run as fast or hit as far) & she would sneak in to the canon. A great male writer only needs a few enthusiasts to make his work immortal. A female Keats would be screwed.

And yet, and yet, and yet – the world is a complex place & all our feminist theories may be rot. Regardless – the resurrection of these books has been a joy and Virago Press is a triumph. That’s fact.

Virago Press founders - Harriet Spicer, Carmen Callil & Ursula Owen
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