Virago founder Carmen Callil was a powerhouse who changed the publishing world for the better | Books
More than 40 years ago when Carmen and I were working late in the first Virago office on Wardour Street I asked her why she founded the feminist publisher. She answered: “To change the world, darling, that’s why.” And by God, that’s exactly what she did.
The idea came to her in 1972 and the press was initially registered as Spare Rib Books. By June 1973 Virago was officially a publishing company and I am utterly devastated that Carmen will not be with us next year to celebrate her brainchild’s 50th birthday.
Famously not a woman of great equilibrium – not long ago she described herself to me as “a seething pot” – she felt strongly about injustice. It began with her feelings about the Catholic church, having been sent to the convent school that also educated Germaine Greer. Her outrage came to land on other institutions and attitudes that were “unfair!”, including the patriarchy, sexism and publishing.
Of course, lots of people feel that way and grumble about it, but the difference with Carmen was that she did something. She wrote books, she organised against Brexit, she walked away from organisations she didn’t feel were doing the right thing – and she founded Virago. So many women were involved with the publisher’s early days (Marsha Rowe, Rosie Boycott, Ursula Owen, Harriet Spicer, Alexandra Pringle, me) and some men too – Paul Hamlyn and Bob Gavron supported the cause – but it was Carmen’s drive and genius that was at the core of this extraordinary company. Carmen, with Virago, changed publishing. To have women at the helm, women taking the decisions, women choosing the books and women understanding their audiences was, at the time, revolutionary .
To work alongside such a powerhouse was not always comfortable; we all cried in the loo at times. Partly that was because we felt strongly about Virago – we gave it our lives, our hearts and, when we did a management buyout, our own money – but also because Carmen’s vision was at times unbending. Changing the world is not a job for people-pleasers.
Carmen was inspirational. She taught me so much about care, attention, detail and passion. She believed strongly that the author was at the core of the publishing house and should be encouraged, cherished and paid. A publishing house was at the service of the writer, not the other way around. That has not always been a common industry view but it is one that I have proudly inherited. She also believed that a publishing house devoted to women’s writing could be a viable, profitable business – another inheritance for me .
She had a great laugh and a wicked sense of humour. Her foremost drive was to set the world to rights and her outspokenness often cost her. We didn’t always agree and we exchanged strong words over emails and lunches, but we were always united in our mutual devotion to Virago. Carmen was never less than entertaining, interesting and always searching, pushing. It was sometimes tiring – but always invigorating.
Carmen’s curiosity and wide-ranging reading was driven by her heart. She was an insomniac and read voraciously. Her long-lasting legacy was the creation of the Virago Modern Classics, which remains one of the press’s flagship series. Through the Modern Classics, Carmen not only rediscovered great forgotten works, she highlighted a female literary tradition. Because she was a genius at branding she knew how to make sure that readers would go into shops and ask for the next green-spined book with the apple logo.
Carmen also had a great gift for friendship. As she underwent treatment for cancer, a mailing list was formed, made up of more than 100 recipients. These were not acquaintances, this list was made up of true friends, many of them publishers and writers . I wrote to Carmen last week and said how proud I was to be in that circle of friends, to be blessed with her care and generosity. She encouraged me and Virago right to the end. I have lost a friend, a genius and an inspiration.
How many people come into the world and change it for the better? She did.