Ms Callil, who was 84 when she died on October 17, may well have succeeded. Although Virago was far from the only female-run publishing house to emerge from the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the company helped redefine what a commercial publishing house could look like, serving as a flagship for a generation of female readers looking for books written by and for women, unlike the male-dominated offerings of traditional publishers.
Guided in its early years by Ms. Callil and four other female directors, Virago published contemporary writers including Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood, Pat Barker, Helen Garner and Adrienne Rich. The press also launched a popular Modern Classics series, with iconic green spines and radiant cover illustrations, which breathed new life into books by Vera Brittain, Willa Cather, Rebecca West, Edith Wharton, Henry Handel Richardson (the name by Australian author Ethel Florence Richardson) and Elizabeth Taylor (the skilled English novelist, not the actress of the same name).
Virago “became such a trusted brand,” Guardian journalist Emma Brockes later wrote, “that you could buy a book on green spine strength alone.”
After decades of publishing other writers, Ms Callil left the industry to write her own books, devoting eight years to “Bad Faith” (2006), a critically acclaimed biography of Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, the French anti-Semite who deported thousands of Jews. upon their death while serving in the Vichy government. She also wrote a family memoir, ‘Oh Happy Day’ (2020), which traces her ancestors’ journey from the English Midlands to southeastern Australia, where she grew up.
“In its often tearful compassion, its eloquent rage and its vengeful delight in thumbing its nose at the proletariat, ‘Oh Happy Day’ deserves to be called Dickensian,” wrote literary scholar Peter Conrad, in a review of the book for the British newspaper Observer.
Ms Callil remained best known for her years at Virago, which was founded around her London kitchen table and later moved to a Soho walk-up. The idea for the business “came to me like the switching on of a light bulb”, she recalls, and was partly inspired by the British feminist magazine Spare Rib, founded in 1972 by her friends Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe.
If they could create a magazine for and about women, she decided, why couldn’t she create a publishing house to do the same?
“I started Virago to break a silence, to make women’s voices heard, to tell women’s stories, my story and theirs,” she wrote in a 2008 essay for the Guardian. “How many times I remember sitting at the dinner table in the 1960s, the men talking to each other about serious matters, the women sitting quietly like decorated sugar cubes. I remember one such occasion when I raised my fist, banged the table and shouted, “I have my sights on Bangladesh too!” ”
By then, Ms. Callil had worked as a book publicist for half a dozen publishers and had begun helping the underground press. She supported her new publishing house with proceeds from her advertising business – her motto: “everything outrageous suitably publicized” – and with the overdraft in her bank account. Her name, Virago, comes from a classic term for a female warrior and was taken from a book about goddesses she was reading with Boycott.
From her attic apartment above a west London synagogue, Ms Callil met authors including Mary Chamberlain, whose non-fiction book “Fenwomen: A Portrait of Women in an English Village” became the first Virago title when it was published in 1975. Three years later Ms Callil launched the Modern Classics series, selecting green for the spines of books because she considered it a neutral color – unlike a blue masculine or to a feminine pink – which would suggest that the headlines would appeal to all readers, not just women.
At the time, the idea of a press run by women was virtually unheard of. A bookstore refused to stock her books, saying there were no feminists in town. Anthony Burgess, the author of “A Clockwork Orange”, called the women behind Virago “chauvinistic sows”. Some authors were also skeptical of the enterprise: “What Last name!” said Belgian-born novelist Marguerite Yourcenar. “They publish only women. It reminds me of the ladies’ compartments on 19th century trains or a ghetto.
Yet the books were selling, the press was making money, and the publishing house was growing. In the late 1970s, Ms Callil was part of a quintet of publishing executives that included Ursula Owen, Harriet Spicer, Alexandra Pringle and Lennie Goodings, the young woman who had once asked her why she had created Virago. (Goodings is now the company’s president.)
By all accounts, including his own, Ms. Callil could be demanding and difficult to work with. “She behaved towards her staff like an overly possessive mother,” a former employee told the Independent of London, “which gave her absolute right to treat her children abominably, handcuffing them around her ear if she wanted to. But if someone outside the family attacked them, she would defend them like a lioness.
Ms. Callil once described herself as a “boiling pot” and admitted that she and her colleagues sometimes argued over feminist ideology. She had little interest in debates over “makeup or bras”, she said, and preferred to focus on the hands-on work of running publishing accommodation. As an Australian expatriate, she also chafed at English culture, which she considered too inhibiting.
“What came naturally to me was always seen as outrageous and rude,” she told the Guardian in 2007. “You’re never allowed to get angry… you’re never allowed to say that you are absolutely desperate in what you I am never allowed to say anything. I came to the conclusion that I should never have come here. I should have stayed home. Absolutely. Or lived in France.
The third of four children, Carmen Thérèse Callil was born in Melbourne, Australia on July 15, 1938. Her mother was of Irish descent, her father Lebanese, and they sent her to convents, where she said she suffered intimidation by nuns and developed a lingering sense of personal guilt. Her father, a lawyer and French university professor, died of cancer when she was about 9 years old.
On vacation, she read in her vast library, devouring books by Charles Dickens, George Meredith and George Bernard Shaw. There were no female writers on her shelves, but her mother introduced her to authors like Cather and Richardson, who were later published by Virago.
Ms Callil studied history and English at the University of Melbourne and left Australia in 1960, the week she graduated, buying a one-way ticket to Italy and then traveling to London . “I grew up late,” she wrote in an article for The Independent. “Nothing really happened to me until I left home, lost my virginity and started living.”
Still, his early years in Britain proved difficult. She was suicidal, she said later, and found help during a visit to a therapist, Anne Darquier, who was later found dead in 1970 with drugs and alcohol in his system. It wasn’t until a year later, while Ms Callil was watching a TV documentary, that she discovered Darquier’s family history, which she explored in more detail in her book ‘Bad Faith’.
Ms Callil was appointed Managing Director of publishing house Chatto & Windus following the acquisition of Virago in 1982. She subsequently worked with writers such as AS Byatt, Angela Carter, Hilary Mantel, Toni Morrison and Alice Munro while continuing to be president of Virago until 1995, when the press became part of Little Brown.
By then Chatto had been taken over by Penguin Random House, where Ms Callil held the title of general editor before leaving in the mid-1990s to write books and book reviews. His first book, “The Modern Library: The 200 Best Novels in English Since 1950” (1999), was written with Irish novelist Colm Tóibín.
Ms Callil has remained active in the country’s literary scene, serving as a Booker Prize judge and making headlines in 2011 when she stepped down from the International Man Booker Prize jury after her fellow judges decided to honor Phillip Roth. “He goes on and on about the same subject in almost every book,” she said. “It’s like he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.”
In 2017, she received the Benson Medal from the Royal Society of Literature, a lifetime honor, and was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
His death, at his home in London, was announced in a statement by literary agency RCW, which said the cause was leukemia. Information about the survivors was not immediately available, but Ms Callil never married or had children.
“I actually liked being unmarried a lot,” she told the Financial Times in 2020. “I had so much fun. You get to know all kinds of different people. And you can work. I loved the job.
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Pioneering feminist editor Carmen Callil dies at 84 – Reuters