Virago Press Archive

Reference: MS 5223Date: c.1970-c.1989Extent: c.15 boxes

Virago Press is a publishing company founded in 1973 by the Australian writer and critic Dame Carmen Callil, together with Marsha Rowe and Rosie Boycott, the founders of the feminist magazine Spare Rib.

Originally known under the name of Spare Rib Books, Virago’s initial aim was to publish both original works and out-of-print books by and about women, including works from authors such as Margaret Atwood, Maya Angelou, Angela Carter, Daphne du Maurier and Adrienne Rich. The company’s name was changed to Virago after Callil came across the term in a thesaurus. Intrigued by a word that could refer to both ‘a heroic war-like woman’ and a ‘harpy’, the name was chosen to raise eyebrows and challenge common sexist attitudes of the time.

In 1973 Virago published its first book, Mary Chamberlain’s Fenwomen: A Portrait of Women in an English Village, in partnership with Quartet Books. Fenwomen, a non-fictional account of rural life in the East Anglian fens, was written with the intention of providing an in-depth social history for women who did not otherwise have an outlet to share their experiences. By the end of their first year, Virago had produced eleven additional publications.

By 1976, Virago had begun to advertise itself as a feminist publishing company, explicitly mentioning their aims in an introductory paragraph on the second page of each printed book. In 1977 Virago released its Reprint Library series, beginning with Life as We Have Known It, a book exploring the lives and voices of working-class women in early twentieth century England, which included an introductory letter by Virginia Woolf. Other titles that were to follow included books by Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst, as well as Ray Strachey’s The Cause: A Short History of the Women’s Movement in Great Britain.

The Modern Classics series was launched a year later with a reissue of Antonia White’s semi-autobiographical novel Frost In May, first published in 1933. Intended to demonstrate the ‘existence of a canon of women’s writing’, the dark green spines with which the press is now commonly associated were chosen in order to break away from stereotypical gender conventions. As with the Reprint Library series male authors were also included in the line-up, most notably ‘the four Georges’: George Gissing, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and George Meredith, who all wrote about the ‘new women’ of the late 1800s. The Virago Travellers Series was published in 1986, promoting the writings of several female travellers such as Gertrude Bell and Isabella Bird.

In 1982 Virago became a subsidiary of the Chatto, Virago, Bodley Head and Cape Group, owned by Random House publishing. Virago would later buy itself out in 1987, with Random House UK keeping a ten percent stake in the company. Due to a downturn in the book market, the company was sold to Little, Brown in 1995 to negative publicity, but achieved its highest ever trade turnover two years later. In 2006 Little, Brown was sold to the Hachette Book Group, of which Virago remains a part to this day.

Virago is also known for being the first printing press in the UK to publish Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and has contributed to the publication of books by women of colour such as Amrit Wilson’s Finding A Voice: Asian Women in Britain, a study of Asian women’s experiences living in the UK in the 1970s. The company is also known for publishing several seminal works by LGBT+ authors, including Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, Sarah Waters’ Tipping The Velvet, Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (Carol), and CN Lester’s Trans Like Me.

This collection contains various documents from Virago’s records, including financial records, correspondence, and stock books.

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