Virago Press Archive
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. Carmen Callil owned her own publicity company (Carmen Callil Ltd) and worked on the publicity for the launch of the magazine. Callil also used her publicity company to finance the Virago press.
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. In 1974 and 1975, Marsha Rowe and Rosie Boycott resign from Virago to work full time on Spare Rib which remained a feminist magazine. Ursula Owen and Harriet Spicer begin to work for Virago in 1974.
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 accounting and financial records (for both Carmen Callil Ltd and Virago), administrative records, correspondence, sales records, stock books and records relating to office premises. The collection also features a manuscript created by the Virago author Cathy Porter.
The records relating directly to the Virago Press largely cover the early 1980’s continuing until 1982.Earlier records cover the founding of Virago Press, with brief reference to the individuals that helped Carmen Callil finance Virago (notably individuals from Quartet Books). Most of this archive comprises of financial records. Other records such as the stock, sales and correspondence records largely refer to the production of various Virago book titles. Indexes of the Virago Press titles published between 1977-1981 are included with the stock records.
Original order has been maintained wherever possible and records have been grouped as how they have originally been filed.
MS 5223/AC- Accounting and financial records (including Carmen Callil Ltd and Virago)
MS 5223/PR-Production records (stock and sales records)
MS 5223/AD- Administrative records, internal administration relating to Virago operations
MS 5223/AU- Author file relating to Cathy Porter
MS 5223/PP- Poperty, premise and office equipment records (relating to Carmen Callil Ltd and Virago)
- A full description is available in our online database
- A handlist of the whole collection is available here
- There is further material related to Virago Press in the archives of Chatto & Windus (CW) and Heinemann Educational Books (HEB 28/9)
- See also our blog post entitled, The ‘NEW WOMEN’: Women Writers of the 1890s
- See also the Virago Press Archive at the British Library and Spare Rib Magazine digitised at the British Library