Jonathon Coe on the forgotten classics of women’s literature

Virago Press was set up in 1973 to publish work by female writers. Last Saturday in The Guardian, novelist Jonathan Coe drew a rich history of his own love affair with their line of modern classics, which brought back into print key, but largely forgotten, work by women.

As the Virago imprint now publishes work by such bestselling folk as Sarah Waters and Margaret Atwood, and as someone who grew up utterly unappreciative of the green-covered books that stuffed our bookshelves, it is hard to imagine the impact the publisher had when it was first launched. As Coe says:

Reissuing these and even lesser-known authors, declaring their works to be “classics” with such conviction, was a courageous act.

He goes on to say:

Many of the Virago reissues were exquisitely chosen, offering as they did the satisfaction of knowing that you were doing your bit for gender politics (how right-on it seems, now, that the Virago advisory board included, besides many distinguished individuals, the Spare Rib collective), while also offering a healthy dose of good old-fashioned escapism.

Coe discovered Virago when he was 21, at a time, as he says, when he thought he knew who the modern classics were – James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Eveyln Waugh. Virago opened his eyes to a whole new universe of writers and shook his faith in the literary Canon. Indeed, I can’t help but be a little amazed that he managed to embrace this so readily: his first choice was Pilgrimage, in 13 novels and, as a contemporary reviewer and another Virago author said, “Nothing happens. It is just life going on and on.”

The Ballad and the Source by Rosamond Lehmann sounds more appealling to me, as it is a “thumping melodrama”.

Coe goes on to say that although female novelists are responsible for some of the most popular books of recent years (Zadie Smith, White Teeth, is an obvious example), women’s writing continues to be undervalued:

If we take the Booker prize (for want of anything else) as being indicative of what the British literary establishment has considered most attention-worthy over the past 40 years, a clear preference emerges. In the first 30 years of its history, 108 of those shortlisted for the prize (63.5 per cent) were male, only 62 (36.5 per cent) were female. The Orange prize was set up in 1996, partly to correct perceived gender bias in the Booker (after it had gone through a particularly chauvinist phase – in the years 1991-95, only five women were shortlisted, compared to 24 men), but in the past nine years of the Booker, the pattern still hasn’t changed noticeably: 33 men (61 per cent) have been shortlisted, compared to 21 women (39 per cent).

You can read a more structured history of Virago on their website, where you can also browse their alternative Canon.