“The VMC list is wonderful. It’s quite simply one of the best and most essential things that has happened in publishing in our time. I hate to think where we’d be without it.” Ali Smith
This spring marks forty years since publishing director Carmen Callil curated the Virago Modern Classics series. Founded in London in 1973, Virago has always borne its strong feminist ethos with pride and published books by (often unfairly neglected) female authors. Five years later, Callil launched VMC with Antonia White’s majestic Frost in May in a bid to shine the spotlight on forgotten gems and, indeed, to redefine what we mean by a “classic.” From the romantic artwork to the distinctive bottle green spines, the original run of VMCs worked hard to celebrate neglected novels for their otherness as much as to induct them into the literary canon.
By providing a space in which these extraordinary, lyrical novels can make a name for themselves, often for the first time, a Virago Modern Classic has become a byword for sophistication, quality writing, and intelligent literary style. VMC overturned the concept of “women’s writing” – it is not pejorative in the VMC universe; these are funny, sad, offbeat, wholly human stories that speak to, and for, everyone.
From the lesbian polemic (Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness) to the dystopian feminist satire (Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve) via searing accounts of racism and female subjugation (Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God) and elegant detective thrillers (the work of Patricia Highsmith), Virago Modern Classics’ scope is broad and unlimited. There are reprints of Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, and Daphne du Maurier alongside revitalised editions of Margaret Atwood, Muriel Spark, and Rumer Godden with striking new cover art. There are novels and memoirs and story collections spanning decades, continents, and centuries. But the common thread throughout the VMC imprint is quality writing by quality writers.
Here, we take a closer look at five top Virago Modern Classics which you can loan from Warwickshire Libraries:
Barbara Comyns – The Vet’s Daughter
Bidford-born Comyns was a true English eccentric and the neo-gothic The Vet’s Daughter, an entrant into the VMC collection in 2013 with stunning new cover art, is as bizarre as you might expect. Equal parts Edwardian melodrama and sci-fi dystopia, it has tragedy, romance, and magical realism. Oh, and levitation.
Elizabeth Taylor – Complete Short Stories
All of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels are superb – she understands people in all their peculiarities and hidden motives, and her sentences are sharp, profound, and often acerbically funny. But she was also an incredibly accomplished short story writer and this is the definitive collection of those stories. Look out for “The Blush” and also “The Fly-Paper,” which shows that she can do unsettling just as well as the cynical.
E.M. Delafield – The Diary of a Provincial Lady This epistolary novel is a funny, charming with a heroine accurately described by Jilly Cooper as “disaster-prone, yet curiously dry-witted.” It is a wonderfully observed look at rural 1930s upper-middle class society.
Barbara Pym – A Glass of Blessings
Barbara Pym’s novels are a balancing act between the absurdly comic and the deceptively tragic; her work is akin to that of Elizabeth Taylor, although markedly less cynical. But the writing is similarly incisive and well-observed and A Glass of Blessings is Pym at her best, the story of a bored housewife who forms an attachment that can only end in disappointment.
Beryl Bainbridge – Harriet Said…
Beryl Bainbridge was an expert in the bizarre and blackly comic (The Bottle Factory Outing anyone?), and Harriet Said takes her disquieting style to a new level with disturbing characters, an unflinching exploration of manipulative teenage sexuality, and murderous intrigue. It was initially rejected by several publishers, one publisher returning the manuscript with the note “what repulsive little creatures you have made the two central characters, repulsive almost beyond belief! And I think the scene in which the two men and the two girls meet in the Tsar’s house is too indecent and unpleasant even for these lax days. What is more, I fear that even now a respectable printer would not print it!.” Needless to say, her plots are strange but compelling.
What is your favourite Virago Modern Classic? Tell us in the comments.