As a keen reader I couldn't help cutting out all the recent articles about Virago Modern Classics. It was a delight to read about the history of the small publisher and some excellent portraits of writers such as Rebecca West, E M Delafield, Radclyffe Hall, Daphne du Maurier and so on. Writers are my main inspiration. It's not always the books themselves. In fact, sometimes it's a photo of a writer that gives me ideas. I'm not sure why, maybe they have a spirit of independence that is appealing. I decided to dedicate my autumn 08 collection to Virago Modern Classics.
So I routed out all the familiar green VMC books I could find around me, such as this one by Elizabeth von Arnim:
That was 1978. Another interesting find in the Stevie Smith book was a note to my late grandmother from a friend of hers, not sure who. It says 'Vera is me' and apparently 'Lopez' is someone else. That grandmother had some literary friends and so I must quiz my uncle about these characters.
Browsing through the editions I couldn't find any other references to the 'feminist publishing company' so clearly the strapline was short-lived. One of my favourites is Antonia White, and I see her novel was the first:
I have named one of my skirts for my autumn collection after Antonia White. I spent the majority of my education under the sometimes fierce and sometimes kind rule of nuns so it touched an ambiguously affectionate nerve, even though my era was decidedly different to that of Nanda Gray in 'Frost in May'.
I love the green book covers of the originals, they are so definite, strong, bold. I see a more recent version of VMC is still green but it's lacking something. It doesn't really stand out compared to other published books:
Last summer, however, I discovered the wonderful Persephone Books. It's a beautiful little shop on Lamb's Conduit Street, in Bloomsbury. They publish somewhat forgotten authors from the interwar era, when for a number of reasons there was prodigious output and a lack of investment or imagination from publishers. The thing I liked most though, was the aesthetic of the books and the feel of the place. Here is the first book I bought from this enchanting independent publisher, "The Victorian Chaise-Longue" by Marghanita Laski:
Each inside cover has a vintage print and they give you a book mark of that print too. When I was in the shop, I couldn't decide which book to buy. So, I chose my book more or less entirely on the basis of the inside cover! Sadly, this particular book disappointed. However, I am thoroughly enjoying "A Very Great Profession" by Nicola Beauman, who is in fact the founder of the independent publishing house. They have just opened a new branch of Persephone on Kensington Church Street towards the Notting Hill end.
So, when I was in Waterstones I saw what all this PR from Virago had been about. They've issued a new 'special edition' collection. And, this is what they look like:
Don't you get a slightly uncomfortable feeling here? I think it's a little cheeky using vintage prints in the same way as Persephone. I am loyal to the spirit of Virago Modern Classics and in fact there are so many titles on their list that I still want to read. However, I have decided to veto the new special editions out of respect for Persephone books. I shall try and source my VMCs from second-hand stores as another thing I heard was that VMC only sell to the big chains and not to independent booksellers. I guess this is the kind of thing that happens when you join large groups - Virago is now part of the Time Warner group, a large corporation that in fact I used to work for myself. I am also thinking of dedicating my next autumn collection to Persephone books. Looking in my usual first stop for research I can't work out who is going to win here, Virago is defined as 'strong, brave and warlike women' where as Persephone is 'the queen of the underworld and the embodiment of earth's fertility'. We'd have quite a fight on our hands. Of course, they could always co-exist a little uncomfortably. My vote goes to the true independents like Persephone, or Virago when they were truly independent.