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Write on, sisters

Dan Carrier reviews Lennie Goodings’ memoir Bite of the Apple, which tells the story of the Virago publishing house

27 August, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

Lennie Goodings

MAYA Angelou climbed the stairs of Virago’s small office in Wardour Street, Soho. The writer, who had to walk past a slot machine casino on the ground floor and a seedy “Gentleman’s Club” on the next to get to her destination, had come to meet the publishing team with a view of selling them her memoir, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. It had already been turned down numerous times over the years by other, mainstream UK publishing houses.

But Virago were like no one else – and their decision to go with Maya’s book highlighted the extraordinary role they had carved in giving a voice to those often considered to be relegated to the margins. They would sell two million copies of Maya’s astonishing autobiography.

The story of a radical feminist publishing house is told in A Bite of the Apple, a new memoir by editor and publisher Lennie Goodings, who has worked at Virago for 40 years.

She has worked with writers who include Margaret Atwood, Sandi Toksvig, Sarah Waters and Naomi Wolf – and her fascinating and beautifully written book reads as part autobiography, part polemic and part historical narrative of the radical book trade over the past four decades.

The writer gave a talk last month for the Friends of Highgate Library, who have hosted a number of cultural events via Zoom over lockdown and have the events available to watch again on YouTube.

She explained that despite Maya’s success in the States, no one in the UK wanted her work.

“We bought the book in 1984,” she recalls, starting a lifelong friendship between Maya and the publishers.

“It had been sent out in the 1970s but no one was interested. She loved us, as we took a chance with her. She highly prized courage and loyalty. We went on to publish her other memoirs and poetry and we watched as the country fell deeply in love with her.”

Lennie with Margaret Atwood

Lennie described how she had moved to London from Canada in the 1970s – and soon found a natural home at Virago.

Living in a collective house in Tufnell Park, she wanted to find work that married her political beliefs with her interest in ideas, thought and writing.

“I’d read Spare Rib, I was interested in feminism. I threw my hat into the ring and Virago gave me a job as a publicist.”

It was a deeply male world Virago entered when it was established in 1973, its first catalogue announcing: “There is a specialist imprint for almost everything – except 52 per cent of the population.”

She writes that a “rage against injustice” fuelled the founder Carmen Callil, making her “blind to some of the obstacles, gave her the courage and almost monomaniacal chutzpah to overcome”.

And the imprint needed such drive.

“Most publishing houses were run by a white man who went to Oxbridge,” she says. “The feminist movement was on the streets, but had not hit the boardrooms, and certainly not at publishing houses.”

Virago had the courage to recognise the need for what they had to offer – and act.

“Virago was at the front of feminist publishing,” she said. “They showed there was a whole cohort of readers who were not being served. That changed publishing.”

Lennie and her colleagues knew what this market would like and recognised the growth in works by women during the time, ranging from novels by the likes of Doris Lessing and Beryl Bainbridge, through to non-fiction by Susie Orbach, Sheila Rowbatham and Angela Davis.

Maya Angelou with Lennie Goodings

Their first book, released in 1975, was called Fenwomen by Mary Chamberlain. It told the story of 100 years in an isolated Cambridgeshire village, through the women who lived there. Lennie writes it highlighted Virago’s aim “to publish the stories of women’s everyday lives, stories previously not thought worth recording and telling”.

Drawing on feminist academics and socialist groups, inspired by Sheila Rowbotham’s 1973 book Hidden from History, Virago saw that history recounted from a female perspective needed to be told and gave them a wide, untapped field to explore.

It also meant re-printing forgotten tomes, such as a collection of working-class writing first published in 1931 by the Co Operative Women’s Guild, who sought to look at issues around inequality, women’s economic position in society, and change it for the better through Socialist ideals. Virago would go on to reprint a number of their titles.

“We were campaigning, we were feminists – but we were also a business,” she says.

“We wanted to prove there was a viable market out there. It would be run by women, and it would make a profit. We needed to, even if it sounded like a bad word. We wanted to pay our writers and staff properly.”

She says the political atmosphere today has made the role of Virago as relevant as ever.

“We have been buoyed up by #MeToo, the Black Lives Matter movement, gender conversations…

“I grew up with a generation of feminists. We marched. We felt strongly, but we felt we had to convince people and not alienate them.

“What I love about this generation is they feel entitled to their anger. They feel enough is enough.”

A Bite Of The Apple, By Lennie Goodings, OUP, £16.99
For details of a range of online talks organised by the Friends of Highgate Library, see www.facebook.com/pages/category/Community/Friends-of-Highgate-Library-FOHL-266347060136180/

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