There are probably only two recognizable “brands” in U.K. publishing: Penguin, founded in 1935 by Allen Lane, and Virago, in 1973 by Carmen Callil, who died October 17 at home in London at 84. Each had a vision, Lane’s to make a wide variety of literature available to the masses, Callil’s “to break a silence, to make women’s voices heard, to tell women’s stories, my story and theirs.” Both succeeded, though along the way both their companies went through many transformations as publishing became corporate, accountants and management consultants replacing the old actor-managers whose sole concern was for the authors.
Born in Melbourne, Callil set sail for Europe on the day she graduated. She arrived in London in 1960 and fell in with a group of Australian girls who lived a life that she described as being “like something out of a Muriel Spark novel”. Her publishing career began in publicity, the only route in for those who declined to be secretaries. She was working for the magazine Spare Rib when, in June 1972, an idea for a feminist publishing company occurred. It was, she said, “like the switching on of a light bulb.”
She launched Virago in 1973, her mission a mass market publisher for 52% of the population, women, at a time when they were permitted neither mortgages nor bank loans. Soon the distinctive green-spined Virago Modern Classics was putting long-neglected authors such as Antonia Frost, Rosamond Lehmann, and Elizabeth Taylor back on the book shelves. It was a challenge to Penguin’s predominantly male line. When Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, first published in 1933, was revived and became a five-part TV series, Virago was on the publishing map.
Each title carried a prefatory quote from Sheila Rowbotham’s Women, Resistance and Revolution: “Virago is a feminist publishing company: ‘It is only when women start to organize in large numbers that we become a political force, and begin to move towards the possibility of a truly democratic society in which every human being can be brave, responsible, thinking and diligent in the struggle to live at once freely and unselfishly.’”
In 1982, Callil was recruited to take over Chatto & Windus. She accepted on condition that she Virago bring with, believing it would benefit from being part of a larger group. But Chatto, Cape and Bodley Head were “companies badly run by men” and they would shortly require rescue. Following the 1987 takeover by Random House Inc, Callil and her colleagues battled to buy out Virago. But independence was precarious and short-lived and in 1995 the publisher found a congenial home with Little, Brown UK, where it continues to flourish.
By then, Callil had retired from publishing, chairing the Booker Prize in 1996 and 1999, contributing reviews and features to newspapers and magazines, and dividing her time between London and France. Her own books included Bad Faith (2006), a biography of Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, which uncovered another grim chapter in French wartime history, and Oh Happy Day (2021), a family history.
Like all those with lofty ideals who strive to achieve great things, she was not easy to work with. “Everyone cried in the loos”, she would say by way of justification of her management style. In every sense of the word, she was “a character,” one who inspired fierce loyalty. There are many who owe their careers to her.
“I always wanted to change the world,” Callil said. “I didn’t think the world was good enough.”
Liz Thomson is a London-based author and journalist who spent three decades chronicling the international book trade. She is the founder of The Village Trip Festival in Greenwich Village.