A new BBC documentary on the history of Virago Press is now available to watch. The documentary, entitled Virago: Changing the World One Page at a Time, first aired on BBC Four at 10pm on the 31st October 2016 and is now available on BBC iPlayer. It tells the story of Virago’s initial founding in 1973 by Carmen Callil, along with Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe. (Boycott and Rowe had started Spare Rib the previous year, a feminist magazine which is now available to view at the British Library.) The documentary features interviews with many of the people who worked at Virago over the years, including Callil, Ursula Owen, Harriet Spicer and Lennie Goodings. It also features a number of Virago’s published authors, such as Margaret Atwood and Sarah Waters, who speak openly about the challenges of a feminist press, of the backlash against feminism in the 1980s and 1990s, and of the difficulty many women experienced of finding a publisher – Waters announces, astonishingly (given her enormous success now) that only Virago would publish her work at first!
The documentary does feature nods to Angela Carter at a couple of points. Callil remembers being able to pay Carter a meagre £25 for The Sadeian Woman because Virago had such little money in the mid 1970s. Waters then appears, saying that Carter’s feminist take on the Marquis de Sade was unthinkable at this time and, indeed, that the book was “ahead of its time”. Later in the programme, Sarah Dunant recalls the shock that she and many others experienced when Carter’s Wise Children, a novel that many critics considered among Carter’s best works, was not shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1992. In fact, as she notes, not a single woman featured on the list that year, a sober reminder of how much work feminism still had to do.
This film is a fascinating look at Virago’s history, from its early beginnings during a time when sexism and misogyny were rife, through periods of success and occasional compromise (particularly during the 1980s when small, independent publishers were either being bought out or disappeared). Unlike other independent publishers started in the 1960s and 1970s, though, Virago continues to flourish today, with recent titles like Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls highlighting that feminism is both urgent today and continues to speak to younger generations of women.
In addition to this documentary, you can read about Virago’s fascinating history over on their website.