Whenever anyone asks me about my favourite book, I um and ahh and eventually mutter something about Pride and Prejudice. But the real true answer is that my favourite book is not one, but hundreds — all the dark-green-bound books that make up the body of women’s writing published by Virago Press. At least ten years of my life was spent shopping at The Strand bookshop in NYC, sifting through remainders and oddlots for those dark green bindings. When my husband and I went walking in the Himalayas, I read and reread the single Virago volume I brought with me every night by candlelight. Though I might have preferred to have more reading material, I was strangely satisfied with Young Entry by Molly Keane.
Angela Carter, E.M. Delafield, Alice Thomas Ellis, Shirley Hazzard, Molly Keane, Rosamund Lehmann, Rose Macaulay, Elizabeth Taylor and Antonia White are among the Viragos who accompanied me through my turbulent twenties — offering a diet of beautifully written, quiet domestic struggle — the agony and the ecstasy of women’s daily lives. They were the authors and the books that determined who I became as a woman and a writer. Some even showed up in my novels.
Isabella Bird, for instance, was an extraordinary 19th century female explorer. An invalid till the age of 23, in 1873 she set off on her own across the Rocky Mountains on a leased horse, riding through blizzards and rock falls, and finally falling in love with a one-eyed outlaw/poet. There’s more than a little of Isabella in Pell, the heroine of The Bride’s Farewell.
Natasha Walter’s new book, Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, is my most recent Virago, and it has fascinated and depressed me in turns. What have we come to after thirty years of feminism? Walter examines how casual pornography — in magazines and on the internet — has informed this generation’s approach to sex; how sexual stereotypes seem to have returned in the treatment of children; how all those women taking pole dancing classes, working as prostitutes, and having breast enlargements to “empower” themselves are, um — lying.
It’s another Virago worth reading — and thinking about, long and hard. To tell the truth, it makes me want to cry. In a year or two, when I can pry my daughter away from Twilight and Bridget Jones, I’m going to beg, cajole and demand that she read it too.