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

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.


10 thoughts on “Viragos and Living Dolls

  1. Abi Luthmann 9 years ago

    Hi Meg. Not a Virago, but I would recommend ‘The Equality Illusion’ by Kat Banyard as having a bit more weight, vigour and direction than the Natasha Walter. It covers similar ground, as does Ariel Levy, but Kat Banyard seems to have more energy and passion for change rather than just comment – so more encouraging perhaps? Abi x

    1. Meg 9 years ago

      Thanks, Abi. I’m ready to move up to the next plane of outrage, will try K Banyard.

  2. Lorna Stallard 9 years ago

    On the subject of women writers, we’re studying Sylvia Plath at school just now and I was struck by some similarities between you: both from Boston, intelligent, Jewish background, worked in NYC, moved to England, married Englishmen (I think!), support the BBC, love(d) horses … Have you noticed these before/has anyone else pointed them out to you?

    1. Meg 9 years ago

      I was once a Sylvia Plath fanatic, but didn’t know about the horses– do tell! — up till that, we’re both just generic east coast jewish girls, I think! Anyway, she got up every morning at 4 to write, and I’m far lazier than that. Also have a very happy marriage and hope I don’t put my head in the oven. I do live quite near her old house in North London though! And still love her poetry.

  3. Lorna Stallard 9 years ago

    I finished an essay on a few of her poems the other day and one of them was ‘Ariel’, which apparently was the name of the “beloved” horse which she rode whilst in Devon. ‘Ariel’ is about a woman escaping her fears whilst riding across the countryside on a horse.

    Is there a plaque at her old house? I’ve only visited Oscar Wilde’s in Tite Street.

    1. Meg 9 years ago

      Now that’s something I didn’t know. Ariel’s a wonderful name for a horse, wonder how I missed that…. Thanks, Lorna.

  4. Pingback: Living Dolls « AAlibrary's Blog

  5. Sara 9 years ago

    Viragos saved my life. When I was a young, first-time mother married to an impoverished graduate student my own luxury was the library. I would watch out for those green covers and grab anything garbed in them. Some were better than others certainly, but really I was never disappointed.
    These days they seem to turn up most often for me at church bazaars. Just recently I picked up Playing the Harlot by Patricia Avis. Also, you mention Elizabeth Taylor … I loved Angel. Another one I recently came across was Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns which was really fascinating.

    1. Meg 9 years ago

      I bet there are lots of us around, Sara — maybe there should be a Virago reunion?

  6. Em 9 years ago

    That’s what I love about the female characters in your books – such strong, independent women, all of them. Even the ones that don’t seem female to begin with! 😉

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