The Daily Telegraph

Dame Carmen Callil

Founder of Virago Press, which championed women writers and transforme­d British publishing

- Carmen Callil, born July 15 1938, died October 17 2022

DAME CARMEN CALLIL, who has died aged 84, founded Virago Press in 1972 to publish books “which celebrated women and women’s lives”; the hugely popular Virago Modern Classics series did exactly that, reprinting hitherto neglected works by such authors as Vera Brittain, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton and Rebecca West.

A formidable – her enemies would have said domineerin­g – presence, with a profound belief in the transforma­tive power of literature, Carmen Callil was never shy in expressing her ambitions. Even the company’s name, Virago, was meant as a challenge, chosen for its meaning of “a strong, courageous, outspoken woman; a battler”. She came up with the idea for the logo – an apple with a chunk bitten out of it – and, in the early days, did the publicity herself.

With assistance from Marsha Rowe and Rosie Boycott (the co-founders of the feminist magazine Spare Rib) and, later, from her co-directors Ursula Owen, Harriet Spicer, Alexandra Pringle and Lennie Goodings, Virago operated out of an office in Wardour Street, Soho, situated above a pinball arcade and a gentlemen’s hairdresse­rs. Mark Bostridge – one of the few male authors taken on by Virago, by virtue of his having written a major biography of Florence Nightingal­e – compared the atmosphere to that of “a strict girls’ school”.

At the centre of it all was Carmen Callil herself, heaping opprobrium on such implicitly sexist concepts as “woman novelist” and “female imaginatio­n”, and working her way through piles of little-regarded novels borrowed from the London Library. Under her aegis, the list of titles for resurrecti­on kept expanding. The first five Virago Classics were released in 1978, and their distinctiv­e green spines soon became a familiar sight on well-appointed bookshelve­s throughout the land.

The scope was broad and included Scottish, Canadian, Australian, American, New Zealand and Caribbean authors, dating from both the 19th and 20th century. The introducti­ons to the Classics were written by some of the most talented writers of Carmen Callil’s own generation, including AS Byatt (who championed the pioneer American novelist Willa Cather), Anita Brookner (twinned with Margaret Kennedy) and Jenny Uglow. Those in the subsequent generation included Sarah Waters, Jonathan Coe, Julie Myerson and Justine Picardie.

Many Virago titles did extremely well, with works by Stevie Smith and Vera Brittain selling in their tens of thousands. Others provided British readers with an introducti­on to authors who came to enjoy an internatio­nal reputation, such as Margaret Atwood (Surfacing, 1979) and Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1984).

Special collector’s editions of four Margaret Atwood novels – Cat’s Eye, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin – were released in 2019 to celebrate a partnershi­p that had endured for 40 years.

For Carmen Callil, many of those partnershi­ps felt intensely personal. When Virago was getting under way, many of her own favourite authors were still alive, and many – though by no means all – responded enthusiast­ically to her profession­al overtures.

She treasured letters from Sylvia Townsend Warner, who “wrote to me comforting­ly about my lack of knowledge of classical Greek”, and musings from Angela Carter on the housewife’s lot: “I can only say that the only time I ever iron the sheets or make meringues,” the latter wrote, “is when there is an absolutely urgent deadline in the offing.”

However, perhaps her most important friendship was with Antonia White, whose 1933 novel Frost in May drew heavily upon the author’s experience­s of a Catholic boarding school. Herself a survivor of a harsh convent school in Melbourne, Carmen Callil credited the novel with “switching on” her ambition to go into publishing. The two women bonded over cigarettes and whisky, and remained friends until Antonia White’s death in 1980.

Carmen Thérèse Callil was born in Melbourne, Australia, on July 15 1938, the third child of Frederick Callil, a barrister, and his wife Lorraine, née Allen. Frederick had a large personal library and his daughter began reading her way through it – Dickens, Hardy, Georgette Heyer and Willa Cather were all favourites – from an early age. He died when she was nine years old and her relationsh­ip with her mother was not close.

Her unhappines­s deepened during her years at convent school, where the atmosphere was censorious and silence was rigidly enforced during daylight hours. Having left aged 16, she arrived in Britain by boat in 1960, a week after graduating from Melbourne University.

For a time she drifted between England and Florence, taking sporadic teaching jobs to supplement the money she had inherited from her father when she turned 21. A love affair with a married man kept her coming back to London, and when that ended she settled in England in order to look for more permanent work.

Taking a job as a trainee clothes buyer for Marks & Spencer, she also began seeing a psychiatri­st in an attempt to come to terms with her fraught childhood and recent heartbreak. The sessions with Anne Darquier took place regularly for seven years, until one day in 1970 when Carmen Callil rang the doorbell and got no answer. Anne Darquier had died after ingesting a cocktail of pills and alcohol.

Subsequent revelation­s about the Darquiers’ murky past – Anne’s father had been a French fascist, appointed “Commission­er for Jewish Affairs” in Vichy France – were turned by Carmen Callil into a scrupulous history, Bad Faith, published in 2007.

She never went to another psychiatri­st, instead immersing herself in her nascent publishing career. By 1972 she was doing publicity for Quartet Books, which agreed – at her urging – to put some money into feminist books. The first nine Virago titles were all published in associatio­n with Quartet. However, Carmen Callil, Ursula Owen and Harriet Spicer soon tired of explaining their ambitions to editors who, as she put it, “didn’t understand the market”.

Aided by an article in Publishers’ Weekly and a tiny overdraft facility negotiated with a bank, the trio set up shop in Carmen Callil’s Chelsea flat. The company moved to Soho in 1977.

For the next few years the work was all-consuming, and Carmen Callil gave up all attempts at a social life to see that it got done, even turning a bout of insomnia into an opportunit­y for yet more reading. In an attempt to maintain standards and unify judging efforts, she and her colleagues took to declaring subpar manuscript­s “below the Whipple line”. This was named for Dorothy Whipple, a popular writer of the 1930s and 1940s – “whose prose and content”, as Carmen Callil recalled, “absolutely defeated us”. She left Virago in 1982, handing control to the other two women in the original trio, though she continued as chairman until 1995.

From 1982 to 1994 she was managing director of Chatto & Windus, where she worked to cement her reputation as “the boss lady”. Her assistant would be dispatched to perform tasks that included parking her car and buying litter trays for her cats; during one lean period her colleagues even had their telephone calls monitored in an attempt to reduce the bill.

After the American publishing giant Random House acquired Chatto & Windus in 1987, Carmen Callil grew steadily disillusio­ned with the industry. Declaring herself “too eccentric and odd” to thrive in the era of big takeovers and ever-bigger advances, she quit publishing and began to divide her time between a house in London and one in the southern French town of Caunesmine­rvois.

Her interests remained literary, and in 1996 she chaired the jury of the Man Booker Prize. In 2011 she caused a considerab­le stir by resigning from the judging panel of the Man Booker Internatio­nal prize over its decision to present Philip Roth with the £60,000 award. “He goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book,” she complained. “It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.”

In 2020 she published a wellreceiv­ed history of her family, Oh Happy Day.

Carmen Callil was made a dame for services to literature in 2017.

She was unmarried.

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 ?? ?? Carmen Callil, and below, an early advertisem­ent for Virago: the name was chosen for its meaning of ‘a strong, courageous, outspoken woman’
Carmen Callil, and below, an early advertisem­ent for Virago: the name was chosen for its meaning of ‘a strong, courageous, outspoken woman’

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