It’s Almost Virago Reading Week

So now it’s time for me to get into serious blogging mode because Virago Reading Week starts tomorrow and as it happens, I’m hosting it along with Rachel. I first tossed out the idea for this back in November, simply hoping that someone else would organize everything and give me some motivation to finish at least one Virago Modern Classic out of the several I’d started over the last year. Rachel quickly pounced on my idea, insisting we could do this together, which has been both very exciting and a bit overwhelming. I’ve since found out that the Virago Modern Classic list actually includes authors like Jane Austen, the Brontes, Edith Wharton and Helene Hanff, so I’ve actually read more of them than I originally thought! And I’ve now collected a few of those distinctive green editions from used bookstores and have a few of their books in other editions, so I have more than enough to keep me busy for the coming week.

While trying to research some of Virago’s history, I came across this fascinating article on the Guardian about how Virago came to be (which I’ll be writing more in the coming week as well). Carmen Callil, one of the founders, describes working in book publishing in the ’60s as a ‘publicity girl’ although she says

…in my memory the lovely men of the left and of hippiedom treated us like fluttering tinkerbells, good for making tea and providing sex.

…I remember my ambitions clearly. I started Virago to break a silence, to make women’s voices heard, to tell women’s stories, my story and theirs. How often I remember sitting at dinner tables in the 1960s, the men talking to each other about serious matters, the women sitting quietly like decorated lumps of sugar. I remember one such occasion when I raised my fist, banged the table and shouted: “I have views on Bangladesh too!”

I recently watched The Social Network and realized that in the area of computers, women are still being portrayed as the groupies, there for sex or fun or inspiration, but not taken seriously, not shown working on difficult computer coding with the boys. It made me feel frustrated, that despite how far feminism has come, there’s still so much sexism in the media, there still aren’t enough strong female role models in computers and science (although I’m very proud to say that my sister is currently working on her Masters in bio-chemistry and will be presenting a paper on her work in Italy later this year, as well as continuing on to a PhD).

One book I read last year that did positively portray a woman working in computers was The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman, which is actually loosely based on Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, with a story about two sisters, Emily (the modern version of sensible Elinor Dashwood) who owns a computer company and her younger, flightier and more passionate sister whose name I’ve already forgotten (Jess?), but obviously based on Marianne Dashwood. Most other people who read the book didn’t seem to like the computer side of things intruding on their Jane Austen spin-off comfort fiction, but I found it interesting and now that I think about it, I’m thrilled that Goodman did include a strong woman working in computers in with the Jane Austen theme (instead of the typical more girly job most chick lit heroines have). As this recent post at things mean a lot shows, women don’t have to limit themselves to gender stereotypes. The women who founded Virago Press didn’t.

It may seem that we are only looking nostalgically back at the past in spending a week reading Virago Modern Classics, many of which are forgotten works from the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought back into print in a fit of feminism decades ago, but I don’t think so. These are the stories of women who began to discover themselves and take back their own lives on their own terms and they are still the stories and the role models we need to remember today.

I hope you’ll join us this week for some great books and great discussion! We have some books from Virago to give out as prizes throughout the week and Rachel has more information on how everything will work this week, so stay tuned for all of that and be sure to send us all your links as you review the books. Also thanks to Thomas for designing us a button at the last minute!

22 thoughts on “It’s Almost Virago Reading Week

  1. Jenny says:

    I liked The Social Network a lot, but I know what you mean about the women in it. I nearly always feel like the women in Aaron Sorkin’s films and TV shows are subsidiary, just there to be talked down by the menfolk who are smarter and know what’s best for them. (Aaron Sorkin annoys me.)

    • Carolyn says:

      Yes, I liked it too, it was fascinating to see how our computer culture has changed in less than a decade and made me realize how rarely movies are about any semblance of reality or even recent history, usually they’re much more escapist.

      (I had to ask my husband who Aaron Sorkin was, but I didn’t think much of how dude treated his girlfriend at the beginning of the movie, although the ending bit was rather good.)

  2. Cristina says:

    Hi! Interesting post. I understand your frustration over sexism in the media, etc. especially after all that women fought for not so long ago. I know of a few women in Computers and I myself have more than a passing interest in the subject, but still the media and advertising focus on men.

    I’m looking forward to Virago Reading Week and it gives me the perfect excuse to finally read Barbara Pym – she’s been on my TBR list for a while now. I’ll be reading ‘Excellent Women’ and following it up with ‘The Wedding Group’ by Elizabeth Taylor if there’s time.

    • Carolyn says:

      Hi Cristina and welcome! My husband did remind me that I spend a lot of time on the computer myself, but I haven’t quite ever figured out something like coding a blog layout yet!

      I’m looking forward to your reviews, this is definitely inspiring me to read more of these authors!

  3. Claire (The Captive Reader) says:

    I really enjoyed the business/IT part of The Cookbook Collector as well, though mostly because Emily’s focus was on the business side of the operation rather than the technical part, thereby appealing to my geeky BComm self. But I suppose the female tech role was ably filled by that girl at Emily’s boyfriend’s company. Far too long ago now for me to remember her name but she was definitely portrayed as competent and the equal of any of her male colleagues.

    I’m really looking forward Virago Reading Week and getting exposure to new titles through other bloggers! Virago is not a publisher I’m naturally drawn to so it’s been interesting to get to know their catalogue a little better as I’ve combed through it looking for reading inspiration for this week!

    • Carolyn says:

      Right yes, that computer programmer girl who was also a singer (don’t remember her name either!). That was an interesting character, she was creative, smart and sure of herself.

      Yes, I also found Virago a bit intimidating (and sometimes depressing) before, but now I’m quite excited to try more of their books.

  4. bookssnob says:

    Ha I give you all the credit for this week, Carolyn! Fascinating post and very pertinent – though Virago was started during the height of the feminist movement, many of the reasons why they started are still in existence and this shouldn’t be forgotten. Casual sexism is still rife and it drives me mad – though I must say, it goes both ways, as men are often stereotyped and excluded from ‘feminine’ activities that they are equally entitled to enjoy, such as bringing up their own children as house husbands. I am so looking forward to hosting this week with you and I expect to have lots of fun!

    • Carolyn says:

      Well I’m quite glad you got us on track to plan this, as I’m having more fun with it than I expected to. 🙂 And as Ana has already asked us to have another one below, maybe we’ll just have to do it again sometime!

      My husband is often frustrated with aggressive men and being expected to act that way as he’s more quiet and bookish. While I always felt out of place in university for being quiet and bookish too instead of suitably dressed up like a doll and out partying. So books are clearly the cure, to allow us to express ourselves as we are!

  5. Elizabeth Roberts says:

    Your post on Carmen Callil’s reasons for starting Virago is very thought-provoking – thankyou. In April, a neighbour and I are launching Persephone’s reissue of D E Stevenson’s Miss Buncle, Married (there’s a comma on the title page but not on the cover!)as our inaugural book event in Moffat where we both live (in Scotland ‘stay’) and where DES lived from the 1940’s until her death. I read it frankly without much expectation and was very pleasantly surprised. The young heroine (not Miss Buncle herself) is celebrated in the book for starting and running her own business, a proto-feminist in 1935/6 – the book is set at the time of the then King’s Silver Jubilee. I now see that Miss Buncle herself has achieved autonomy as well as economic independence through writing – the subject of the first Miss Buncle, ‘Miss Buncle’s Book’. I will definitely make this the theme of my introductory remarks on the day!

  6. litlove says:

    I can remember when Carmen Callil was in the newspapers for starting Virago. I felt quite inspired by her back then (I must have been a child still, but knew what it was to be sidelined due to gender). This is a wonderful week, and whilst I can only fit in one Virago, I am looking forward to taking part very much!

  7. Joan Hunter Dunn says:

    We’re reading Sense and Sensibility for my book club so The Cookbook Collector sounds just perfect to accompany my reading of it. I’ve a Virago quote over with me today, and all this week.

    • Carolyn says:

      Yes, it is! I read The Cookbook Collector right after Sense & Sensibility last year and found them the perfect reading companions. And I do so love your quotes and photos, they’re always uplifting.

  8. Old English Rose says:

    Thank you very much for organising this; I’m really looking forward to working my way through a stack of lovely green books this week, not to mention seeing what everyone else chooses to read. Your notes on how Virago came to be are really interesting to read too.

    With regards to your comment about girls ‘not taken seriously, not shown working on difficult computer coding with the boys’ I have to say that this may be sad, but it’s largely true to life, not a media misrepresentation. My fiance studied computer science at Imperial College, a university which teaches exclusively science and technology and arguably the best in the country for those subjects, and there were a grand total of five girls in his class of around two hundred. He now works in an office which houses several brilliant start up tech companies and the few female members of staff are almost without exception there in creative or marketing roles, not technology. I’m sure there are great women out there who work in tech fields, but they are a very small minority. Sad but true.

    • Carolyn says:

      Thank you, I’ve also got a stack of books and wish I could read them all!

      I know that there aren’t many women working in computers, I just wish that would change, that more women would be encouraged to go into those fields instead of being told they wouldn’t succeed in it, in a lot of different fields actually. There still aren’t that many female movie directors either, so the stories we’re shown in movies are often very male focused. It may be the way things are now, but it seems to create a self-perpetuating cycle. Which is why Virago’s story is so inspiring.

  9. Darlene says:

    My Virago of choice for this week is The Way Things Are by EM Delafield. A previously loved green-covered edition that I was thrilled to find at a second-hand shop.

    It’s going to be a fun week!

    • Carolyn says:

      I haven’t read Diary of a Provincial Lady yet, although I have a copy on my stack — this week is making me want to grab a different book each time another great author is mentioned!

  10. nymeth says:

    An excellent post, Carolyn (and thank you for the shout out)!

    I’ve been looking forward to Virago Reading Week ever since you announced it, but what with being ill I’m not sure if I’ll be able to read and review anything on time :\ I still can’t concentrate on reading for very long, and in any case I should be using my energies to focus on reading all the grad school things I’m behind on after missing an entire week of classes… so yes, this is a shameless plea for you and Rachel to host again 😛

    • Carolyn says:

      Oh no, Ana, so sorry you can’t join in! But do get better and catch up on your classes. I’d love to host another week and I’m sure Rachel would too. 🙂

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