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!