Why I’m beginning to love Virago Modern Classics

I’ve been thinking of how to express everything this week has meant to me, all the new insights into literature and life and being a woman that it’s given to me. I want to write about three different posts at once, to review Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann which I finished very late last night and very much enjoyed, I want to write about how Jane Austen can be seen as a feminist and of course, I want to just express my new love and appreciation for Virago books!

So here’s some of what I’ve been thinking about. We’ll start with the ‘how I became a feminist’ part and then move on from there.

I grew up in a very christian (think of the documentary Jesus Camp here, loud modern American christianity that is still very conservative and militant) and sheltered home, on a farm on the Canadian prairies. I found old books lying around and read them, I discovered more in libraries. I’ve read the entire Bible, more than once. Old books aren’t that hard for me to relate to, in some ways, I was raised like a girl in a 19th century novel, without the corsets, but with plenty of ignorance about what the world at large was really like. I went to Bible College for a year after high school and it was jokingly called bridal college. My mom expected me to become a teacher because as far as she knew, women could either be a teacher, nurse or secretary, end of choices. That or get luckier and be someone’s wife. (She wanted my sister, the one who’s now a brainy scientist, to be a pastor’s wife.)

But I had a way out of that — books. I wanted to go to university to study them and finally worked up my courage to do so. I discovered Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse was the best literature I read in all of university, the stream of consciousness style and the focus on the thoughts of women a revelation), although more often than not, male authors were the main focus. In my third year, I took a class on the history of the world wars. And I discovered feminism at last when I wrote my paper on women joining the army for the first time in WW2 (mostly to take the desk jobs so more men could fight). I found that women had to face a lot of sexism, if they were in uniform, as they were often seen as just being there to sleep with the soldiers. I talked to my great-aunt, who had joined the Canadian navy and traveled the country performing in recruitment drills. She said she’d be felt up on trains because she was in uniform, while other civilian women weren’t. I read feminist historians, beyond just listening to testosterone driven lectures of how many troop ships and planes had been sent to Japan.

I finally felt a rage about my own sexist christian upbringing, that because I was a girl who happened to be born first in my family, I was constantly told I couldn’t be bossy. I could take care of my brothers as babies when I was only four years old myself, but I couldn’t tell my siblings what to do or they’d hate me forever, my mom said. My drive to be a strong woman pushed underground, my personality bent into a more compliant form. That my sister and I had to do chores while my brothers did not (we were being trained to be wives, after all!); that only men could be leaders in church, could preach and tell everyone what to do; for my mom’s expression that the husband was the head of the house and the wife just the neck — then she’d chuckle and add, the neck that turns the head, and I’d think, you want to be only a brainless muscle?? I finally started thinking for myself.

I still didn’t read many feminist books though, I stuck to Jane Austen and the 19th century because that was still all I knew. I eventually read some Anais Nin, shook off some of my excessive innocence and soon after met my husband (I didn’t want to party in university, but reading the sexy books is the way to meet boys in bookstores!) but there was such a dichotomy in my mind between Jane Austen and Anais Nin, the one a virgin, the other almost a whore, between what I was expected to be as a woman, saintly wife and mother or sexy man-catcher. I had grown up with horror stories of my aunts sleeping around and the dangers of abortion and adoption that had awaited them. I didn’t see the link between these women writers, I just saw, you can try to be all good or you must be all bad.

Last year I began book blogging and felt a little lost at first, until I discovered Persephone Reading Week and all the great people who loved these nostalgic, more innocent books. I had found a book home. (And here’s my post from that week about ‘why I’m beginning to love Persephone Books‘.) I soon began to hear about Virago books too, since the same people loved both. And as Persephone books were expensive to order online and impossible to find elsewhere, I began collecting a few Viragos as surrogate Persephones. They’ll be just about the same, I thought, just as innocent and cosy. The first Virago I bought was actually Dusty Answer (and here’s my post about it), I thought it would be sweet and nostalgic. What I didn’t know was that it was actually a sexual coming of age story. I felt unsettled by what I read in it and set it aside.

That continued to happen throughout the year, I’d begin various Viragos, hoping to be able to join other bloggers in raving about them, only to stop. They weren’t safe. They showed life as it really was, un-sugar-coated, unromanticized. I didn’t like reading books like that. I wanted the moral certainties of Jane Austen or at least the lush sensuality of Anais Nin. I didn’t want… reality. Facing the reality of women’s lives, in realistic marriages, being slighted and overlooked, or horrors, remaining unmarried, rather than the perfect fantasy of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Big.

I finally made myself finish one Virago and while it wasn’t happy, it was good. True. I thought a whole Virago week might give me the motivation to read more, to finish all the Viragos I’d started. I didn’t imagine I’d end up hosting the week, as I wasn’t even a fully converted fan yet, just curious enough to want to try more.

Now to return to Dusty Answer, that sexual coming of age story I shied away from last year. This year I found that it provided the link for me between Jane Austen and Anais Nin. It showed that women are allowed to have sexual feelings and experiences, not as a virgin or a whore, but as human beings. Girls are allowed to grow up, to develop, not to become servant wives and mothers who are just as ignorant as ever, but to become women. Adults. Aware, knowing. Thinking for themselves. Seeing the truth about life.

Near the end of the book, the main character finally realizes that the man she’s been obsessed with since childhood “had not once, for a single hour, become a part of real life. He had been a recurring dream, a figure seen always with abnormal clarity and complete distortion. … She had tried to make a reality out of the unreality… She seemed to wake up suddenly. [He] himself had been passing in the street outside. She could have seen him, and, instead, her eyes had not wavered from his reflection. A shadow laid on a screen and then wiped off again…” She’s been in love with an illusion, with her own romantic illusions.

I realized the glass of illusions we bring to romantic relationships. I say my husband is like Mr. Tilney from Northanger Abbey, but really — he’s only himself. I need to learn to see more clearly, see through my happy romantic fantasies to the reality of other people. Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel also definitely showed me that, this week. I cannot stay blind or short-sighted as Angel was, also caught (that time for life) in her romantic, false and harmful view of life. These books have woken me up. Shown me how to be an adult as a woman, a writer.

I don’t want to spend another year just reading ‘comfort books.’ I don’t want to close my eyes to the reality of other women’s (and men’s — as Jonathan Coe notes in his introduction of Dusty Answer, all of the men are realistic!) lives. I don’t want to live in a safe imaginary world of romance and fantasy forever, where everything’s ok if we only just believe. That sounds just like the christianity of my childhood, and believe me, everything was not all ok. I was physically abused by my mother when I was five and she had a nervous breakdown over having four children in five years living out in the middle of nowhere, with only her in-laws to judge her for not being a good enough mother. That’s my story. A dominating mother still trapped in her Bible and in her own past, trying to keep her daughter from being strong or ever growing up. That’s the reason I wanted to hide from life, to read nice books, to avoid conflict. But Virago tells the stories of women like me. They aren’t pretending life is magic and we’re all princesses. And I can’t hide from reality if I want to get better.

I am excited to read more Virago authors this year, to keep seeing more clearly, to take down my illusions. I have a reading project in mind now, to read honest, unromantic books. I need to leave the 19th century behind in some ways and come into the change and growth of the 20th century (and maybe eventually even the 21st!) Sometimes I need to leave safe comfy British books behind and read about my own country and continent. Margaret Atwood, Elizabeth Taylor, Rosamond Lehmann, Angela Carter, Winifred Holtby, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Margaret Laurence, George Eliot, Barbara Comyns, Barbara Pym, Molly Keane, Zora Neale Hurston, Muriel Spark, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Toni Morrison, Thomas Hardy, Gustave Flaubert and more. Because that’s how I’ll grow strong and learn to survive.

Thank you everyone, for your participation and enthusiasm in Virago Reading Week and for helping me find and learn to love such great eye-opening books!

20 thoughts on “Why I’m beginning to love Virago Modern Classics

  1. Becky (Page Turners) says:

    That is such a fascinating post. It is easy to forget that people have very different lives to yourself but you have reminded me about the diversity of lifestyles and choices that are out there.

    I am glad that you have been able to discover what you want from life and I hope that your family haven’t given you a hard time about it.

    Now for my confession – no matter how often I hear about Virago and Persephone boks – I have never read a single one! I know that’s terrible, but truth be told I am not even sure what are – Im assuming that Virago and Persephone are the publishers. I might go and google it now!

  2. Cristina says:

    This is such a heart-felt, personal and honest post… thank you for sharing it with us. I am sorry that your childhood wasn’t ideal but feel some comfort in the fact that you’re not alone in that. As you say, books can help you to face reality or run away from it.
    I enjoyed reading about how you came to find feminism and the realisations you made. It requires courage to turn away from the things that you were taught to believe and to find your own set of values.
    You’ve been a wonderful host and blogger and I’m glad to have found your blog via this Reading Week.

  3. Linda Jacks says:

    What a thoughtful post. Today I finished reading Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G. Heilbrun. I’ve previously avoided reading what I used to think of as more “strident” feminists, but have decided that my consciousness can always use some raising. She also wrote detective novels as Amanda Cross and had a lot to say in her book about Dorothy L Sayers and the type of heroine she invented.
    I’ve decided to read almost all women authors this year – and to try to make out what their stories are really saying/implying and what that says to me. I’m also reading the 12 book Anthony Powell wrote (A Dance to the Music of Time) because Barbara Pym liked them so much.
    Thanks for your honest post and your thoughts on the books.

    • Karenlibrarian says:

      A Dance to the Music of Time has been on my TBR list for several years and I’ve just started my first Barbara Pym novel (Excellent Women). Maybe I need to start an Anthony Powell Readalong.

      • carolwallace says:

        Hey, Karen, if you do that, I’m in. I got through “A Dance…” once but bogged down the second time (there are, it must be said, longueurs…) But I’d like to read it again and it would be fun in company!

  4. Karenlibrarian says:

    Wow, what an honest and heartrending post — I’m sorry you had to grow up in such a sexist household, but I’m glad that you’ve overcome it. Thanks for hosting such a great reading week — I’m so happy to have found Virago and so many great bloggers. I have so many more Viragos on my to-read shelf and I can’t stop reading them!

  5. litlove says:

    I can’t think of a better tribute to Virago, or to those authors and the books they’ve written, than the fact they brought you enlightenment when you needed it. I’ve always felt that this is the treasure house of literature – a safe place to think through the tough, often overwhelming business of living, in solidarity with great, perceptive minds. This is a brave and compelling post, thank you for writing it.

  6. Old English Rose says:

    That was such a touching, insightful post. It’s great to hear how you came to Virago and how the books worked their way into your life, even if it didn’t have a particularly positive beginning. Thanks so much for hosting this week. My TBR pile has put on a lot of weight and I’ve discovered lots of lovely new blogs to follow, so it’s been great.

  7. Simon T says:

    Thank you for all your work this week, Carolyn, and for this fascinating post. I’ve never really thought about *why* I love Virago and Persephone – I’ll have to ponder on’t. Not for the same reasons as you, because I’m still very much a fervent Christian alongside my love of feminist literature, but there must be a reason that these books appeal so much!

  8. carolwallace says:

    Wow, Carolyn, what a courageous woman you are! And what a brave, heartfelt post. It makes me so happy to think about the profound effect books have had in your life. And maybe here’s another thing about the world of literature — that if you’re a reader, there is always a book out there to help you on your way, whether it’s comfort you need, or inspiration, or prodding, or a laugh, or a good cry, or a gate to another world. And one thing I’ve been learning is that the world of book blogging is invaluable to help us all find what we want and what we need. Thanks so much for all your hard work on Virago Reading Week.

  9. Chrissy says:

    You are so brave, Carolyn. Your post brought tears to my eyes. Brave in your determination and brave to have expressed this in your blog. A heartfelt thank you.
    And thank you too for the huge effort co-hosting this Virago week.
    Have you read The House in Paris? That’s a wonderful account of a young woman discovering her sexuality. My favourite book of all. Had it been on Virago’s list, I would have claimed it as my Favourite Virago!

    • Carolyn says:

      Thank you so much, Chrissy, I don’t always feel brave.

      I’ve started to read The House in Paris, as I’ve collected almost all of Elizabeth Bowen’s books, after I really related to Death of the Heart, that felt like my story in a way, although the details were different, but the squelching of a young girl was sadly familiar. I didn’t know The House in Paris was about that, that’s motivating! The two different stories and time changes were off-putting, so I stopped reading it, but I will definitely add it to my list. I’m always trying to promote Elizabeth Bowen more, maybe I’ll have to get up something…

  10. Darlene says:

    Oh Carolyn! Your post is the most touching I have ever read and I am wiping away tears. The atmosphere that I grew up in was similiar to yours minus the religion. A woman was to be well-groomed and keep a clean house..end of. I wanted to be an archeologist!

    I am so proud of you for following your heart, you are a brilliant young woman!

  11. motheretc says:

    Books really do have prescriptive cures. Reading was also an escape for me during difficult periods in my life, and I can appreciate how comfort reads may have helped you through. Comfort reads are very important – I hope you won’t give them up completely – but I agree that more difficult books can have restorative powers as well. Thank you for such an honest and courageous post. I look forward to reading more of what you make of the more emotionally challenging reads.

  12. Penny says:

    What a wonderful post, Carolyn. I’m so glad you shared your experiences of your upbringing with us.

    I alternate cosy books with more realistic ones. Not always one and then the other. Sometimes I just want cosiness for a while. Then, after a bit, I feel the need to read something grittier. There’s a place for both, isn’t there?

    I like the old books being reprinted by Persephone, though I can’t forgive them for rejecting Barbara Pym, one of my most favourite authors. And this leads me to the admission that I’ve posted my Virago Book Week blog entry a day late. Just couldn’t get it done sooner! Sorry!

  13. Carolyn says:

    Thank you all for your support and encouragement, it means so much to me. The friendships I’ve formed through book blogging and this week and the confidence it’s given me to continue to write and find my own voice are so valuable.

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