MOver 40 years ago, when Carmen and I were working late at Virago’s first office on Wardour Street, I asked her why she founded the feminist publisher. She replied, “To change the world, honey, that’s why.” And by God, that’s exactly what she did.
The idea came to him in 1972 and the press was first registered as Spare Rib Books. In June 1973 Virago was officially a publishing house and I am completely devastated that Carmen will not be with us next year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her brainchild.
Famous for not being a woman of great poise – not too long ago she described herself as “a bubbling pot” – she felt strongly about injustice. It started with her feelings for the Catholic Church, having been sent to the convent school which also educated Germaine Greer. His indignation came to rest on other “unjust” institutions and attitudes. including patriarchy, sexism and publishing.
Of course, a lot of people feel that and complain about it, but the difference with Carmen is that she did something. She wrote books, she organized against Brexit, she walked away from organizations she felt weren’t doing the right thing – and she founded Virago. So many women were involved in the early days of the publisher (Marsha Rowe, Rosie Boycott, Ursula Owen, Harriet Spicer, Alexandra Pringle, me) and some men too – Paul Hamlyn and Bob Gavron supported the cause – but that’s the drive and the genius of Carmen who was at the heart of this extraordinary enterprise. Carmen, with Virago, changed edition. To have women at the helm, women making decisions, women choosing books and women understanding their audiences was, at the time, revolutionary.
Working alongside such power was not always comfortable; we all cried in the toilet sometimes. This is partly because we cared deeply about Virago – we gave him our lives, our hearts and, when we completed a management buyout, our own money – but also because Carmen’s vision was sometimes inflexible. Changing the world is not a job people like.
Carmen was inspiring. She taught me a lot about care, attention, detail and passion. She firmly believed that the author was at the heart of publishing and should be encouraged, cherished and paid for. A publishing house served the writer, not the other way around. This hasn’t always been a common view in the industry, but it’s one that I proudly inherited. She also believed that a publishing house dedicated to women’s writing could be a viable and profitable business – another legacy for me.
She had a great laugh and a wicked sense of humor. His main motivation was to put the world in order, and his outspokenness often cost him dearly. We didn’t always agree and exchanged strong words over emails and lunches, but we were always united in our mutual devotion to Virago. Carmen was never less than fun, interesting and always searching, pushing. It was tiring at times – but always invigorating.
Carmen’s curiosity and her many readings were driven by her heart. She was insomniac and read voraciously. His lasting legacy was the creation of the Virago Modern Classics, which remains one of the flagship series in the press. Through the modern classics, Carmen not only rediscovered great forgotten works, but she brought to light a feminine literary tradition. Because she was a branding genius, she knew how to make sure readers would go to the stores and ask for the next green-backed book with the apple logo.
Carmen also had a great gift for friendship. While she was undergoing cancer treatment, a mailing list was formed with over 100 recipients. They weren’t acquaintances, this list was made up of real friends, many of whom were editors and writers. I wrote to Carmen last week and told her how proud I was to be in this circle of friends, to be blessed with her care and generosity. She encouraged me and Virago all the way. I have lost a friend, a genius and an inspiration.
How many people come into the world and change it for the better? She did it.