“There are too many things to be enraged over,” says Dame Carmen Callil as she stands on the doorstep of her house, in Notting Dale, West London. We are both staring up at Grenfell Tower, the high-rise block, now shrouded in white plastic, where 72 people died in 2017 after a refrigerator fire was catastrophically spread by woefully shoddy cladding and insulation.
At 83, Callil is as angry—and as whip-smart funny—as she has ever been in her 60-year publishing career. She worked for Spare Rib and Ink, two of the most prominent British countercultural publications of the 70s. And then, 50 years ago, she founded Virago Books, the pre-eminent feminist publisher.
As if that weren’t enough, in 1978 she founded Virago Modern Classics, whose dark-green editions of everyone from Antonia White to Stevie Smith and Edith Wharton were instant hits. Even as a little boy, I noticed those dark-green books, with their classic portraits on the cover, jumping out of the bookshelves. Callil came up with the color. “Virago green—not blue for a boy, not pink for a girl,” she says. “It was an electric-light-bulb moment.”
She has had quite a few electric-light-bulb moments in her dazzling career. To talk to, she is a real live wire, full of enthusiasms and hatreds leavened with quick, funny follow-ups and asides that take the edge off any perception of overseriousness. She describes one colleague as “a great ball scratcher.” At another moment, she says, “I’m certainly a republican”—that is, an anti-monarchist—“but I don’t want to take the tits off the Queen.”
She is utterly self-aware. The daughter of a French-Lebanese Catholic father, she says, “I got that terrible Catholic thing—I became silent for 10 years.” She pauses, with innate comic timing, aware what a fluent talker she is, and adds, “I know I’m making up for it.”
Her memoir Oh Happy Day, out in paperback next month, is about her mother’s side of the family and the appalling poverty of her ancestors in 19th-century England. Callil was born in Melbourne in 1938 and moved to London in 1960.
She writes about developing a “fine rage” in conjunction with her friend the writer Angela Carter. It was a fine political rage. “She taught me about politics,” says Callil. “Angie was really radical. That’s where Oh Happy Day came from. My family voted Liberal [the equivalent of Conservative in Britain or Republican in America]. I knew nothing about British politics when I came here. I knew nothing about my British ancestors when I was a child—they’d been expunged from the record. I only learnt about them writing the book.”
Her father, a barrister and a lecturer in French at Melbourne University, “was a tremendous bibliophile.” She says, “I was educated at home, really.”
When it came to choosing those classics for Virago, Callil drew on memory. “I got Willa Cather from my mother. She was the only woman I’d ever met who’d read Pilgrimage [Dorothy Richardson’s thirteen-volume book] from cover to cover.” As a child, Callil adored Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Georgette Heyer. Later on, she loved Anthony Powell.
She came to London in that extraordinary wave of planet-brained Australian iconoclasts. “Melbourne and Sydney are completely different cultures,” she says. “Clive James [who was born in Sydney and went to the University of Sydney] was not the same. I thought he was a pain in the butt. He was banging on about Princess Diana—he was madly in love with her.” Germaine Greer and Barry Humphries, like Callil, were born in Melbourne and went to the University of Melbourne. “The position was always Barry, Germaine, then me—not that I cared. I loved Robert Hughes.”
Whatever their differences, they were all highly educated: “David Malouf [the Australian writer] said we had a Scottish education system, not an English one.”
Before university, Callil went to Star of the Sea College, a Catholic secondary school for girls, also the alma mater of Greer. “If you’re convent-educated, you have no self-confidence at all,” she says. “The nuns hit me—that doesn’t matter. They were obsessed with Communism and ladylike behavior. I’d get nine bad ladylike-behavior marks.”
It seems extraordinary today that this powerfully intelligent talker ever lacked self-confidence. In fact, her reputation in publishing circles has been for formidable toughness. “I did have terrible personality flaws, and I still do have,” she says. “I was a bellower and a shouter—no question. I’d be canceled now. If I was in Parliament, I’d be having [Boris Johnson’s] balls off. I got such terrible press—I was always thinking I was horrible. The press said I was this vile woman.”
“I was a bellower and a shouter—no question. I’d be canceled now. If I was in Parliament, I’d be having [Boris Johnson’s] balls off.”
That reputation—and her fame—took some time to develop. On first coming to Britain, in 1960, she wasn’t smitten. “Because of my extensive reading of English literature, I thought the country was bigger,” she says. “And nobody had any teeth.”
She promptly went off to live in Italy for two years—“because I was having an affair with a married man.” That affair with a successful publisher came to an end in 1970. But she went on seeing him platonically into the 1990s.
Callil never married, but she’s been in love “once and two half-times.” She pauses before adding, with her comic timing, “Isn’t life hell? I should have married number two. He was by far the best companion.”
She also happened to love work. In the mid-1960s, she began her publishing career at Panther Books. Founded in 1952, Panther specialized in paperback fiction. It was here, working in the publicity department, that Callil honed her publisher’s skills.
By 1972, her annus mirabilis, she had been central to two great countercultural moments. In 1971, she was working at Ink—the underground newspaper edited by Richard Neville, who also edited Oz magazine. That year, the Oz editors were taken to court in what became the longest obscenity trial in British history. For an issue known as “Schoolkids’ Oz,” teenagers edited the magazine and ran a picture of a sexually excited Rupert Bear, a popular children’s cartoon-book character. In a blaze of publicity, the editors lost the obscenity trial and were jailed, only to be acquitted on appeal.
In 1972, she moved on to Spare Rib magazine, founded by the journalists Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe. With a small inheritance, she set up Virago—originally called Spare Rib Books. Boycott came up with the title: virago, Latin for “heroic woman.” It became a pejorative, meaning an unpleasantly tough cookie. In a similar way, Virago the publisher was celebrated and attacked, which only raised its profile. Callil oversaw Virago’s book lists until 1995—despite also working for Chatto & Windus from 1982.
“I found writers,” she says. “I’d dig into the archives and ask, ‘Is this writer alive?’ Antonia White [author of Frost in May] was living on the smell of an oil rag in Cornwall Gardens.”
Virago, originally set up with that inheritance of Callil’s, became a subsidiary of Chatto in 1982. In 1987, Callil, with several colleagues, organized a management buyout. In turn, the board sold the company to Little, Brown. Virago became an imprint of Little, Brown in 1996—and then, in 2006, of Hachette Livre. It is now run by Lennie Goodings, a Canadian-born publisher.
Virago is still going strong, even though Callil has no involvement: “When I left, in 1995, it broke my heart. I never recovered from it.” Still, she doesn’t look back in anger at Virago. “I wanted to celebrate the tradition of women’s writing,” she says. “I wanted to make their canon available on the school curriculum, which I think I’ve achieved.” There are worse epitaphs.
Oh Happy Day, by Carmen Callil, will be published in paperback on July 1
Harry Mount is a London-based journalist and the editor of The Oldie