Carmen Callil 1938-2022

Rosemary Hill

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The first time I remember meeting Carmen was at a London Review Christmas party. She came up to me and said: ‘You’re marvellous darling, you understand irony.’ I’m not sure whether she actually poked me in the chest but I felt as if she had. Then she moved off without further comment. I never got to know her well, there wasn’t time for that, but I took the excuse of her liking something I’d written to go to her house and record an interview with her.

The house, like Carmen, was small but thoughtfully put together. In person she was beautiful and in old age her beauty had a silvery pink etherealness about it, quite at odds with the force of her personality. Her home was rather the same. The plates and pictures, the delicate arrangements of bright china all spoke of a subtlety of judgment that she brought to her work, which enabled her to see the qualities of Stevie Smith or Barbara Comyns, but not often to her conversation. This proceeded by fits and starts with abrupt changes of mind and direction, sometimes mid-sentence. ‘No, not at all why would you say that?’ would be followed seconds later by ‘Oh yes I see what you mean. Hmmm, yes, I agree.’ She is the only person I’ve known who actually said ‘hmmm’, pronouncing all the ‘m’s.

I was still at school when Virago was founded but I was coming to the end of it and wondering what to make of my life. Carmen Callil was the only publisher whose name I knew and Virago books were my guide to the possibilities: the cover artists, Meredith Frampton, Audrey Johnson, the announcement in the prelims that ‘Virago is a feminist publishing company’ followed by the list of doubtless important and daunting women, and the novels themselves which I read less as literature than as manuals or catalogues. What sort of lives were there out there? What actually happened to women? A lot of bad things, clearly. As a very sheltered teenager I was as terrified by the possibilities of the world of Angela Carter as I was appalled by the suffocation of Frost in May.

By the time Carmen republished Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper in 1980, I was living in London and working as a temporary typist at Crossfield Electronics in the Holloway Road. My job was in Standards and Reliability, where I contributed to the lowering of both with my slow and inaccurate typing, but I imagined I was Pompey and led an exciting double life in which I was writing a magnificent novel.

In 1983, when I was slightly further along the zigzag path that I hoped would turn into a literary life, I met the poet Christopher Logue, whom I later married. He knew Carmen. They had met on the set of Ken Russell’s The Devils, when Christopher was playing Cardinal Richelieu and Carmen was one of the nuns pushing Richelieu’s wheeled chair. They had in common a scarring early experience of Roman Catholic education which added to their enthusiasm for the film’s lurid retelling of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon. Christopher – who always panicked about remembering lines – wrote his out and pinned them to the back of Carmen’s wimple.

It was Christopher who encouraged me to read Angela Carter’s poetry, which he thought underrated. In 2015 I edited a collection of as much of it as I could find. It was published by Profile as Unicorn. Carmen was energetic about helping to promote it. She and I spoke at an event at Wilton’s Music Hall. On stage she was funny and celebratory but backstage afterwards she was more thoughtful. Often, over the time I knew her, she said how much she missed Angela. Carmen had many friends and was always open to the possibility of more, but I don’t think anyone filled that gap.

The last email I had from her was in May, when she was at the Hay-on-Wye festival. It was about a Diary I’d written for the LRB in which I traced my father’s family through the early 20th century and their life in the Eltham Hutments during and after the First World War. She had done a similar thing for her Leicestershire ancestors and she thought they had something in common. Of mine she wrote: ‘It so explains your special take on the world.’ I’m not sure what she meant but I can see her saying it as she would have done, head on one side, eyes slightly narrowed.

The last time we met was for lunch with another friend in the summer. Carmen said she was feeling her age. ‘Sometimes now I wish I did have a husband,’ she announced, a propos of nothing. The friend and I, divorced and widowed respectively, said in chorus: ‘They don’t last you know.’ ‘No,’ she said with a short sigh, ‘I suppose you’re right, hmmm.’