When Carmen Callil chose the name Virago for the publishing house she founded in 1973, she was daring all comers in a spirit of defiant wit (with an accompanying gleeful cackle). Grasping an insult and wearing it as a badge of honour was Carmen’s approach to life and whatever life threw at her. A small woman, she towered in others’ perceptions, and her reputation for ferocity went before her.
Tributes to her (she died on 17 October) have rightly remembered her gift for friendship, her love of roses, little dogs, cricket, ‘junking’ (aka antique hunting), her scattershot luvvie cascades of comments, exclamations, greetings, her boldness as a publisher. But her unflagging campaigns for one cause after another, her gallant efforts to stem the rot and nourish the good, haven’t had as much notice. In many ways, her tempestuous nature, comic flourishes and flinty putdowns (X: ‘an utterly deplorable human being’) and that flaming temper (which mellowed a lot with age), have obscured the way she lived through the eight decades of her life grappling seriously with history as it happened in order to turn it, like a huge container ship, from its deadly course. She would fulminate against the perpetrators of some appalling act or policy and swing into action to reverse it, stop it, change it. When she caught fire for a cause, she was tenacious, generous, indefatigable, never pompous, but always funny, even in the worst of times.
There was at some point a move to put her in the House of Lords, and one could see why. But Carmen couldn’t ever fit into an institution. She was a dissenter by nature, misfitting and proud of it, contrary even with contrarians and comfortable in her contradictions. She even revelled in them self-parodically: accepting honours (the DBE) from the monarchy she rejected, rooting for England in the cricket against her native Australia, though she loathed the British Empire and excoriated its methods and its legacy in her last book, Oh Happy Day: Those Times and These Times (2020).
For the record, here are some of Carmen Callil’s causes:
1950s. At the Star of the Sea convent in Melbourne, Carmen acquired a lifelong revulsion for the Catholic Church. All through lockdown, Carmen, Helen Simpson, Graeme Segal and I met monthly online for our tiny book club. One of the books Carmen praised wholeheartedly was Small Things like These: Claire Keegan’s vicious and hypocritical nuns epitomised exactly what she found objectionable.
1960s-70s. Virago was a huge achievement, justly celebrated. The publishing house grew out of Carmen’s involvement in the underground press of the 1960s, alongside Marsha Rowe, a fellow Australian, and Rosie Boycott, who had started the feminist magazine Spare Rib. Carmen was the publicist, and in many ways her genius as a publisher continued to lie in publicity and marketing – the recognisable green livery of the Virago Modern Classics showed her sense of aesthetics as well as her commercial acumen. To establish the new publishing house for writing by women, she drew together a band of collaborators: Harriet Spicer, Ruthie Petrie, Ursula Owen and, later, Alexandra Pringle and Lennie Goodings. Carmen exhumed and gave a new lease of life to writers such as Rebecca West, Rosamond Lehmann, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Comyns and Antonia White. White’s Frost in May, another study of the horrors of convent life, was one of Virago’s first notable successes when it was reissued in 1978. Other writers she championed had truly been forgotten: on Desert Island Discs, she chose Henry Handel Richardson’s Maurice Guest as her favourite book. Carmen wanted younger women, and men, to know that these foremothers had come through the wreckage and thought hard and brilliantly about it – the pregnant heroine of Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets is hunting, in the days of illegal abortion, for a doctor to help her.
Carmen had read through her father’s extensive library back home in Melbourne, where he had been, until his premature death when Carmen was nine years old, a university lecturer in French as well as a lawyer. She also knew and loved the Victorian and Edwardian paintings in the National Gallery of Victoria, and chose many of them for the early cover designs, which established the stylishness of the series. Next to the triumph of the Modern Classics, it’s often overlooked that Carmen published epochal original titles too. Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman (1979), a prophetic blast about porn and a highly polemical shout for the Marquis de Sade, was dreamed up by the two of them (they were soul sisters, co-conspirators) while talking together one evening.
Virago at the time was also the catalyst of a broader campaign: to break the gentlemen’s club of traditional publishing. In the 1970s, there were very few women in the business. The famous exceptions, such as Diana Athill at André Deutsch, and Norah Smallwood at Chatto & Windus, were still not fully in charge. Carmen’s triumph at Virago made other women’s advancement in publishing possible. She was no separatist, however, and acknowledged how much she owed to the men who helped her: Paul Hamlyn, Michael Holroyd, Sonny Mehta, Christopher MacLehose, Bob Gavron.
1980s-90s. When Carmen moved to Chatto as their managing director in 1982 she lavished care on her authors: Iris Murdoch, Hilary Mantel, Hermione Lee and other Bloomsbury biographers and historians. She published Angela Carter’s last, whirling novels, Nights at the Circus (1984) and Wise Children (1991). (It was around this time she accepted my novel The Lost Father and brought me over from Weidenfeld, making all the difference to my writing life.) She commissioned ambitiously – I have still to earn back the advance on some of the books of mine she published in those days. A series called Counterblasts carried her unique stamp: angry pamphlets about current wrongs, such as Margaret Drabble on mortgage arrangements. I wrote about child welfare.
2006. Carmen was an absolutist in many things, but above all in her Europhilia. Her loyalty to everything French would brook no criticism. When asked why, she’d cite the Revolution: ‘I’m a Jacobin.’ The part of France where she had a house – in fact a series of houses, and at one time a small vineyard too – had been a stronghold of the Resistance. Monuments to partisans stand in every village, outside every mairie, often marking the site of a struggle and fallen comrades. These encounters with the past helped inspire her first book, Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family and Fatherland (2006), about the mass deportations of children that the Vichy government had carried out so enthusiastically. The Commissioner-General of Jewish Affairs was called Louis Darquier, to which he added a fake aristocratic handle, ‘de Pellepoix’. Carmen, watching a programme about the Shoah, recognised the name, and it opened up one of those dark tunnels in memory.
In the 1960s, newly arrived in London, she’d been deeply unhappy, suicidal even, and had gone into therapy. One day when she turned up for her session there was no answer to the doorbell. Later, she learned that her therapist, Anne Darquier, had killed herself. She did so not long after a television interviewer had discovered Louis Darquier de Pellepoix living in Franco’s Spain, unrepentant, even smug. That revelation, that her therapist was this monster’s daughter, whom he had abandoned as a child, set Carmen to work. Bad Faith is a work of scrupulous research and high-voltage grief. Every page is filled with Carmen’s desire to redress wrongs done to the oppressed by a tyrannical male acting for a system of social injustice and political criminality.
Carmen was Lebanese on her father’s side, and felt a strong link to Palestine, Syria and Egypt. When she applied for a visa to Israel an official rang her – her name was Khalil, right? At the end of Bad Faith she wrote that the faces of the deported Jews on the trains to the camps reminded her of the faces of so many displaced peoples through history. Among them, she included Palestinian refugees during the Naqba. ‘What caused me anguish as I tracked down Louis Darquier,’ she wrote, ‘was to live so closely to the helpless terror of the Jews of France, and to see what the Jews of Israel were passing on to the Palestinian people.’ This sentence brought down on her head the anger of supporters of Israel. Knopf, her US publishers, were due to launch the book at the French embassy in New York, when Sonny Mehta, an old friend of Carmen’s from his days at Picador in London, was told the party was off.
You would think that Carmen, with her reputation for rage, would have erupted. But she took it preternaturally calmly (I happened to be there when she heard): such a response only confirmed her dim view of deep power structures. By contrast, I was fuming at the acquiescence of the French and Sonny’s acceptance. But Carmen would never hear anything against the French, or against Mehta.
2016. After the Brexit referendum she began marshalling friends to resist. Under the slogan ‘48 per cent and Rising’, we made banners and badges, we marched, we battled on – Carmen never alluded to failure. She expostulated against Cameron et al, and moved on to another cause.
2017. It so happened that, in her last home in London, she was living in the lee of Grenfell Tower, and she saw the fire and its consequences at close quarters. All her reserves of furious outrage poured out on the culprits of the disaster. Again, she went into battle.
2020. Bad Faith was followed, fourteen years later, by another giant work of excavation, Oh Happy Day. The book is a memoir of her forebears – millhands, migrant workers, deportees – and a blast against colonial power. While she was researching it, she was especially aghast at the brutality of the British navy; for a time all she could talk about was the savage floggings that took place. In our book club, it was striking that Carmen singled out for praise stories of little, ordinary, harsh, disregarded lives: for example, Halldór Laxness’s anguished family epic, Independent People.
In the last months of lockdown Carmen was sifting through the diaries she had kept since her arrival in London in 1964. She was making notes towards a memoir, and then tossing the diaries in the rubbish bin. Friends tried to halt the destruction, but she said she was disgusted by all the loves and disasters she found in them. We protested that they were of major interest – historical, social and personal. But she said she wanted discretion about her private affairs, and she would dismiss others’ entanglements with an ironic echo of the nuns who educated her: ‘If they wish to fornicate, let them, but I’m not interested.’
2021. Her last campaign brought her into a conflict about freedom of expression with the bodies that represent authors in the UK. After a Twitterstorm broke out over Kate Clanchy’s Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, the book was withdrawn for revision, and eventually Clanchy and her publishers, Picador, parted ways altogether. Carmen was enraged that a publishing house should abandon its author, and she couldn’t accept the refusal of the Society of Authors to stand up for writers in Clancy’s situation. She resigned her membership and, true to her calling as a publicist, made sure her action was reported. When she was targeted by hate-filled messages, she laughed them off. Like Angela Carter’s Little Red Riding Hood ‘she was nobody’s meat.’
I was president of the Royal Society of Literature at the time and, with the support of several fellows, tried to persuade the RSL to hold a public event to discuss the effects of social media on writers and their work. We failed. Carmen wanted to resign from the RSL as well. I regret, now that she has died, that I persuaded her to desist. But I didn’t relish the prospect of a dogfight on Twitter, and I had only a few months of my term left. I know that not saying anything is tantamount to acquiescence (silence is consent). I was a coward. So I want to put her stance on the record now.
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