History of Virago Press absorbing

Carmen Callil
Carmen Callil
I got extremely excited last week when Sky TV sent me a paperback copy of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

"Dude!'', I said out loud to nobody as I scrambled to wrest the accompanying DVD from its envelope. Alas, the book did not herald the impending arrival of its television adaptation starring Elizabeth Moss, for which I have seen an extremely excellent-looking trailer online. Wikipedia tells me the series is scheduled to premiere on American streaming service Hulu on April 26. No word on who will have the New Zealand screening rights, but I continue to eagerly anticipate its appearance.

My initial disappointment aside, the show I had actually been sent to preview will nonetheless be of interest to many fans of Atwood and other women's writing.

Virago Women, which will screen on Thursday at 9pm on Sky's Arts channel, documents the birth and history of Virago Press, a publishing company founded in 1973 with the express goal of promoting women's voices and literary history.

Comprising interviews with several of Virago's earliest staff and most notable authors, the documentary tells the story of Virago in the words of the people who were there, particularly the formidable Carmen Callil, the company's founder and original boss, or as she says, ``tyrant''. Callil founded Virago in a time when her tax returns always bore the caveat, ``if you have a husband, this form is addressed to him''. The world, she says, ``simply wasn't good enough - you have to fight''.

The history of Virago is inextricably linked with the history of feminism. Its initial success was due to women's developing awareness that their stories weren't being heard, and the resulting appetite for women's stories, not only in the present but from throughout literary history. Virago Women follows the highs and lows of the company in the context of the changing face of feminism over the following years, and up to the present day.

A lot of the documentary is talking heads, but they all have interesting things to say, and Callil in particular has an irresistible kind of stroppy charisma. The interview footage is intercut with unrelated black and white footage of old-timey ladies getting stuff done, and also modern footage of lovely crisp new pages being organised into books.

Virago Women is a fascinating story of a piece of publishing history I had no idea I ought to have known about. It's also a heartening reminder of what women can accomplish when they resolve to speak for themselves. In an age when the leader of the free world is a person who dismisses women's voices with period jokes and boasts of ``grab[bing] 'em by the p***y'', such reminders remain as important as ever.

 - C. Tilley and H. Turner



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