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Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Virago Green Spines

The Cambridge University Library are offering a £500 prize for a collection of books put together by a student. With £500 as temptation and motivation I thought I might have a try. As the collection will not be judged on size or monetary value perhaps I have a fair chance. Many years ago I joined a website called ReaditSwapit, and one of the books which came rushing through my letterbox on a whim was Elizabeth Taylor's Angel. The book fascinated me; the feel of its binding in my hand, it's green spine, the silhouette of an apple at its top and then the Portrait of Madame Lacroix by Giovanni Boldini which acted as its cover illustration. A little research only increased my fascination. What I had stumbled upon was a feminist printing press established in 1973 by Carmen Callil to publish the work of forgotten or overlooked women writers from the literary canon and to promote the writings of new and emerging women. Virago has been an obsession ever since.

Part of my fairly modest collection.

I felt sure I was the first to have made this discovery and began a treasure hunt in local charity shops, second hand bookshops in Cornwall and London and internet swapping communities. I was under the impression that they were difficult to find (they were in Harlow!) and that I must be the only woman on earth who actually wanted them. Since moving to Cambridge I have found that I can no longer buy eeach one that I find as the Virago press was genuinely prolific, (Heffers even reprints the originals to add to its stock). I have to be a little more selective in my search now that I am a student.

A picture of a larger and more impressive collection, stolen from Fleur Fisher

For the University Library prize my collection requires a coherence and an intellectual strain of thought to support it. My collection is of the early originals, published in the 80's with portraits of women for their covers. My interest is both literary and artistic; the cover paints a portrait of the central character just as the books themselves are studies of the female voice which leads them, these novels are word- portraits.

Cover: 'The Bather' Kees van Dongen

'I wanted to live at the centre of a focus of pleasantness, and harmony, and things coming right. And instead I was tossing about in a whirlpool of useless passion and frenzy.' The Thinking Reed

Cover: 'Portrait of Ira P' Tamara de Lempicka

' "Hardly anyone is dancing," said Charlotte to the unknown man beside her, "yet whenever I put out my hand, I touch someone," But the stranger seemed not to have heard her.' Strangers

Tamara de Lempicka was an amazing painter during the 20's and 30's who had her own distinctive and feminine approach to Cubism. Working in Paris she was associated with Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Andre Gide. The portrait used for the cover of Strangers is a powerful portrait in red and white, between innocence and passion.

Cover: 'Catherine Carrington' Carrington

'I am forward-looking girl and don't stay where I am, "Left right, Be bright," as I said in my poem. That's on days when I am one big bounce, and have to go careful then not to be a nuisance. But later I get back to my own philosophical outlook that keeps us all kissable.' Novel on Yellow Paper

I just finished reading Stevie Smith's Novel on Yellow Paper for my London dissertation and I love her loose writing style. It is like a 'stream of consciousness' but with an innocence and enthusiasm to it that is completely independent of the fluidity of writers such as Virginia Woolf.
I won't pin all my hopes on that book collecting prize, but I think I have a story and a chance, so wish me luck.


  1. Go for it girl.

  2. I too think you have a story! And what a fantastic competition. I think that Cambridge must be the university it is renowned for being. You have quite the collection and the cover art is priceless, although I do wonder about the wisdom in choosing that shade of green...haha! Your blog is a delight. And you are lucky to live amongst such beautiful art!

  3. Good luck.
    I have some Virago's, their series of Mrs Oliphant's got me thru a difficult time.

  4. That is the beauty of Virago's they have an emotional value too.

  5. Yes Frangipan they certainly do. I treasure the few I have in my collection and those I have read. I think your idea of combining the literature with the cover art is brilliant and the best of luck with it. What an exciting project!

  6. Just found this posting and was filled with a sense of recognition- just gone to check but I have at least a dozen of the virago classics, bought second hand, mainly in the 90s- so they can't be all that rare! On reflection it was probably the cover art as much as anything that kept me collecting, I just didn't know it at the time..