A Bite of the Apple by Lennie Goodings

Review by Simon

There’s a certain variety of person who can always spot a bottle-green spine at a hundred paces, and has faced the agonising decision about whether to shelve their Virago Modern Classics together or in with the rest of their books. I, reader, am one such person (and they’re shelved together, for what it’s worth) – Virago Modern Classics has introduced me to any number of wonderful writers, and I have plenty left to read. And it’s chiefly the idea of finding out more about the VMCs that made me delighted when I heard that Lennie Goodings had written A Bite of the Apple.

It’s not quite a memoir, because the non-Virago bits of Goodings’ life aren’t particularly dwelt upon – it’s more of a very subjective account of the creation and sustaining of Virago from the point of view of someone who was there from more or less the outset, and remains the publishing house’s chair. And it’s every bit as fascinating and bookish as you’d hope.

Just in case anybody is reading who doesn’t know, Virago Press is a feminist publishing house that started in the ‘70s. While they are synonymous with Virago Modern Classics to me, that is only a small part of the publishing output – which includes a lot of non-fiction, and new fiction like Sarah Waters’ and Margaret Atwood’s novels.

This isn’t quite a linear book, and Goodings darts around themes of the house’s publications and so forth, but there it is still easy to distil the different stages of Virago’s history. And it started as a small outfit, reacting against the state of publishing at the time, and the idea that feminism was a dirty word in many circles (and sadly still is). One of the early questions they got from a journalist was whether there’d be enough feminist-leaning books to publish for another year…

Goodings started on a part-time basis as a 25-year-old, working as a publicist. Later she would work as a publisher and editor, but she started at the bottom of the ladder and gives us an excellent insight into the frankly terrifying working conditions. Carmen Callil was founder and in charge, and seems to have been a very difficult boss to have. I hate that women can be called difficult for things men would be praised for – but, in Callil’s case, the term seems warranted. She wouldn’t, for instance, let anyone take a lunch break. Goodings reports many blazing rows and tears in the bathroom.

It was a bit like being in a very strict school, with rules and systems that if not follow were rewarded by cold silence or reprimands.

And particularly difficult was the relationship between Ursula Owen and Callil:

Even by the time I got to Virago there was tension between them. Jealousy, opposing personalities, widely differing styles, money – I wasn’t around when it started and I cannot say what initiated it, but curt words, silences, and angry memos became a not exactly unusual part of everyday office life.

But Goodings is fair-minded and able to look back on it all with understanding…

For Carmen, the devil was in the detail and from her I learned meticulousness, high standards, and the rewards of hard graft. Thought it was often tough going for me – literally nightmarish at times – I was absolutely determined not to be beaten by it. And there was just so much about it that I loved.

Throughout the book, she gives the impression of having been the level-headed, calm one in an ocean of people arguing with each other and having power struggles. Of course, this may be her subjective impression of it all… She does comment that the newspapers were always desperate to dwell on fighting between the staff, and that they wouldn’t have focused on this so much in a male-dominated company – but she also dwells on it a fair amount, and it does make for fascinating reading. What I took from it, though, is that while many of the leading Viragoites have been on non-speaking terms for years, they’ve all made up eventually.

Of course, the book isn’t all about the dynamics of the office – though I think I’d have enjoyed it even if there were nothing else. As I’d hoped, there’s a lot about the genesis of the Virago Modern Classics, and the reaction of some of the authors who were still alive and whose works were coming back from obscurity – like Rosamond Lehmann and Barbara Comyns. And once Goodings gets to writing about her life as an editor of new fiction, there are wonderful sections on what it’s like to work with Marilynne Robinson, Sarah Waters, Margaret Atwood and more. Including Atwood gathering her agents and publishers from different regions in one room and giving them a new novel in manuscript – getting all opinions at once.

The second half of the book mixes in these interesting editorial insights with some rather confusing discussions about being bought out, going independent, being bought again, merging with different companies, etc. Goodings does her best to describe how everyone felt at each juncture, but I never really got my head around it all and the implications for Virago. Certainly they seem to have spent an awful lot of time going into different financial and managerial relationships, with Virago founders appearing, disappearing, re-appearing. It was a bit bewildering, though Goodings’ ability to write about the emotional impact of each move makes it more engaging than it would otherwise be.

It remains to be seen if rival histories of Virago will be written by other insiders, and I can’t imagine any two of them would see things the same way – but it will be hard to better A Bite of the Apple, which is informative, lively, reflective, and somehow a poignant mix of honest, generous, and forgiving.

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Simon is a Shiny Editor At Large. He blogs at Stuck in a Book.

Lennie Goodings, A Bite of the Apple (OUP, 2020) ISBN: 9780198828754, hardback, 400 pages.

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