Is It Philanthropy? Weeding My Viragos

In the 1980s, I discovered Virago Modern Classics. The American editions had black covers, not green, but the cover art was identical.

As a feminist, I was thrilled to find these reprints of lost women’s novels, though Dial Press, Virago’s American publisher, published only a few.  One of my first Viragos was Rosamond Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets:  the attractive cover showed a fascinating detail from Still Life at Bedtime by Barbara Balmer.  In this skillful, engrossing novel, first published in 1936, Lehmann describes the desolation of a young woman painfully in love with a married man.

The impoverished heroine, Olivia Curtis, a low-paid assistant to a photographer, is separated from her husband but does not bother to get divorced.  She lives in London in a room in her cousin Etta’s flat, and has many artistic, interesting friends. Sometimes she goes hungry, but she tries to be cheerful.  One weekend, traveling home on the train to visit her sick father, she meets a former neighbor, Rollo, who is now a wealthy, unhappily married man working in the City. He says he’ll telephone her.

Of course we recognize this syndrome:  Will he call?  There are echoes of Dorothy Parker’s short story, “A Telephone Call,” in Olivia’s interior monologue.  But Lehmann is more remote, writing from a third-person point-of-view.

The telephone rang, faint to her ears:  someone inquiring, Kate would answer.  It couldn’t be Rollo:  not yet.  Not ever, of course.  Rollo would think about ringing up, sometime tomorrow maybe; and then he wouldn’t do it.  Because nice men don’t like to get mixed up…. Rollo was undoubtedly in the category of nice men, broad-minded.  They are on their guard….

Rollo becomes all to Olivia, but Olivia is not all to Rollo.  It does not end well for Olivia.

I related to Oliva–at least in my imagination.  Like Olivia, I was cheerfully poor, though Bloomington was unlike London, a city I imagined to be impossibly glamorous.  (Bloomington is more charming–really.)  I sometimes had to sell books so I could buy tampons.   A humanist friend who needed distractions from finishing her dissertation invited me to live with her after my boyfriend dumped me.  And she had too much humor to let me wallow in my misery: she sent me out on a date with a guy who rode a motorcycle.  Everyone loved him except me–he wasn’t “Rollo.”

On a second reading of The Weather in the Streets a few years ago, I admired it less. Lehmann captures the mood of frustrated love, but there are a few purple patches.  It is, I think, a book for younger grown-ups–women in their twenties and thirties!   My favorite Lehmann is  A Note in Music, which I described at this blog as “the best novel I have ever read about women in their thirties”  (here.)

For many years I have collected Viragos at used bookstores, library sales, and the Planned Parenthood Book Sale.  And a decade ago some woman donated her Viragos to the Planned Parenthood Book Sale.  You can imagine how thrilled I was.  And now I am at that same crossroads of life, passing on books I have read and keeping only books I have not read.    Mind you, I’m hanging on to my favorite Viragos.  But I am surprised at how many I am giving away:  my Winifred Holtbys, even some of my Elizabeth Taylors.  Do you think the Planned Parenthood Book Sale will like them?

Below are photos of the Viragos I’m weeding. I have read all of these, and there is not a bad book in the bunch, but I don’t need them.

And here are some more:

How do you feel about collecting books?  Do you keep all your Viragos?  Something about green spines.  These are the only books I have kept together as a color-coded collection.

14 thoughts on “Is It Philanthropy? Weeding My Viragos

  1. Lovely post, you’re reminding me how much I adore my green Virago books. I love Rosamond Lehmann and have read all her novels and short stories. I have been looking for an excuse to re-read The Weather in the Streets having read An Invitation to the Waltz twice.

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  2. I have my Viragoes scattered through my collection, as I have a few authors who I have other books by in other editions (my Persephones are the only ones I shelve together). But I think very carefully about whether I’m going to re-read them when I finish them, and pass them along if I’m not sure I will. Kept my Taylors, though!

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    • It’s very hard to weed them somehow. I like your idea of integrating them with the rest of your books, but on the other hand I could usually find my Viragos as opposed to the rest of my less well-organized books.

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  3. I haven’t kept all of my Viragos, no. In fact I’m trying to be more ruthless about all of my books generally as my kids won’t want to be lumbered with them one day. But it’s very difficult when you’re attached to them!

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    • Yes, it’s hard not to treat them as a special collection, which they are, but I feel good about giving them away to others who will want them! And I have to be more ruthless about weeding books, too.

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  4. Mine had to go when I moved earlier this year, there just wasn’t room for them, I’m afraid. And, as you say, some of them no longer seem quite as powerful as they were when I first read them. More than anything else, there Power was in the fact that they were available when nothing like them had crossed my path before. We are luckier in what is currently being published now, than we were then, I think.

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    • Moves are always catalysts for book-weeding. Viragos are special, and you are absolutely right, there WAS nothing like them, and all were/are important in a historical context. The only Virago authors I knew before Viragos were Elizabeth Taylor and Angela Carter! Lots of neglected women writers…

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  5. I too like buying Viragos whenever I come across them in used bookstores or sales at the university. They are rare birds! Alas, the demands of teaching do not always leave me enough time to read them all, but I will get round to it. I see that I have Lehmann’s Invitation to the Waltz waiting in the wings.

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    • They are very hard to find. I don’t think the green books were for sale in the U.S., so I picked them up used catch-as-catch-can. Teaching does keep one busy!

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  6. Dear Kat, Back from the Lake District and borders of Scotland, and now end of day. I had an interesting time. I loved the Lehmann I’ve read: The Weather in the Streets, and one misnamed after Blake’s poem, The Echoing Grove, because the publisher wouldn’t let Lehmann name it what she wanted. A bad movie was made from it. I’m very tired now but would like to say that there is an informative article on Virago Press’s history in the TLS by Kate Chisholm, August 10, 2018, including a recent incarnation with green bindings. I know you get the TLS so need say no more but that I don’t like Chisholm: she often is hostile to the subject she pretends or claims to sympathize with, here it’s feminism. I’ll try to write about this on WomenWriters@groups.io tomorrow.

    I see you have many comments: that suggests Lehmann is still liked and read, and Virago Press important to women readers.

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    • Ellen, I’m so glad you’re back! The Lake District sounds idyllic, and I look forward to reading your blog about it. I’ll have to check to see if you’ve written it yet.

      I did think Chisholm’s articl very good, but I don’t know her other work. My Virago collection was going to waste, since I’ve read them all and will go back to very few. I loved Elizabeth Jenkins’s The Tortoise and the Hare, and wish they had published more of hers. And fans are thrilled by Virago’s publication of Angela Thirkell’s campy humorous novels. I must admit, I think most of her books are badly written, but the early ones are good and she has hundreds of fans!

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  7. I adore Rosamond Lehmann. So far I’ve read and loved: Invitation to the Waltz, The Weather in the Streets, and Dusty Answer. I look forward to picking up A Note in Music in the future.

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