Home News Founder of Virago Press Dame Carmen Callil has died aged 84

Founder of Virago Press Dame Carmen Callil has died aged 84

Dame Carmen Callil, founder of Virago Press, has died aged 84

Founder of Virago Press and feminist publishing legend, Dame Carmen Callil has died aged 84.

A woman of uncompromising vision, Dame Carmen Callil’s establishment of Virago in 1973 was characterised by two things: the name of the press (Virago, meaning warrior-woman), and the provocative logo—a bitten apple. 

A press that celebrated ‘women and women’s lives’, Virago’s initial nine books were published in association with Quartet Books, where Callil began her career.

Callil, along with co-founders Harriet Spicer and Ursula Owen, decided to move on from Quartet to create something of their own. 

Those iconic green-spined Virago Classics from the 1970s are now synonymous with the beginning of a new wave of feminist publishing. 

Raised on books, Callil was born into a home that prioritised reading in Melbourne, Australia in 1938. Her father’s personal library was a great source of inspiration, and his death when she was nine-years-old affected her greatly, along with her subsequent upbringing in a strict convent school.

This led to an unsettled period which she spent in Britain, arriving by boat in 1960, a week after graduating from Melbourne University. 

After leaving Quartet, what began as a trio of women working out of Callil’s flat turned into an office of six, located above a barber shop in Soho, which subsequently became the thriving press we see today, a titan of feminist publishing established in an era of great social and political change.

A sign of the times, Virago established a female literary canon that would become widely read, resurrecting the voices of women published in the past to speak to the women of the present; this started with the reprinting of the likes of Edith Wharton and Rebecca West to name but a few.

Callil’s legacy is that Virago continues to champion an ever-more inclusive definition of feminist writing, with a broad, international author list that includes Monica Ali, Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood, Zora Neale Hurston and Daphne du Maurier. 

She was made a Dame for her services to literature in 2017 and was Chair of Virago until 1995.