Writers as Readers – A Celebration of Virago Modern Classics

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This unique book, beautifully produced by Virago Modern Classics in celebration of forty years of Virago Classics publishing, is a real treat. It may also involve you in further expense, book collecting and generally reading more. It is at once a super idea, having well known authors write introductions to the books that have been rediscovered and republished, as well as a collection of writing by those authors who reflection on the significance of another author’s work on their own lives, reading and or writing. These are women authors, some of whom have never slipped out of print, others relatively unknown, and as the introduction states “If women’s stories aren’t published in all their variety, their voices are silenced, and only part of human experience – in both historical and the imaginative landscapes  – is represented.” Thus mainly women, and a few men, reflect on an author’s writing generally in forty short, pithy pieces, sometimes introducing, sometimes producing an essay on a series of books.

The greatest strength of this book probably lies in the fact that it covers well known authors which most people would recognise, as well as those yet to be discovered. Thus we have Austen, two Brontes, and du Maurier. These are covered by such as Margaret Drabble, Angela Carter and a favourite of mine, Sarah Dunant. This is the joy of this book; if you do not read it for the authors introduced, though the range is huge, you can read it for those writing the introduction. Thus Hilary Mantel writes about Elizabeth Taylor, Penelope Fitzgerald introduces Rose Macaulay, and Alexander McCall Smith writes a lively piece on my favourite, Angela Thirkell. Thus there are pieces you will have already discovered in actual books, whereas there are new treats of brilliant pairing such as Sarah Waters on Sylvia Townshend Warner, and Sophie Dahl on Stella Gibbons. Thus the racy comic writer Jilly Cooper gives her thoughts on the extremely funny E.M. Delafield’s “Diary of a Provincial Lady”, an insightful piece on the life and works of an accomplished writer. These pieces also vary in terms of length and content; some are brief introductions with one book in mind, others are longer pieces of writing which bring in the whole context of the author’s life and times, highlighting particular works. Most memorable for me was the essay by Mark Bostridge on Vera Brittain, as he has written much on the life of the writer and speaker. Thus he quotes her own diary entry after the publication of “Testament of Youth” “Never did I imagine that the Testament would inspire such praise at such length, or provoke – in smaller doses- so much abuse”. This is a writer who really knows his subject, and who gives such extensive footnotes that no assertion is unsubstantiated. Each writer is genuinely enthusiastic about their subject, and it has the effect of sending this reader off to seek out so many books.

It is difficult to write a detailed review of a book which contains so many gems of reviews of itself. I will admit some pieces were less interesting to me, but I have no doubt that they would appeal greatly to others. Not a book to read at one sitting, but an undoubted celebration of many writers in many ways.

This book is available in hardback at the moment, so correspondingly rather expensive. This is a book to posses if you can – if you borrow it you will possibly want to keep it for future reference!

So the end of series four of Poldark has been and gone. Those of us who have read the “Angry Tide” have been waiting for the tragic events of the last episode to happen, and indeed have perhaps been avoiding letting too much slip .Here is a very interesting article on the relative lack of attention that the four series have attracted compared to less watched series perhaps deemed more fashionable. https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/tv-radio/2018/08/poldark-one-biggest-shows-britain-so-why-does-it-get-so-little-attention Certainly it is interesting that The Poldark novels are shelved with “Romance” by WH Smiths; there is so much more to them as anyone who has read the books will know!

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8 thoughts on “Writers as Readers – A Celebration of Virago Modern Classics

  1. I love this sort of book, the more so because it is one which you can read a section and then put it down without worrying about keeping your thread going; something I always need at this time of year when I have so much other reading going on. Hardback or not, I shall have to pick up a copy ASAP.

  2. Yes, definitely a reference book, Jules, and priced accordingly. But excellent for browsing through, and conceivably for several years to come. Quite canny of Virago to use the introductions they commissioned for the actual works when they republished them, as with the Angela Thirkell two. I didn’t somehow picture Alexander McCall Smith being a fan: he goes up in my estimation!

  3. I bought this book and have only dipped into it a bit so far. I’m so glad you found it enjoyable. Many of my favorite authors are represented and I hope to discover a few new ones.

  4. I really have to get this book! One for the wish list. How can the Poldarks be shelved with romance? They were always in general fiction in the library, where I got them from. They’re family sagas if they’re anything, and I enjoyed reading them all as a teenager so very much. Just read another Thirkell myself, by the way – Summer Half – delayed starting work this morning so I could finish it!

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