A Bite of the Apple: A Life with Books, Writers and Virago by Lennie Goodings - review by D J Taylor

D J Taylor

Fiction, Feminism & Fake Vicars

A Bite of the Apple: A Life with Books, Writers and Virago


Oxford University Press 302pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

The old-style publisher’s memoir, which reached its high-water mark between about 1920 and 1950, was a relatively staid affair. The publisher who wrote it – say, Evelyn Waugh’s father, Arthur, author of One Man’s Road (1931), or Grant Richards, who penned Author Hunting (1934) – was usually the sole proprietor of a business he had founded himself, or at the very least the distinguished impresario of a list that reflected his own personal tastes. The signature mark of this apologia pro vita sua was, naturally, praise: praise for the authors whose careers he had boosted and praise for the associates who had helped him on his way, with perhaps a dire warning or two about the likelihood of the modern publishing scene very soon going to hell in a handcart.

How odd, then, that Lennie Goodings, longtime chatelaine of Virago, the greatest feminist outfit in the history of British publishing, should have written a book that, once you subtract the feminism, reads as if it could have been put together in the library of the Savile Club about three-quarters of a century ago. For a start there is the glad-handing of practically everybody she seems ever to have come across. Star author Sarah Dunant is acclaimed for her ‘quick understanding’; there is the ‘brilliant’ Sarah Savitt, who succeeded her as company chair; not to mention the ‘astonishing’ triumvirate of Carter, A., Paley, G., and Sontag, S., although, to do her justice, Goodings is a bit worried by Sontag’s resolute defence of the canon.

Publishing, most of the people involved in it would agree, is about judgement. But was there ever a writer whose books Goodings didn’t like, or a colleague she couldn’t stand? To be sure, there are some bracing remarks about her early days at Virago in the late 1970s, devilling for its celebrated founders Carmen Callil and Ursula Owen, when ground-down underlings could sometimes be discovered weeping in the lavatory, but for the most part the light that gently emanates from A Bite of the Apple is practically roseate in its hue. Then there is the fact that, like many a book-world memoirist from the mid-20th-century golden age, Goodings can’t quite work out whether she is writing an account of her own affairs or the glorious undertakings in which she was engaged. Perhaps they can’t truly be separated, but a publishing historian who comes this way will be grievously disappointed by the lack of information about the profit and loss account and the absolutely vital topic of how much authors got paid.

None of this is to disparage Virago’s monumental achievements – the creation of the Virago Modern Classics series, the sponsorship of Carter, Atwood, Barker and half a dozen coruscating talents besides – but merely to say that Goodings’s recollection of them is sometimes a bit soft on detail. On the other hand, as she describes the firm’s move from founding-era autonomy to satellite status in the Chatto, Cape and Bodley Head group, a late 1980s management buyout and, finally, purchase by Little, Brown, her thoughts on the great industry issues of the day are well worth reading. In particular, she sees very clearly the terrible effect that the ending of the Net Book Agreement in the mid-1990s had on margins, noting that the ‘democratisation’ promised by the proliferation of cheaper books has simply meant more copies of fewer books and a restriction on consumer choice.

Meanwhile, Carter, Angelou and all the others are doing wonderful work and even the employees who get made redundant seem able to bear their dismissal cheerfully. Only once does the mask of glad-eyed suavity slip a bit, when the story of the Rev Toby Forward is solemnly retold. The Rev Toby, for those who have forgotten this minor scandal from the late 1980s, submitted a collection of stories under the alias Rahila Khan, purportedly a British Asian woman born in Coventry in 1950. Virago accepted it for publication, only to pulp what was left of the stock once the imposture was revealed. Goodings was, and remains, ‘outraged’ by this practical joke, but surely all the masquerading clergyman had done was expose one or two of the cultural assumptions surrounding BAME communities in the 1980s. Virago thought it knew what British Asian writing looked like and, alas, it turned out to be wrong.

Inevitably, the best bits of A Bite of the Apple are from the early days: Carmen Callil stomping into her office or instructing her gofers in the very serious business of how to make tea (‘a smoky blend of Lapsang souchong and English breakfast tea that Carmen mixed at home and put in old Fortnum & Mason tins’). Goodings sharply conveys the intense communality of Virago in the independent years – the sense of everyone involved being on a collective mission to do good, the devoted authors, the loyal readers (I was one) rushing out to buy the latest green-backed rerelease of a classic by Rosamond Lehmann or F M Mayor lovingly disinterred from the vault – but also aware of some of the conflicts that ran beneath. It was my wife who, emerging one evening into the fading summer light from a supper in which Callil had studiously talked across her for three hours, remarked that our host was ‘not a feminist. She’s a Carmenist.’

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