Carmen Callil, the publisher and writer who championed female writers and transformed the canon of English literature, has died of leukemia in London on Monday aged 84. The news was confirmed by her agent.
Callil began as a campaigning outsider, founding the feminist imprint Virago Press, where she published contemporary bestsellers including Margaret Atwood, Maya Angelou and Angela Carter. She challenged the male-dominated canon of English literature by bringing back into print a list of modern classics by authors including Antonia White, Willa Cather and Rebecca West, eventually becoming a pillar of the literary establishment. She was made a dame in 2017, served as a member of the Booker prize committee and was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Born in Melbourne in 1938, Callil had a difficult childhood, which she later called her “purgatory”. She went to the same convent school as Germaine Greer – she described the atmosphere as “rules, censorship and silence, and above all a sense of disapproval waiting to pounce on those rare times when you felt most entirely yourself”. After studying at Melbourne University, she left Australia the week she graduated, arriving in London in 1960 to find it a “very closed and silent place”.
“I came to the conclusion that I should never have come here,” she told the Guardian. “I should have stayed at home. Definitely. Or lived in France.”
Callil’s early years in London were challenging, and she attempted to kill herself. After beginning the road to recovery with a therapist, in 1964 she placed an advert in the Times: “Australian BA, typing, wants job in publishing.”
“I got three offers and accepted one,” she told the Australian Book Review, “which was being a menial for a sponsored book editor at Hutchinson’s.”
From there she moved into book publicity – one of the few jobs then open to women who didn’t want to be secretaries – before taking a job at Ink, an offshoot of Oz magazine. When it collapsed in 1972 she went freelance, working on the launch of the feminist magazine Spare Rib that summer. It was while sitting in a pub that the idea for a feminist publishing company came to her, “like the switching on of a lightbulb”.
Named after the Latin for a female warrior, Virago Press was established in 1973. Two years later, the first title appeared: Margaret Chamberlain’s portrait of women’s lives in an East Anglian village, Fenwomen. Callil told the Guardian the imprint was an attempt to “apply mass-marketing techniques to minority ideas – to publicise feminist ideas. There was a commercial aspect to it: I saw that there was a vacancy, an opportunity, a hole for Virago.”
Harriet Spicer, who started as Callil’s assistant in 1972 and became managing director of Virago 10 years later, later described “a rather wild life going on”. But alongside the boozy meetings and parties, there was a ferocious amount of work.
Virago was bought out in 1982 by the Chatto, Bodley Head and Cape group, with Callil remaining on the board but moving to become managing director of Chatto and Windus. There she published Iris Murdoch, AS Byatt and Edward Said, and brought a swagger to acquisitions, offering Michael Holroyd £625,000 for his biography of George Bernard Shaw in 1991. Three years later she left Chatto, and in 1995, she cut her ties with Virago, which was sold to Little, Brown, where it remains a successful imprint.
In 2006, Callil turned author with an investigation of family and Vichy France, Bad Faith. Through the tragic death of Anne Darquier, the therapist who helped Callil when she first arrived in London, she explores the life of Darquier’s father Louis, a Nazi collaborator who sent thousands of French Jews to their deaths. The Observer described it as “furious, lit up by her contempt for the man and her rage about the system of persecution and bureaucratized murder that he served”, but also revealed “a vulnerability that few of her colleagues could ever have doubted”. Callil followed this in 2020 with a study of her own family history, Oh Happy Day, charting how her forebears were transported to Australia after poverty had driven them to petty crime, and drawing parallels with modern inequalities.
Callil never lost her fire, quitting the Man Booker International panel after each fellow judges awarded the prize to Philip Roth and protesting with Extinction Rebellion. But she was gracious as well. Writing in the Guardian, Callil recalled an appearance at the Suffolk Book League, where “a clutch of women” came up to thank her for Virago.
“It was the writers and their novels they were really thanking,” she wrote, “women writing away in thankless times. All that was required was to know they were there, to love them, and to publish them.”