What’s your favourite Virago?

I have been reading Viragos for a number of years now. Some Virago authors I have long been familiar with, and have not necessarily read in their green appled livery, and others I came across purely by spotting their names written on those distinctive green spines, and so, without Virago, I probably never would have read them at all. This is the beauty of Virago; from the household names of Jane Austen and the Brontes, to the more obscure interwar novelists such as Storm Jameson, Elizabeth Taylor, Rose Macauley and Mollie Panter-Downes, there really is someone for everyone, and the vast majority I’ve read have been totally, completely, fantastic. Choosing a favourite, therefore, is a very difficult task, so wide and varied and wonderful are the options to pick from.

Therefore I’m not going to choose one favourite, but three. This is because I am co-hosting this week, and I can make up the rules! Ha!

So, without further ado, my favourite Viragos…..

1. Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge

I know everyone hates me when I talk about this book, because it is so difficult to find at a reasonable price. All I can do is apologise, and say that the reason I talk about it so much, is that by talking about and making other people read it, I hope to show Virago that there IS a demand for it, and encourage them to reprint it. So. You know what to do if I’ve convinced you to read it –  Email! Petition! Let’s get this back in print!

Here’s my thoughts on it:

It’s a beautiful story of two people, years apart in age and experience, meeting under similar circumstances and coming to discover themselves and the meaning of their lives.  The beautiful, middle aged Lady Grace Kilmichael is the main character; she’s married to a moderately famous economist who thinks she’s stupid, and is having an affair with another woman.  Her daughter, a beautiful, leggy teenager, pities her and finds her clingy. Grace has recently found some success as a painter, and, fed up with feeling pushed to the side of her own life by the people she loves, she decides to take off on holiday to the Dalmation Coast (modern day Italy and Croatia) to paint and rediscover herself.  On her journey she falls in with Nicholas, a young painter, who is escaping a similarly stifling home life and parents who don’t understand or appreciate him.  Their unlikely friendship blossoms amongst the beautiful scenery of the Dalmation Coast, and together they find the freedom to become the people they were meant to be.

I think the essential message that you don’t have to live your life in a box constructed of other people’s expectations is what struck me the most.  Both Grace and Nicholas have been restricted and stifled by their lives and the people around them, and have ended up living lives that are unsatisfying and don’t reflect their true natures or dreams.  By leaving their everyday lives behind and escaping, without anyone else’s knowledge, to pastures new, for just a short while, they are free to discover what is really important to them, and they find the confidence they need to be the people they want to be in each other’s unconditional (and platonic, I might add) love for one another.  The relationship between Grace and Nicholas is unusual and wonderful – Nicholas could be Grace’s son, but she doesn’t treat him like one – and both characters are such lovely and wonderful people that you can’t help but fall in love with them.  Also, Ann Bridge was a Diplomat’s wife and spent her life travelling – so the scenery of this story is absolutely beautifully described and will make you want to drop everything and rush to the Croatian coast as soon as you’ve finished the book!

Read it, please, if you can! You can find cheap copies now and again, and I make it my mission to snap up copies wherever I see them, and send them to unsuspecting people – so if you love the sound of it, let me know, and I’ll put you on my Illyrian Spring gifting list!

This is still in print, and an absolutely beautiful story about a day in the life of Laura and Stephen, a married, middle class couple, who are trying to rebuild their lives after WWII. It is poignant, touching and incredibly powerful, and Mollie Panter-Downes’ portrayal of the shattering effects of war and the pain so many ordinary people had to face is the most moving I’ve ever read. Aside from seeing how England and its people changed post-war, it’s also a stunning paeon to the beauty of the English countryside, and the exquisite descriptions of the landscape around Laura and Stephen’s country village took my breath away. Mollie Panter-Downes’ use of language is really so skillful, and your heart will ache for Laura and Stephen’s pain at losing almost everything they hold dear. The essential message, however, is of hope, and freedom, and joy in having the constant fear of war lifted from the horizons of life. If you haven’t read it, you must. It was my favourite book of 2010, and I already can’t wait to read it again.

Oh! What a profoundly, heartwrenchingly moving book this is. Mary Jocelyn, the Rector’s daughter of the title, is a middle aged spinster, living a quiet, useful life with her father in a dull and uneventful village. Intelligent and passionate, her solitude has made her awkward in company, and she has few friends and few outlets for her creativity or emotions. When she finally meets someone who understands her, and loves her, it seems that all will be well, but Mary’s hopes are cruelly dashed, and this lovely, misunderstood woman must retreat back to her life of shadows, never finding the fulfillment her heart longs for. It sounds unbearably sad, and it times, it is, but it’s also such a fantastically written book that I can’t not urge you to read it despite this. It is an absolute classic, and a crime that it’s not more widely read. This is also currently in print by Virago so do snap it up if you haven’t already.

Honourable mentions have to go to Elizabeth Von Arnim’s The Enchanted April and Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth…and also Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare and Rosamund Lehmann’s The Echoing Grove…all brilliantly written books that deserve to be more widely read!

So these are my favourites, but what are yours? There will be a MYSTERY VIRAGO BOOK for the person who convinces me that their favourite Virago is most worth reading, so get your answers coming in!

59 comments

  1. Ooh – this is interesting! I have not read Illyrian Spring – how I would love to get my hands on a copy. I might do a similar list if I get time, and if not this week, at some point on my blog.

    1. I’d love to see your list of favourites, Verity! You’ve read so many more than me and therefore have many more to choose from!

      You are next on my list of people who will benefit from my uncanny ability to find random copies of Illyrian Spring…so just keep your fingers crossed that my beady eyes find a copy soon!! I’m always on the lookout!

  2. I know you’ve disowned me for being lukewarm about Illyrian Spring, Rachel! but I completely agree that The Rector’s Daughter is heartbreaking, and I’d push The Tortoise and the Hare even higher up the list. But what about Willa Cather? I’d choose The Professor’s House, but each one that I’ve read has been wonderful. And you can’t leave out Elizabeth Taylor.

    1. Oh Mary! Disown you? Never! But I will hold a grudge.🙂 Well I chose books that are only really available through Virago and that are a bit less well known. Otherwise it would just turn into a ‘my general favouritest books ever’ list! But yes, of course, Willa Cather. And Elizabeth Taylor, though I haven’t read enough of her books to choose a favourite amongst them as yet!

  3. Perfect! One that my library has (though it can be frustrating to read about all these lovely British books that I can’t find!), one that you introduced me to, and that I loved, and one that I haven’t heard of. I didn’t read The Tortoise and the Hare as a Virago, but it was one of my favorite books last year.

    Thank you (and thanks to Carolyn) for your wonderful round-ups and posts this week! Sometimes when you join a readalong it doesn’t have much of the ‘along’ part, but you two made this a wonderful experience!

    Audrey

    1. Ooh what’s the one your library has? Tell me it’s Illyrian Spring!!

      You are so welcome, Audrey. It has been, and continues to be, a genuine pleasure to be co hosting this week, and I am so glad that you are enjoying it so much. You are so kind and really, the week is only as good as its participants, so you have yourself to thank too!🙂

  4. Oh, this is such a hard question! I love the three you’ve chosen. I just got a copy of Illyrian Spring that was printed in the 60s, and it has a cover reminiscent of the 30s with a woman lying on the ground, goats nearby, and the Croatian hills behind her. I love it! By the way, I didn’t get the impression that her husband was really having an affair but that she was jealous of the intellectual connection between her husband and the other woman. I read it last year, though, so I may be totally wrong.

    Well, I have a few favourite VMCs, including the three you mentioned plus Life and Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, South Riding: An English Landscape by Winifred Holtby, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, and Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain.

    I would have to say my absolute favourite would be The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby. In it, Holtby describes the growth of one young middle- class woman during the Edwardian period, World War I, and the early Inter-War period and how societal pressures to marry kept women of the time from developing their individuality and gifts. I totally felt for the main character in this story and how her development as a person was completely stifled by her mother’s wish to marry her off. The trajectory for her life was set out for her at birth, and she was not able to fully realize herself in any way. Yet, Holtby is hopeful, and the main character is able to meet someone who does help her to grow as a person. The main character has to take a huge risk to break off from society’s plans for her, and I found it extremely inspiring.

    By the way, do you know if Testament of Friendship by Vera Brittain is a VMC? It’s not on Carolyn’s list, but I thought it was.

    1. I have that exact same copy of Illyrian Spring, Virginia! I found it for £2.50 in a charity shop and was so excited I had to be scraped off the ceiling! You are completely right – it’s more of an emotional affair than a sexual one. I should have made that clear!

      Your favourite VMC has actually been one of my favourite Persephones – I have never read it in its Virago edition and Persephone has since republished it. But your passionate review reminds me that I need to re read it, and also more of Winifred Holtby, pronto. Very persuasive, Virginia!

      Yes, Testament of Friendship is a VMC, though as far as I know, it’s not currently in print.

    2. Ps: eep! My list isn’t perfect, I was working off of someone else’s from librarything that listed them in publishing order and I just alphabetized them. So I may have missed some, definitely.

      1. Thanks for the info. about Testament of Friendship, Carolyn and Rachel! And I doubt that I read The Crowded Street in its Virago edition, and I own it in its Persephone edition. Most books I get from the library, and I have to read whatever edition they have or can get for me by inter-library loan. I love the VMC list of titles, though, because it gives me ideas for future reading.

      2. Dear all, Testament of Youth IS a VMC, Testament of Friendship isn’t…hope this helps – my list came from Virago so it should be correct. (Thus Carolyn’s is correct too!)

  5. There are so many great Viragos in the catalog, it’s tough to choose. However, if I had to name a favorite, it would probably be Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. I only discovered Wharton’s writings as an adult, and I’m so glad I waited — I’m sure as a high school student I wouldn’t have appreciated the devastatingly beautiful tragedy of Ethan Frome. Wharton is the queen of dramatic irony, and all of her books have themes of people trapped in unhappy marriages or circumstances with no forseeable way out. I know I’m not going to get a happy ending when I begin one of her books, but Wharton does it so beautifully I have to keep reading. Though the protagonist of Ethan Frome is a poor farmer instead of one of Wharton’s typical New York society characters, he’s just as trapped in his situation. It’s one of her shorter novels and can easily be read in one sitting, so it’s a great introduction to this brilliant writer.

    1. Beautiful, Karen! I recently read Ethan Frome and agree with you completely. Edith Wharton doesn’t do happy endings, but the way she writes is so compelling that you can’t help but read on, even when you can’t bear to.

  6. Great post as usual, Rachel, now I will have to think up a different question for my second giveaway!😛 This week has been so exciting so far. I’ll have to finish some of the books I’m reading now (and many more Viragos, how I regret not living near my old big library anymore!) to give an informed answer to this, but I’m loving both Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann and Elizabeth and Her German Garden now and definitely want to read more of their books. I also own The Echoing Grove, because of the movie The Heart of Me — I wonder how many movies have been made from Virago books?

    1. Thanks Carolyn! Sorry about that!😉 I know hasn’t it been wonderful! You have some great books there – oh, you MUST read The Echoing Grove – it is truly magnificent. The film is excellent but the book is something else! That IS an interesting question…a competition question, hey?!

  7. This is a very difficult question! I don’t possess many Viragos but I believe I read quite a few while in high school without registering that they were Viragos. Now, of course, I’m always on the lookout for interesting green spines…

    Alice Thomas Ellis’ ‘Summerhouse Trilogy’, specifically ‘The Clothes in the Wardrobe’, were quite a revelation to my inexperienced eyes and her name has stayed in my mind ever since. I acquired the trilogy recently – in its repackaged modern Virago form – and hope to relive my high school days sometime soon. ‘The Hah-Ha’ by Jennifer Dawson was also devoured during my school days and it made quite an impact. Funny how some novels really grab you at a formative time and stay with you for life.
    I agree with ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ as a favourite… this was a good read and one that I only learned of thanks to the blogosphere.

    But my favourite will have to be a work of great merit, lyrical prose and thought-provoking content while at the same time catering to the demands of the imagination. I read this novel as part of my prescribed reading for my English Honours degree a few years ago and I felt its monumental impact and it resonated with so many of my own personal beliefs.

    My favourite Virago will have to be the legendary Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’. This novel simply blew me away at the time so I can only imagine the turbulence it caused in 1969 when it was first published. It is science fiction – but not just any science fiction – it’s feminist science fiction but it tries to tackle so much more than that – and it succeeds.

    This is a book that addressed the imbalance and duality in our society between men and women by presenting us with an alien race that was androgynous and only adopted sexual identities once a month to fulfil certain urges. The fun part was that you could be a male or a female several times a year and that you or your lover could take turns in being pregnant depending upon what organs you assumed during the monthly cycle.

    The hero of the story is an ambassador to this planet, called Winter, and he is very much a fixed male and so has to navigate his way in this genderless and warless world. It is a very clever book which not only addresses gender inequality but politics, religion, and even animal rights! The latter is not usually commented upon in critical essays but Le Guin painted a scene in the novel where people are transported in trucks in such a manner that had me in tears as it was a direct parallel to the way in which farm animals are transported on their way to be slaughtered.

    This is not a depressing book, but it is thought provoking and can be emotional but it contains so many layers. Like any good science fiction novel, it uses an alien time and landscape to successfully comment on the here and now. It is still relevant today and I was very happy that it came my way. I think this novel strongly epitomizes the Virago philosophy.

    1. Cristina, thank you for such a detailed and interesting comment! I had never heard of the Ursula Le Guin book before – it sounds absolutely fascinating and not something I would ordinarily pick up, but that I am now intrigued to read. Something that has had such a profound effect on you must certainly be worth checking out, so thank you for bringing it to my attention! I’m glad that Virago books have had such a formative role in your reading experience. I love how there is truly something for every stage of life in the Virago catalogue.

  8. All three of these look spectacular. One Fine Day and The Rector’s Daughter were already on my wishlist, thanks to your reviews of them I imagine, and I’m adding Illyrian Spring to the list forthwith!

    I’m afraid almost all of the Viragos I’ve read are of the household name variety–and I’m not sure I read any of those in their Virago editions. This doesn’t make then any less wonderful, but it doesn’t terribly exciting to name, say, Jane Eyre as my favorite, when there are so many others that Virago has really brought to the attention of the reading public. But Jane Eyre, Custom of the Country, and Rebecca are all among my all-time favorites.

    1. I am glad these three have made it to your wishlist, Teresa!

      I see what you’re saying – that’s why I haven’t chosen those books either and have picked more typically Virago titles. It’s hard to choose when so many wonderful Viragos are the household name type!

  9. Ooh, I’ve really been wanting to read One Fine Day and the Rector’s Daughter…thanks for reminding me! Never heard of Illyrian Spring before, but that sounds great too🙂

  10. Illyrian Spring is on hold and will hopefully be waiting for me at a library soon. Need to read it before I leave for Italy, mayhaps I’ll have a similar experience!

  11. Every time you write about Illyrian Spring I think I really must pick up my copy, and one day I really will.

    For me though this is the unanswerable question. It could by a Holby, a Wharton, a Taylor, a Von Arnim, a Cather … it really depends on my reading mood.
    Such a wonderful range of titles!

  12. Oo, Ilyrian Spring sounds wonderful.. and I have the horrible feeling I’ve left it behind in a bookshop recently. Tsk, Simon, tsk. Btw, have you read Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont? It’s about a similar cross-generation friendship, between old Mrs. Palfrey and a 20-something artist who she asks to pretend to be her grandson.

    1. Oh Simon! That is unacceptable! I think it would be just your sort of book so make sure you pick it up next time!

      Ha – yes I have – you have been safely ignored! I could have guessed that was your favourite!!

  13. I’ve only read six out of my ungainly Virago collection so I have a bit of an advantage over people who have been reading them for years, and even so I’m having problems choosing a favourite! They’ve all been wonderful books so I’m going to have to pick two. They are Rebecca West’s ‘The Return of the Soldier’ because of its pitch perfect writing which conveys such sharp emotions despite its shortness, and ‘South Riding’ by Winifred Holtby which I only finished this evening because of her amazing ability with characters.

    I haven’t read any of your favourites, so they’re going straight onto the list of books for which to keep my eyes peeled when I’m out and about.

    1. I’m terrible at actually READING my Viragos too – but the favourites you have picked are excellent choices and certainly amongst Virago’s best!

      You must keep your eyes peeled for these books – I promise they won’t disappoint!

  14. Drat! We overlap in favorites! I liked Illyrian Spring and adore I Capture the Castle and of course Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is a favorite, but what about something you haven’t read…that is the question is it not? Hmmm…have you read Hungry Hearts by Anzia Yezierska? It is a group of short stories about the Russian Jewish immigrant experience of moving to America and settling in New York City. First published in 1920, these are stories of strong, determined immigrant women facing fears and finding that their dreams clash with reality in a very harsh way. Hunger, hard work, and yearning for a better life are what the stories are all about and in all the disappointments, the protagonist still believes and never gives up on the hope of the dream.

    1. Ha! I am glad we have the same tastes! I haven’t heard of Hungry Hearts before, but it sounds fantastic and right up my street as I have become fascinated with books about immigrants in New York! I shall see if the library has it – thank you!

  15. Rachel, I’d never heard of “Illyrian Spring” and you have me totally hooked. Now I just have to FIND a copy — I’m going to nose hopefully around the stacks of a nearby unversity library. I’ve read Mollie P-D’s “Good Evening, Mrs. Craven” and loved it, so “One Fine Day” makes great sense.

    My favorite Virago of the moment — because I’m reading it perhaps, but I do love it madly — is Enid Bagnold’s “The Loved and Envied.” I know several of our fellow bloggers don’t care for it but I find it totally magical. In fact I loaned it to someone once in paperback and it came back as a hardcover first edition: how magical is that?

    1. Carol, let me tell you – you NEED this book. I hope you find it! One Fine Day is truly superb as well – I don’t see how you could be disappointed if you already love M P D’s writing style. I must get hold of those stories, actually.

      I loved The Loved and Envied as well – it’s a strange book in many ways, but I remember finding it brilliantly written and the characters so absorbing. That is magical! What a kind friend! If that ever happened to me I think I’d become more inclined to loan my books out – at the moment, my friends don’t dare ask because they know what the answer will be!

  16. I recently finished the entire set of E.M. Delafield’s DIARY OF A PROVINCIAL LADY books, published as an ominbus edition by Virago in 1984. I found the collection for $1 a few years ago at a library book sale–and can’t believe I waited all this time to start (and, rapidly, finish) them. At the moment, these books are my favorite Viragos.

    BTW, the spine of this edition is neither black nor green, but blue.

    1. Fantastic! I love those books with an absolute passion. I can see why they’d be your favourites. How interesting about the blue spine -though some of mine are blue, and that’s because they’ve faded so badly!

  17. I have never had access to a Virago book and salivate over your descriptions of the various reads. I would love to read The Rector’s Daughter first of all from the entire lot!! I doubt I will ever get any of them unless a second hand shop has one of these gems but that too is very very unlikely. So just keep the reviews and posts rolling in.

    1. Oh Mystica! I am so sorry that you don’t have access to Viragos. Let me see if I can hunt you some down and send them over…now I’m in the US I don’t find it as easy to track them down but I will do my best for you!

  18. I must, must read The Rectors Daughter as you said you loved it, and have now again, and Susan Hill recommended it as a forgotten classic and raved about it else where and it sounded right up my street.

    I don’t think I have a favourite Virago Modern Classic yet, but that gives me something to work towards.

    1. Yes, Simon you must. I think you would really enjoy it. It’s a quiet one but it packs a real punch.

      It does indeed! You need to read more green spines! Hope you are doing ok and are on the mend.

  19. The Rector’s Daughter has been lying on my bookshelf for over two years and I have not read it still !! Now I am properly ashamed of myself.
    I am bookmarking this blog so that I eventually get to these books some day. Sometimes its simply exhausting to think of all the world of literature out there that one has not read!

    1. Oh, Vipula! That cannot continue! You MUST read it, as soon as you possibly can. I know – it really is. That’s why I feel bad whenever I re-read something, but I have accepted I’ll never read all the great books in the world, and I am fine with it!

  20. It’s hard to pick a favourite but it’s worth highlighting Antonia White’s “Frost in May” (and the first VMC) which I first read after watching the BBC’s admirable dramatisation in the early 8o’s. This is Nanda Grey’s story of life in a catholic boarding school, far removed from those stories of Malory Towers and St Clare’s I devoured as a youngster.

    1. Yes, Frost in May is an excellent book, and a wonderful starting point for anyone new to Virago. I loved it and I wish I had finished reading the quartet of books – I stopped half way through.

  21. Now I want to read Illyrian Spring even more! The combination of the gorgeous setting and the painting and especially the living outside the box sounds very enticing. That it is hard to come by just adds to it.. All your favourites sound wonderful. I haven’t read enough to add my favourite but am going to do something about that!

    1. I hope that you manage to find a copy and read it soon, Tracey! I just adore it and I wish it was in print so that everyone else could enjoy it too!

      I hope Virago Reading Week has given you plenty of titles to add to your list of books to read – by next year you’ll be an expert!

  22. As Simon has already mentioned the Provincial Lady, I’ll suggest Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner. This has everything a lover of middlebrow English between-the-wars fiction could ask for. A spinster moves away from her insensitive family to live in the country & becomes a witch. She joins a local coven after the Devil comes to her in the shape of a cat. So it’s perfect for cat lovers too! And her name is Laura, which I think is the quintessential Virago heroine’s name. Actually, I think I need to read it again…

    1. Oooh Lyn this sounds very interesting indeed! I’ve heard of Lolly Willowes but I had no idea what it was about – I will definitely pick this up now! It sounds wonderful! Yes – there certainly seems to be something about the mid century period and women named Laura, doesn’t there?!

  23. One of my favourite books EVER is The Echoing Grove so it follows that it’s my Virago title of choice. Rosamond Lehmann at the height of her power.
    Neither of the sisters is easy to love but each is treated symapathetically. I so wanted Dinah to have Rickie for keeps although I know it was wrong. And though Madeleine was so edgy and bitter my heart broke for her in her last scene with Rickie.
    The scenes with children are marvellous. There is such sadness in the whole book that it quite frightens me with its intensity.
    The only wrong note for me was the introduction of Georgie the American – a device, I think, to help the reader understand a few details of the past. I was jealous of her!
    I’m quite stumbling over myself to try to convey how much I adore this book. I read it regularly, leaving it just long enough to have forgotten little details but knowing I’m in for the most brilliant read.

    1. `Thank you for such a lovely and persuasive post, Chrissy! This was the first Lehmann I ever read and I fell in love on the spot. I’d never read anything quite like it before and its intensity and passion blew me away. I love the film too – I presume you’ve seen it? Such fantastic and memorable characters do translate well to the screen.

  24. My favourite Viragos is a novel not conventionally thought of as a Virago but on the VMC list nonetheless. It was the very first Virago I read at the ripe old age of thirteen in a non-Virago edition (potentially before it featured on the list? It was never published in green in the late Eighties and has that distinctive and unique
    green apple logo…) I read it even before my other favourite, Pride and Prejudice, and more
    than a decade before I discovered Angela Carter
    and Margaret Atwood and the more
    conventionally-considered Virago authors.

    My favourite Virago is unequivocally Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. Elevated above that of a
    mere potboiler by its rich, descriptive language,
    Rebecca haunts and lingers as much as a novel
    as she does the memory of a dead woman. The
    famous absent anti-heroine; the well-known
    nameless heroine; the evocative setting
    of the wonderful Manderley; the themes of obsession and of deceptive appearances, of the cancerous nature of some people; the
    insecurities of the second Mrs de Winter; the insidious relationship between Mrs Danvers and Rebecca… all are reasons I love Rebecca and why it will always remain the Virago intrinsically my favourite.

    1. Oooh Claire, what a beautiful description of Rebecca! You’ve made me want to read it all over again! Such an amazing book, and haunting, evocative and so wonderfully dark. I love what you’ve written about it – that would be enough to convince anyone I should think!

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