Born: July 15, 1938;

Died: October 17, 2022.

CARMEN Callil, who has died of leukemia aged 84, was for the last several decades of the twentieth century the doyenne of British publishing.

With the founding of Virago Press in 1973 she dragged the normally conservative world of books into the modern era, offering a platform to countless female writers who had hitherto been neglected or underrated. The company – run by women for women – set out to resurrect the historical canon of women’s writing. As one – male – commentator noted, “Virago was World’s Classics with a feminist twist ‑ and was so successful that the orthodox publishing industry decided to buy it.”

As with so many good ideas Callil’s eureka moment came in a pub. At the time she was working as a book publicist. One of her clients was Spare Rib, the prototype feminist magazine. In conversation with its founders Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe, Callil proposed a new company, initially called Spare Rib Books, which soon evolved into Virago.

“My inspiration was always literary,” she recalled. “It was books and writers and writing that I loved. I always believed that books change lives, that writers change lives, and I still believe it. I also believed – still do – that injustice corrupts those who are responsible for it, and I wanted change for our brothers, husbands, uncles, fathers, too.”

In the beginning, however, Virago struggled not only to make a mark but to survive. In its earliest incarnation it was largely financed from Callil’s income as a publicist and operated from her flat off the King’s Road. The first nine books (the first of which was Fenswomen, by Mary Chamberlain) were published in association with Naim Attallah’s Quartet Books, but this gave Callil and her new partners, Ursula Owen and Harriet Spicer, too little freedom and in 1976 she managed to refinance the company.

This was the spur that Callil needed to revisit her original plan and she now proposed a reprint library of modern classics all by women. The first five titles were published in 1978. She always maintained that her belated reading of Antonia White’s Frost in May was formative. Set in a convent, the novel seemed to Callil, who had been educated by nuns, to speak directly to her.

The years that followed were hectic as Virago’s list burgeoned. Within four years, it comprised more than a hundred titles, many of them suggested by well-meaning writers and well-informed readers. “In those days,” she said, “I was an insomniac, but I also curtailed my high life: 10pm and I was off to the stack of novels, usually borrowed from the London Library, which lay in piles around my bed. My company was an army of remarkably-named women ‑ E. Arnot Robertson, F. Tennyson Jesse, Elizabeth von Arnim, E.M. Delafield ‑ and enchanting titles: I’m Not Complaining (Ruth Adams), Tea at Four O’Clock (Janet McNeill), The Brontës Went to Woolworths (Ruth Adams).... Those days spent in the London Library were some of the happiest in my life.”

Callil – vivacious, argumentative, fiery, charismatic, inspirational – often drove her over-worked, under-paid staff to distraction but her friends were legion and her charm was gold-plated. She used the word ‘darling’ as others do ‘the’. Though she never married, she had affairs with a number of men, including the publisher Paul Hamlyn and the biographer Michael Holroyd. Above all, however, she loved books and running a business which published books and authors she wanted to read. What the literary landscape would be like without Virago is grim to contemplate. Among the authors it championed are Pat Barker, Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter and Maya Angelou. The revival of Elizabeth Taylor’s reputation gave Callil particular satisfaction.

Not everyone admired what she was doing. “Puritan” feminists, as she called them, felt she ought not to be profiting from their cause. This did not unduly bother Callil, who seemed to revel in confrontation and controversy, as she did when, as Chair of the Booker Prize in 1996, she made sure her preferred candidate (Graham Swift’s Last Orders) won.

In 1982, Virago was taken over by Jonathan Cape and she added two of its imprints, Chatto & Windus and the Bodley Head, to her portfolio. One of Chatto’s authors was Howard Jacobson, then at the foothill of his career. Callil, he wrote recently, “hated” his debut novel Coming From Behind which was already in production when she took up her post. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do about you Mr Jacobson,” she told him. “If you ran naked down Bond Street I couldn’t sell this book.”

Carmen Thérèse Callil was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1938. She was named Carmen after the opera while Callil is an anglicised version of her father’s Lebanese surname. Her grandfather claimed to be the first person from Lebanon to emigrate to Australia. When she was eight, her father, a barrister who lectured in French at the University of Melbourne, died from Hodgkin’s Disease, leaving her mother to bring up Carmen, her sister and two brothers. She was sent to a boarding school run by “semi-enclosed” nuns – they didn’t speak from dawn to dusk –which she loathed for its joylessness and repression. She was “disgorged” at 16.

Both Callil’s parents were avid readers and book collectors. She read English at university and immediately after graduating set sail for Britain, part of the antipodean cultural diaspora which included Clive James, Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer. She “bummed around” Europe for a few years before settling in London where at one point she felt so low she attempted to take her own life.

In 1964, she put an advert in the Times – “Australian BA, typing, wants job in publishing” – and got three offers. It was the first rung of a ladder that led to Virago and a place at the top of a profession in which gentlemen formerly reigned supreme. A republican who admired the late Queen, she was made a Dame in 2017. Asked which book she would take with her to a desert island she chose Maurice Guest, by Henry Handel Richardson – a woman – which, she admitted, had been published by Virago but was now out of print because very few people liked it as much as she did.