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

I’ve talked many times on the Ramblings of my love for Virago books, in particular the Virago Modern Classics range; in fact, my joining the LibraryThing Virago Moden Classics group was something of a catalyst in the starting of my blog. I don’t go back to them as often as I used to, but the Virago books are a major part of the history of my reading life, and were inspirational when I was a teenager and younger reader. So when I saw that Lennie Goodings had written a book on her life in pubishing, I was very excited and keen to read it!

Goodings has been part of the Virago team since the early days in a variety of roles and is currently the imprint’s Chair. She’s well-placed, therefore, to tell the story, and indeed she does in “A Bite of the Apple”. However, the book is much, much more, taking in publishing in general, changing waves of feminism, inclusion and intersectionality, as well as some marvellous snapshots and vignettes of the many wonderful authors with whom she’s been connected.

Lennie was born in Canada, coming to the UK in her early twenties and settling in London, where she looked to getting into the publishing trade. Fortunately for us, she stumbled across the fledgling Virago and joined the team in its early days. The book opens with her letter to Carmen Callil in May 1978, expressing interesting in Virago and asking if there is a place for her with them. She was welcomed into the fold and the book follows her life and work with the company, making her way through all manner of roles with Virago to where she is nowadays. That in itself is quite a journey – the sections on editing are particularly fascinating – but through her involvement with Virago she’s witnessed the changes in women’s lives and also in feminism which took place over the 40-odd years since she started with them.

And there *have* been any number of changes! To the company, for one thing, which has weathered take-overs, buy-outs, management disputes, high and low points with sales, as well as the sniping from media and other publishers about being either a female ghetto, irrelevant or too business-like. Truly, if you’re a woman you can’t win…

One of the things I loved about the VMCs was their mission to bring forgotten women authors back into circulation and to adjust the way they’re perceived. That challenge to the canon is a battle which still goes on, and Goodings discusses this in detail; the way a woman writer is read and perceived is still different to attitudes towards a male author and much needs to change. There is also much consideration of the problems occuring from the different interpretations of feminism; the concept of post-feminism; what we mean when we use the term; and the wrong turns which were taken by the movement along the way. It’s clear from Goodings’ examples that we are far from any kind of Utopia; and certainly recent world changes have made it very clear that it’s the men who are still holding onto the power and are trying to restrict women’s lives again. Feminism is obviously going to remain a relevant movement with an ongoing battle to hold onto any rights we’ve gained.

Every woman who becomes a feminist has woken up to an understanding of injustice, to the corroding effect of patriarchy. I grew up with petty and belittling remarks and expectations; I witnessed and was angered by unfairness for girls and women; and when I was at university I began to understand how we women have learned to be our own censors, voyeurs of ourselves, checking and modifying ourselves for correct looks, behaviour, and even dreams and ambitions.

Because the book begins in 1978, Goodings’ story runs through similar times to mine, and she captures wonderfully the era as I remember it; the small presses and magazines springing up; the consciousness-raising meetings; Spare Rib; the Silver Moon bookshop; and the sense of being on a mission, part of a cause, fighting for the good of women. In many ways, feminism was so much simpler in those days, as the wrongs were so much clearer; nowadays, young women have to negotiate so much more, with the judgements of social media, body shaming, public pressure, the argument that being liberated means you have to shag any man going etc etc. I’m frankly not sure I would like to be back in my teens today…

A few of my Viragos….

“A Bite of the Apple” was an outstanding read for so many reasons. The range of topics covered by Goodings was fascinating, and she had at times a wonderfully discursive manner of telling her story; the result was a little like reading an entertaining patchwork quilt of a book which ranged far and wide over politics, women’s lives, literature, publishing, feminism, the daily battles we face and the triumphs of Virago. Her tone is always engaging and the book is a little like having a chat with an old friend! Lennie never shies away from difficult topics, and there have been plenty of dramatic fallings out during the years; clashes of personality amongst the team; realisations that feminism (and Virago) were not doing enough to ensure diversity in race or class or physical restrictions. She’s honest about these issues and accepts failings where they existed; she thinks we’re more aware nowadays of the need to include all which can’t be a bad thing.

One of my favourite elements of “A Bite…” was Goodings’ recollections of her relationships with her authors; Margaret Atwood, a fellow Canadian, makes regular appearances in the book, and is an often mischievous delight. The much-missed Angela Carter is championed; and Maya Angelou was obviously a complete treasure. Seeing these inspirational women through Lennie’s eyes was a real privilege.

As you can probably tell, I absolutely loved “A Bite of the Apple” (and it makes the perfect companion piece to the Virago documentary which recently repeated on BBC4 and should hopefully still be on the iPlayer). Goodings is a candid and entertaining commentator, brilliantly conjuring up the era she lived through and celebrating the women she’s worked with over the years; whether author or colleague, they’re all inspirational and proof that women working together can achieve so much. It’s a marvellous look at a fascinating slice of history and I can’t recommend it highly enough!

(Review copy kindly provided by Oxford University Press, for which many thanks!)