All Virago All August

I visited this thread in the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics Group, and I was inspired.

I can’t quite do All Virago All August, because I have other reading commitments, because I can’t stay out of the library for a whole month, and because I just don’t like feeling that I can’t pick up and read whatever book appeals.

But there will be a good number of Viragos in the mix, and they will be books that aren’t read or written about as much as others.

I’ve pulled out six possibles, most of which are out of print but all of which are “gettable” at a reasonable price:

The Wild Geese by Bridget Boland

“In eighteenth-century Ireland, Catholics are forced to practice their religion in secret, they cannot buy or improve their land, nor enter any profession or trade.  In this climate a lively underground traffic develops between Ireland and Europe–young boys are smuggled to Catholic schools abroad and many eventually join the armies of foreign princes.  If they return to their native land, these “Wild Geese” are in danger of their lives.

Through the story of the Kinross family and their letters to one another, we learn of these desperate times: of Brendan’s struggle to maintain the Kinross estate; of the dangers Maurice faces as an outlaw in his own country, and of their sister Catherine and her love for Roderick O’Byrne, a soldier recruiting for Irish regiments in France.”

This one has been waiting on my bedside table for a while now. I know little about 18th century Ireland, and learning a little by way of a family saga told through letters is very appealing.

Bid Me to Live by Hilda Doolittle

“It is 1917 and Julia Ashton lives in a shuttered room in Queen’s Square, Bloomsbury. A young wife, no longer happy, she mourns the loss of her baby, and lives that war-time lie of love and death as her poet husband, Rafe, comes and goes from the trenches of the first world war. In this “Other Bloomsbury,” a world of part make-believe, where the actors play at life and sex, Julia refuses to come to terms with her husband’s infidelity, her failing marriage, and her private world of pain. Then into her trance-like state breaks Frederick, the writer with the flaming beard and the driving volcanic genius. Only when she flees the fog and fever of London to seek a new calm in the wild countryside of Cornwall, can Julia face the truth about herself, her marriage, and her future with the forceful Frederick …”

I pulled this one out a couple of weeks ago, when Hilda Doolittle was the answer to a clue in my fiance’s crossword that he just couldn’t get it. He thought I had made up a name to fit the letters he had, and so I pulled this book off the shelf to prove my point. When I noticed that it was autobiographical, that part of the story was set in Cornwall, and that the real life writer with the flaming beard lived for a time just a few miles from my home, I realised that I should read it sooner rather than later.

Susan Spray by Sheila Kaye-Smith

“Born in 1834, Susan is the eldest daughter of a poor Sussex field labourer, Adam Spray, and his wife Ruth.  Her large family belongs to the Colgate Brethren, an obscure religious sect which takes Susan to its bosom the day she declares, at the age of six, that she’s seen the Lord.  But the Spray children are soon orphaned; thrown helpless upon the world Susan and her younger sister, Tamara, find themselves working on a Sussex farm.  Tamara spends her time in dalliance with young men, while for Susan, destined to become a preacher, the Ten Commandments, the Burning Bush and Ezekiel’s temple are her daily–and nightly–fare.  Yet Susan can sin and fall in love like any mortal; and when she does it is as glorious as a vision of God and his cherubim, and as consuming as the fires of hell.”

I loved Joanna Godden last year, and I have been meaning to read more of Sheila Kaye-Smith’s work ever since. I do like a little rural melodrama!

I’m Not Complaining by Ruth Adam

“Madge Brigson is a teacher in a Nottinghamshire elementary school in England in the 1930s.  Here, with her colleagues – the beautiful, “promiscuous” Jenny, the ardent communist Freda, and the kind, spinsterish Miss Jones – she battles with the trials and tribulations of their special world: abusive parents, eternal malnutrition, inspectors’ visits, staff quarrels and love affairs.  To all this Madge presents an uncompromisingly intelligent and commonsensical face: laughter is never far away as she copes with her pupils, the harsh circumstances of life in the Depression, and her own love affair.  For Madge is a true heroine: determined, perceptive, warm-hearted; she deals with life, and love, unflinchingly, and gets the most out of the best – and worst – of it.”

It occured to me that Madge Brigson and Sarah Burton, who I love, must have been teaching at the time. That made me very curious …

Painted Clay by Capel Boake

“Helen Somerset feels stifled by her loveless home with a repressive father who fears that, like her absent mother, she may be only “painted clay.”  She wants to know life beyond the confines of Packington, a Melbourne suburb overlooking Port Phillip Bay.  And when she is sixteen her father dies, releasing Helen to seek the affection and independence she has been denied.  With a clerical job and a room in a lodging house Helen launches herself into the excitement of Bohemian life and free love–only to discover that this liberation has a double edge.”

I’m planning on reading Conditions of Faith by Alex Miller for Paris in July, and this might be a good companion piece. And even if it isn’t the period, the place, and the story are all calling.

Never No More by Maura Laverty

“On the edge of the Bog of Allen with its hedges of foaming May blossom and twisted mountain ash lies the little lost village of Ballyderrig. It is 4th October 1920 and thirteen-year-old Delia looks forward to a new life. Her father dead, her mother, brothers and sisters prepare to move to the town of Kilkenny. But Delia stays behind, going to live with her beloved Grandmother in an old farmhouse outside the village. And thus begin the happiest years of this young girl’s life: years filled with the beauty of the Irish countryside, the taste of Gran’s baked hare, the texture of young mushrooms picked at dawn, the rituals of the turf-cutting season, and much much more. As the seasons come and go we watch Delia grow up until, one cold November day, now seventeen, she stands poised for independence – and Spain. “

I picked it up, I read the opening pages and I was captivated. it’s as simple as that!


It would be lovely to know if you’ve read any of these, and what you thought.

Or if you are particulary curious about any of them – or indeed about any of the titles on this very useful master list of Virago Modern Classics …

10 responses

  1. Never No More was lovely. I think there might have been a sequel, but I don’t think I ever got a chance to read it.

  2. I’m so very excited about this upcoming month. I’ve never read a Virago book but I have a feeling that your reviews will be adding to my purchases!!

  3. The Ruth Adam sounded appealing when I spied it in a second-hand shop this past winter. It’s on my shelf but unread so I’m no help at all. Hope you read it and write a review!

  4. I have the Maura Laverty book on my TBR pile too, and I agree it looks lovely. The Wild Geese also sounds rather interesting. I have a modern historical novel of the same name on the subject, although I can’t remember who wrote it. Maybe I’ll dig that one out soon…

  5. I might give this a go, I certainly have enough unread to have a good shot and if I can catch up with the few things I want to read soon by the end of the month – well it’s an attractive challange

  6. I’ve read a half-dozen or so Viragos. Some I’ve loved (Mary Webb, Elizabeth Von Arnim) but some have been only meh. I’m not familiar with the ones you listed but I will try to seek them out. 🙂

  7. I’m a bit late to this party…I have read all of those, so there should be my thoughts on my VVV blog somewhere! The only one for me that I really would not recommend is Bid me to live – it sounded so interesting from the synopsis but I just couldn’t get into it. I’m not complaining is fantastic – undermentioned and very good.

    I would join in this challenge, if Iwasn’t going to be away getting married with a stack of books I’ve been saving all yet!

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