Most Obscure on my Shelves – the Viragos

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while others are truly obscure choices bought half a lifetime ago at book sales. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I will spare you my professional books (anthropology, social sciences, business etc.), although I might mention the odd ‘professional’ one which has had a significant impact on me.

I’ll start from the right hand side of my bookshelves to the left, in true Japanese writing fashion. It so happens that all of them are Viragos today.

Gillian Slovo: Every Secret Thing

This is a memoir of Gillian’s remarkable and famous parents, Joe Slovo and Ruth First, South Africa’s pioneering anti-apartheid white activists. It is a wonderful historical picture of a country in turmoil, but also an intimate family portrait, warts and all. What does it feel like to come second to political commitments? What does it feel like to live with two wonderful, difficult, complicated people? As the author says in the introduction: ‘It was written in the heat of my passion to try and work out what my parents meant to me, and what they meant to the country to which they devoted their lives.’

I have a special additional fondness for Gillian, since she was (together with Sarah Dunant) my tutor for a brief but life-changing Faber writing course. So it’s a signed copy and very precious.

Nell Dunn: Up the Junction

When people bemoan the lack of working class voices in fiction, I usually point them in the direction of the Angry Young Men, but it’s true that there have been fewer of those in recent decades. And where were the Angry Young Women? Well, Nell Dunn qualifies as one of them. Although she originally came from a privileged background, she lived in Battersea and South London and came to know at first hand the young girls whose voices she so accurately captures in this collection of short stories, published in 1963. The grimy, less reported side of the Swinging Sixties, the stories feel like eavesdropping on conversations – they’re in equal parts comic and shocking, gritty and resilient. The film based on the book sanitised some of the darker aspects.

I read this book ages ago, borrowing it from the British Council library in Bucharest in my teens. I’ve never found it since, but then came across this battered copy at a charity shop in Manchester a couple of years ago.

Angela Carter (ed.): Wayward Girls and Wicked Women

The third Virago book is this anthology of stories of what one might call today ‘Nasty Women’, extolling those unfeminine virtues of discontent, impatience, sexual disruption and bad manners. These subversive stories by Leonora Carrington, Katherine Mansfield, Colette, Bessie Head, Luo Shuo, Jamaica Kincaid and others are all about being ‘not nice’. We find witches and prostitutes and fraudsters. Some of the stories are dark, some are funny, some are both and might make you squirm. It was one of the first books I bought when I came to London to study for my Ph. D. (about charismatic women in new religions, incidentally). But I’ll leave you with a quote from Angela Carter herself:

And all these disparate women have something else in common – a certain sense of self-esteem, however tattered. They know they are worth more than that which fate has allotted them. They are prepared to plot and scheme; to snatch; to battle; to burrow away from within, in order to get their hands on that little bit extra, be it of love, or money, or vengeance, or pleasure, or respect.

I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

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28 thoughts on “Most Obscure on my Shelves – the Viragos”

  1. I have a French pop up book that I had since I was a child .. it’s even older than I am.. it a story about a carousel and its very pretty .. i think it’s because of this book that I began a love affair with all things French x

  2. As I have still most of the books I’ve ever owned. There are some, you may call them ‘Y’ not ‘YA’. My incomplete Karl May collection is still there thingys like ‘Das bunte Buch der Schwänke’ Just very odd stuff

    1. Goodness, how I loved Karl May – we were forever playing Winnetou and Old Shatterhand at school! Thanks for reminding me of something nice today!

  3. All of these books sound great. I had not heard of Gillian Slovo’s book, but saw the movie, “A World Apart,” based on Shawn Slovo’s book about her parents, mostly, Ruth First, her mother, who was killed by apartheid South African mercenaries.
    I have so many books that I’ve held onto from Winnie the Pooh to books by Marge Piercy, Alice Walker’s short story book “You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down,” and books by Toni Morrison.

    1. And thank you for telling me about the movie, as I hadn’t heard of it.
      Winnie the Pooj was one of my childhood favourites, and yes, quite a jump from that to Alice Walker and Toni Morrison!

  4. I have a copy of Up the Junction somewhere – if only I could see all my tbr . The Angela Carter book I have certainly heard of but that Gillian Slovo is a new one to me – sounds rather interesting though.

  5. I love it that you have those more obscure books, Marina Sofia! It’s like a treasure hunt when you find them on your shelves or in boxes, isn’t it? I love the sound of the Slovo, by the way.

    1. I’d almost forgotten about some of those books, after they’d been hidden away for a few years. It is lovely to find them and fall in love with them all over again!

  6. Nell Dunn is one of those authors I’ve been aware of ages but have never tried. She sounds well worth checking out, especially as my tastes have been veering towards modern classics lately.

    1. She’s very much of that ‘kitchen sink’ school of the 1960s/70s, which was such a shock to the system at the time, compared to the more genteel post-war fiction written by women. I don’t know why it seems to have gone all Hampstead moneyed middle class since then…

  7. Oh dear this post is really dating me. I have or have read all three of those books and it hadn’t occurred to me that they were obscure, or odd.
    First, Up The Junction really annoyed me at the time, a posh person slumming it and ripping off those she was ostentatiously celebrating slumming with. Contributing nothing but a certain amount of sensationalism. Would I feel the same way today, I’m unsure but I do still feel that annoyance even anger.
    The Gillian Slovo I had and passed on to a friend, I still have her mother’s memoir of being incarcerated by the South African apartheid regime. 117 Days by Ruth First. I still have several of Gillian Slovo’s novels. I’ve so much respect for her and her family’s integrity.
    The anthology is full of women writers I mostly borrowed from the local library in younger less well off days. Bessie Head apart from being an excellent writer also began a publishing company I think, specialising in African women writers. She also often wrote for the Guardian

  8. What a nice idea! I’m very intrigued by the Slovo, who is a writer I’ve so often heard of without knowing the first thing about her (so thank you for the information!). I think I’d really enjoy that memoir. And hooray for Angela Carter and her nasty women. Heh. Whatever Carter touches turns to gold.

  9. One I think deserves more attention is the L Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks which comes from 1960. It’s about a young unmarried woman, forced to leave her parent’s home when she becomes pregnant. She moves into a London unmarried London boarding house -the novel charts her pregnancy and the other occupants of the house

  10. Between Winnie the Pooh and Toni Morrison there were a lot of books read. And in addition to reading Alice Walker’s and Morrison’s books, there were many books published as a result of the women’s movement, including Marge Piercy’s works. Also, Margaret Atwood.
    But there was also crime fiction. Kinsey Millhone, created by Sue Grafton; Sharon McCone, written about by Marcia Muller and, my favorite detective appeared — V.I. Warshawski, in tales told by Sara Paretsky, who is a terrific person and advocate of First Amendment rights over here and a lot more.

  11. My alter ego is V.I. Warshawski. Wish I could be like her in so many ways. And she lives in my childhood city: Chicago.

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