12 January 2021

A Bite of the Apple by Lennie Goodings

I have Claire, at The Captive Reader, to thank for bringing this memoir to my attention.  Her Library Loot posts are just the thing for highlighting new titles or getting me to take a closer look at others.  As luck would have it my library had A Bite of the Apple on the shelves, just waiting.  What was supposed to be a quick skim of the first few pages turned into a two hour reading session.

Soho, London, early evening, late 1970s, and the sounds of Friday night revelries rise up to our window on the fourth floor in Wardour Street where I'm still working my way through piles of paperwork in the Virago office.  I am not alone. We do everything ourselves in this company--including the dusting and vacuuming of our one largish room and small kitchen/bathroom--and it is Callil's turn to clean.

Lennie Goodings traded Canada for London shortly after university.  Drawn to the world of books she worked incredibly hard in a field that has struggled through takeover bids, market slumps, recession, and the digital age.  There's something about paper, ink, and the written word that drives people in many ways.  The women behind the success of Virago were, and still are, the very definition of tenacious.

Broken into four sections:  A New Kind of Being, The Books, The Politics: Office and Otherwise and The Power to Publish is a Wonderful Thing. each section has subsections relating to aspects of the business, the staff and their relationship with various authors.  As the publishers of novels by women, standing their ground when it came to equality and turning the gaze of booksellers was part of their agenda.  Goodings mentions browsing in a high street bookshop and seeing a table featuring Great American Novels.  Not one had been written by a woman.  Another moment that gave me pause for thought is how often we hear the term 'female author' while the description of  'male author' is practically unheard of.  

Shoving politics aside for a moment,  I enjoyed the personal tidbits about authors such as Rosamund Lehmann, Elizabeth Taylor and Sarah Waters.  One morning, Goodings was collected from her small flat in Stoke Newington in a car carrying Lehmann for an interview in Manchester.  Scanning the neighbourhood Lehmann asked 'Is this bohemia?'   The image of spending time with Rosamund Lehmann in social settings AND collecting a wage are 'pinch me' moments, and Goodings had plenty of them.

To my shame, as a Canadian, I have yet to read a single book by Margaret Atwood.  Yes, I know she has goddess status but her writing missed the mark with me in high school.  Regretfully, I never looked back.  Goodings writes with such affection for Atwood, not only as an author but as the clever and funny woman she is.  Apparently Atwood reads palms.  At one point Goodings writes about a takeover and some issues, large and small, behind the scenes.  She quotes a saying Atwood has....'In my experience, the smaller the cheese the fiercer the mice.'   

The women who managed Virago through its many changes, from those in the office to its authors, are incredibly inspiring.  And while it would be easy to slide into reams of self-praise, Goodings is unflinching in her admission of the times when the team at Virago got it wrong.  But having said that, something they have been keenly aware of is the importance of publishing books by women of colour and people from the LGBTQ community.  For decades, Virago has received letters and emails from people writing to say that a certain book has changed their life. 

It would be fair to say that Virago played a large part in my life when their fetching edition of The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield (with the Cath Kidston cover) caught my eye several years ago.  I spent ages trying to find something that fit between Jean Plaidy and Jane Green and found a world of books hiding in plain sight.  I owe the women behind Virago, as well as Persephone Books, an immense amount of gratitude.

The only downside of borrowing this book from the library is being a few days late in returning it and someone is next in line.  I'm tempted to leave a grovelling note inside.  An excellent and informative read that will keep you from doing other things in your day.  Highly recommended and thoroughly enjoyed....thanks, Claire!

Lennie Goodings

8 comments:

  1. So happy to have led you to this! I loved the anecdotes she shared about authors (I especially loved the informality of the early days) and SO appreciated how she contrasted Canadian publishing with British publishing at the time she started, which is not something many others could do!

    In the end, I enjoyed this but I also felt it was very careful. I would have loved it to be more personal, with stories about the authors and herself, so the dry details around the business changes fell a bit flat (especially knowing the intense personalities involved). The passages about certain current politically correct items also felt a bit stilted. I'm sure they're honestly meant but they felt like very conscious disclaimers.

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    1. Thanks again, Claire! I was so enjoying the lack of pretension because so many things in the media these days are overblown. It was refreshing to read about desks pushed together, bubbly cooled in a bathtub, and books stored in the attic. As for being careful....oh yes.

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  2. Speaking of thank yous, thank you for inspiring me to check my library again - they have it! They didn't before, so I am now happily awaiting my turn.

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    1. You're welcome, Audrey! Always a nice surprise when a book that catches your eye is just a click away at the library, isn't it. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did....I think you will.

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  3. I loved this and am glad you found it. I did find it a little careful as well, but writing when so many strong personalities are still around was bound to be difficult and I appreciated it for what it was, too.

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    1. Are there any other books out there I should know about?! How I almost missed this is anyone's guess because it's not as though I've been busy planning trips or anything else remotely focused. In any case, it was a nice surprise!

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  4. I loved this book - such an insight. And, gosh, it all sounded rather exhausting.

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    1. Hi Simon! Oh yes, I admired Goodings passion but her focus and energy made me feel completely inadequate by the second chapter! Hopefully she writes a follow-up because I enjoyed her writing so much.

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