Saturday 24 March 2018

Taking Hart from the girls on top

As a writer and Irishwoman, the late Josephine Hart, who died this summer, was an inspiration. She died of cancer in June, at which stage her first and second novels, Damage and Sin, had been selected for reissue by Virago Modern Classics (VMC).

VMC is an arm of the women-only publishing house, Virago, and was set up in 1978 as a way of reviving forgotten or overlooked classics by women writers.

Before I knew what Virago Modern Classics was, I knew the logo -- a red apple with a bite taken out of it, a wry reference to Eve in the Garden of Eden -- ensured a good read. This, and the double-f's of Faber&Faber, were the gems for what my teenage, magpie eye scanned for along endless second-hand bookshelves.

Hart didn't live to see her books reissued earlier this week in their new jackets, but she wrote to the publisher, Lennie Goodings, earlier this year, telling her: "I know I have said this before but my inclusion in Virago Classics list is truly the greatest honour of my writing life."

I met Hart just once, two years ago, on the publicity tour for her last book, The Truth About Love. It was her first book about Ireland and the first also to openly include some details of her early life in Mullingar.

Three of her four siblings died before she was 18 of illness and, tragically, one brother died as a result of a chemical explosion. This, she told, me "has been the story of my life".

In many ways, The Truth About Love was no different from her other books in that it looked at love and how dangerous it can be, the pain it can inflict. What she was interested in, was "the point at which you lose the moral compass -- erotic obsession, envy, grief, memory. . ." Every writer has a landscape and this was hers.

Looking back now, it's likely Hart knew she was dying when we met; perhaps she even knew when she wrote The Truth About Love -- it would explain why she would change the conviction of a lifetime and include some personal details within her work, especially as she thought the publicising of one's every personal detail, a result of modern fame, was "toxic".

She said on the subject: "I think we're beginning to believe that if our lives are not witnessed in a public way that we are not actually living."

In many ways, Hart represented just what VMC strives for -- a love of literature and an absolute belief in its power and importance. Now, 33 years on, the VMC list includes over 500 titles, not only great works of literature but also exemplary pieces of genre fiction.

Women-only ventures are often sneered at, thought to be exclusive or counter-productive to the feminist movement, but the raison d'etre of VMC cannot be opposed.

Through publishing long-out-of-print books, many of which were critically lauded and even bestsellers at the time of their publication, it highlights women's place in the greater tradition of literature over the centuries, a history dominated by male writers.

VMC also has a kind of non-judgemental communal love of women writers, both high- and low-brow. It doesn't differentiate between a rollicking good read and a serious piece of literary fiction, knowing that, most likely, both will say something about the period they were written in.

VMC simply embraces excellent writers of all varieties and so Jilly Cooper can be found writing the introduction to The Diary Of A Provincial Lady by EM Delafield.

On the joy of discovering that book, Cooper writes, "I finished the book in one sitting, leaving the children unbathed, the dogs unwalked, a husband unfed, and giving alternate cries of joy and recognition throughout. How was it that anyone living a comparatively sheltered, upper-class life of 40 years ago could think and behave so exactly like me?"

And isn't that the real joy of discovering a lost classic? Losing yourself in a brilliantly told story but also finding yourself in it too.

Damage and Sin are published by Virago Modern classics, £7.99

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