A Literary Collection: Green Virago Modern Classics and their Paintings

Because if I had the houseroom I’d love to display my collection, with the covers facing outwards, on the walls ….

This came before the better known film tie-in edition.

Promenade on the Banks of the Amstell by Kasper Niehaus

'Promenade on the Banks of the Amstell' by Kasper Niehaus

“A discreet advertisement in The Times, address to “those who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine …”, is the prelude to a revolutionary month for four very different women. High above a bay on the Italian Riviera stands San Salvatore, a medieval castle. Beckoned to this haven are Mrs Wilkins, Mrs Arbuthnot, Mrs Fisher and Lady Caroline Dester, each quietly craving a respite. Lulled by the mediterranean spring, the violet mountains and sweet-scented flowers, they gradually shed their public skins and discover a harmony each of them has longed for but none has known. “

‘The Enchanted April’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim (#222)

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The first book I read by an author who is now a particular favourite.

A Peasant Girl by Martin Archer Shee

'A Peasant Girl' by Martin Archer Shee

“When Anthony Considine creeps into Mellick town with a stolen horse in 1789, it sets the destiny of his family for decades to come. By the 1850s, through thrift and hard work, his son Honest John has made the Considines a leading Mellick family. In turn, his son Anthony builds a fine house in the country for his wife and children—most especially for his adored son Dennis. Little does he know that when Dennis grows up he will threaten the toil of generations with his love for a peasant girl. A stirring family saga of divided loyalties and individual freedom; of matches made and lost; and of the constraints of religion and family pride.”

Without My Cloak by Kate O’Brien (#233)

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A wonderful match of artist and writer

(c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

'Marriage at Cana, Bride and Bridegroom' by Stanley Spencer

“Sophia is twenty-one years old, naive, unworldly, and irresistible — most particularly to Charles, a young painter whom she married in haste and with whom she plunges into a life of dire poverty. Desperate, Sophia takes up with the dismal, aging art critic Peregrine, and learns to repent both marriage and affair at leisure.”

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns (#109)

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The painting that is drawing me towards a lesser known writer


'Young Girl with Flowers' by Henri Lebasque

“Louie, intense and solitary, lives in a dreamland of her own until the arrival of her gifted cousin Timothy. He brings her companionship, music, and “the long looked-for stimulation of the mind.” But Tim and Louie are parted when she is sent to convent school, a closed world of prayer and order, and of lasting, passionate friendships. Then comes the shattering advent of the First World War. On leaving school Louie determines to train for business, to “start life as a stern realist,” but finds instead that she will need emotional courage if she is to be the woman her soul demands.”

Saraband by Eliot Bliss (#223)

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It was lovely to spot a local artist, who painted many places I know well.


 'Titbits' by Harold Harvey

“Rhoda Powell wakes knowing that her mother’s selfish and repining ways will impede their removal from Stone Hall to a new, smaller home. She feels as tethered to her mother’s whims as when she was a child. Maurice, a parent himself now, seems similarly trapped by his boyhood role. only Delia, their younger sister, has moved South, leaving Swarfdale and its memories behind. And Aunt Ellen, the spinster of the previous generation, is a warning to Rhoda of the woman she will become if she does not break away…”

‘The New House’ by Lettice Cooper (#263)

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The second green Virago I read, and a still a particular favourite.

(c) Manchester City Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

'Self-Portrait' by Louise Jopling

“Julia Almond, born into drab suburban povery in Edwardian London, longs for a better life, the fairy-tale world of romance she glimpsed in the toy peepshow of her childhood. She believes she is somebody special, always seeking – through her work, her conventional marriage and finally a young lover – the magic which will make her dreams come true.  But these are peepshow fantasies. For Julia lives at a social level where convention and respectability – particularly for women – exert their most tyrannical hold. Julia cannot escape and in attempting to do so, she brings tragedy to herself and those who love her. “

A Pin to See the Peepshow by F Tennyson Jesse (#11)

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I remember seeing the painting and not knowing why it was so familiar.


Springtime in Eskdale by James McIntosh Patrick

“Mary Robson is a young Yorkshire woman, married to her solid unromantic cousin, John. Together they battle to preserve Mary’s neglected heritage, her beloved farm, Anderby Wold. This labour of love – and the benevolent tyranny of traditional Yorkshire ways – have made Mary old before her time. Then, into her purposeful life erupts David Rossitur, red-haired, charming, eloquent: how can she help but love him? But David is a young man from a different England, radical, committed to social change. As their confrontation and its consequences inevitably unfold, Mary’s life and that of the calm village of Anderby are changed forever. “

Anderby Wold by Winifred Holtby (#65)

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untitledI understand the need to move with the times, and to attract a new generation of readers; but I miss the paintings and I’m sorry that the green spines that led me from author to author have been lost.

37 thoughts on “A Literary Collection: Green Virago Modern Classics and their Paintings

    1. These are all on my shelf – I’m not talented enough as an art spotter to find the painting without referring to the acknowledgement on the back if the book! But I have been building my collection for a very long time.


  1. What a lovely post Jane! I think one of the strengths of the early Viragos was their wonderfully striking covers with the carefully chosen paintings and I don’t think the modern ones have anywhere near the impact – which is a shame….


    1. Yes, that era was wonderful for many reason. The new covers do seem to appeal to a certain market, and I see them on the returns trolley in the library from time to time, but I regret the loss of ‘brand identity’ that the green gave.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Loved this too1 The Enchanted April cover is perfect, isn’t it? And although I don’t know much about Harold Harvey, I’ve seen (and been drawn to) his paintings and I’m so happy to know that he’s “yours.” I think the Anderby Wold cover is my favorite, though. Thank you for this!


    1. Strangely, Virago reversed the image for The Enchanted April and reversed the colours. The cover is lovely but I think the original is lovelier. Harold Harvey – and all of the Newlyn School artists – and within walking distance of home; I used to walk over a bridge he painted on my way to work!


  3. For a very long time now Virago has practiced careful choice of cover pictures. I have often used the covers as a way of finding out new women artists.


  4. Whenever my husband is with me in second-hand bookshops he looks for the green spines. He may not always know which books I’m looking for by title or author, but the green spine is like a beacon. A couple of weeks ago I found a copy of Winifred Holtby’s ‘The Crowded Street’ and the cover art is as much of a prize find as the content. Wonderful post, Jane!


    1. It was much easier for menfolk to find books for us when the books had green covers; ‘The Crowded Street’ is a wonderful book, and Virago did a very good job with the new editions of Winifred Holtby’s work as well as the original greens.


  5. I paged down first, looking at the images, and the Martin Shoe picture looked so familiar – I couldn’t place it thought til I read the text. My first Virago was also a Kate O’Brien, but The Land of Spices – which has I think one of the most beautiful covers on all my shelves. I will always be so grateful that the green spine – and the intriguing title – caught my eye so many years ago.

    Do you have the Virago edition of Maura Laverty’s Never No More? I think that one is also beautiful. And Margaret Oliphant’s The Perpetual Curate.


    1. That same thing had happened to me with a number of paintings. I love the cover of The Land of Spices too and it may find its way onto another collection post. As might the Laverty and the Oliphant which are both on my shelves.


  6. I have lots of green viragos now and I do love those old paintings on the covers. A couple of those you mention; A Pin to see the Peepshow, and Anderbly Wold are books I have loved too. A couple ones I don’t have – yet.


  7. I love the old green Virago covers, I don’t care that others think they’re ugly… I think they look nice together on the shelf. This is a lovely post =)


    1. I can understand that some find the covers old fashioned, but I wish they’d been updated more sympathetically. Some of the mid- period Molly Keane covers – when the design was changed and the spines were a brighter shade of green were lovely.

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  8. Someone at Virago in the 1980s had a real talent for matching cover art with contents and I agree, the covers of later editions are not often as well chosen. I actually think that the loss of the green spines is a mistake; they were part of that very strong identity that the VMCs had.

    My brand-new copy of Joan Aiken’s The Kingdom and the Cave has arrived, and I can’t wait to read it and think it looks very pretty. But it strikes me as outside the old VMC ethos, in fact I was surprised that it was included in their list.


    1. They did, and I am sorry that Virago doesn’t seen to understand how loved they were back in the day. And how important the numbering, the paintings, and the possibility of spotting green spines and skipping from author to author were.

      The new Joan Aiken reissues look lovely, but I do wish the Virago had made the titles for children and young adults a separate series, rather the mixing them in with the main list.


  9. Reading your post brought back happy memories of my discovering the Virago bookshop in London, aged 15. It felt like I’d found ‘home’ and it became my first port of call whenever I headed into London. I’ll never forget the sight of all those walls of green spines to choose from! My first was ‘The Well of Loneliness’ by Radcliffe Hall. It was only years later that I realised I had chanced on such an important book. In truth, I was sold on the title – being at the time fully immersed in the throes of Smiths melancholy. 🙂


  10. Love this post and totally agree about the old covers. They are things of beauty and like you I found those green spines a guide in bookshops. If you don’t mind I might pinch this idea for a post and dig out some of my favourite covers as well.


  11. Lovely lovely post. And many of these covers are familiar to me, because I own them or covet them. When I first came to London I was very, very impressed by a colleague who had a wall full of Virago books. Heaven.
    Since then I have bought a few, and always look in 2nd hand book shops for more.
    Thank you.


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