Margaret Atwood’s Virago suffixes

Margaret Atwood has a short essay in A Virago Keepsake to Celebrate Twenty Years of Publishing, one of twenty contributions to this slim and enjoyable volume from 1993.

In the essay, ‘Dump Bins and Shelf Strips’, Atwood describes her introduction to Virago Press in the mid-1970s when it occupied ‘a single room in a crumbling building on one of the grubbier streets in Soho’. To reach it you had to climb ‘several flights of none-too-clean stairs’, past ‘a lot of men in raincoats hanging around’.

The following passage, completing the climb, is notable for several reasons, one of which is the variable suffixation:

Once you reached the publishing company itself you could scarcely move for books, because all functions, including warehousing and shipping, were carried out in the same place. At the time there were only four Viragoites – as in stalactites or happy Vegemites; or Viragoesses, as in poetesses or ogresses; or Viragoettes, as in drum majorettes, vedettes or Smurfettes; or perhaps Viragoes would be correct, as in vir and virago, which would give us waiter and waitrago – anyway, there were four of them, crammed in among the books. It felt like home to me, as many Canadian writers of my generation had been involved in similarly crowded small publishing ventures, having had to start them because of scarcity in the home territories. Carmen Callil was the chief (Chiefago?) then; I liked her immediately, because she was shorter than me (few are) but didn’t let it cramp her style any. Also she was a wild colonial girl, like me, only wilder.

Atwood’s playful use of female-marked suffixes like –ess and –ette is laced with the same kind of irony that underlies Virago’s name, albeit without probable intent to revive them. And her description of Virago’s cluttered conditions reminds me of something Diana Athill said (of another indie publishing house) in Stet: An Editor’s Life: ‘Did proper publishers have to put a board over a bath to make a packing-bench?’

If you’d like a little more Atwood today, specifically poetry about language, here you are.


2 Responses to Margaret Atwood’s Virago suffixes

  1. Sean Jeating says:

    The corners of my mouth had a lovely little expedition to the ear-lobes. Thank you, Stan.
    A remarkable authorette and poeteuse. Listening to her acceptance speech on the occasion of the award of the Peace Prize of German Book Trade in October, was a a treat.

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