Virago Modern Classics Designer Collection – A Collector’s Guide

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Virago Modern Classics - Designer Collection

Introduction and review

Carmen Callil founded Virago in 1973 to publish books that celebrated women, and the Modern Classics selection was designed to give voice to generations of women novelists who might otherwise have been forgotten. The first five Virago titles in this series were published in 1978, and by now there have been close to 1000 titles published.

In 2008, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Virago Modern Classics series, eight titles were republished in hardback format with textured cover designs by leading female textile designers and sold exclusively at Waterstones for £10. This was the beginning of the ‘designer collection’ which now stands at 28 titles. Most recently, 2023 was Virago’s 50th anniversary, and a couple of new titles in the designer collection were added (Heartburn by Nora Ephron and The Group by Mary McCarthy).

Some of the titles are currently out of print, and these command the highest prices on the second hand market – the most desirable (and expensive) titles include 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff; and The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield.

The books in this series are great, and the cover designs are a delight – looking gorgeous on the shelf, or in a small stack on a side table. However, they are paper-covered boards, and the edges in particular are prone to scuffing and damage so be aware they need a little care as you read and store them.

Shelf Appeal

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Pretty patterns peek through on these Virago Designer Classics spines, giving the series a lovely rainbow shelf appeal.

List of titles in Virago's Designer Collection

Listed in alphabetical order by author.

The Enchanted April - Elizabeth von Arnim

9781844087617. Aug 2011. Introduced by Sarah Dunant. Cover design by Angie Lewin.

A discreet advertisement in ‘The Times’, addressed to ‘Those who Apppreciate Wisteria and Sunshine…’ is the impetus for a revelatory month for four very different women. High above the bay on the Italian Riviera stands San Salvatore, a mediaeval 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 spirit, they gradually shed their skins and discover a harmony each of them has longed for but never known.

➤ Find it at Amazon | Waterstones | Blackwells | Abes | eBay

The Magic Toyshop - Angela Carter

9781844085231. Jul 2008, 30th anniversary series. Introduced by Carmen Callil. Cover design by Jacqueline Groag.

One night Melanie walks through the garden in her mother’s wedding dress. The next morning her world is shattered. Forced to leave the home of her childhood, she is sent to live with relatives she has never met: gentle Aunt Margaret, mute since her wedding day; and her brothers, Francie and Finn. Brooding over all is Uncle Philip, who loves only the toys he makes in his workshop: clockwork roses and puppets that are life-size – and uncannily life-like.

➤ Find it at Amazon | Waterstones | Blackwells | Abes | eBay

The Diary of a Provincial Lady - E. M. Delafield

9781844085224. Jul 2008, 30th anniversary series. Introduced by Jilly Cooper. Cover design by Cath Kidston.

Behind this rather prim and proper title lies the hilarious fictional diary of a long-suffering, disaster-prone Devon lady of the 1930s, and her attempts to keep her somewhat ramshackle household from falling into chaos: there’s her husband Robert, who, when he’s not snoozing behind The Times, does everything with grumbling reluctance; her gleefully troublesome children; and a succession of tricky servants who invariably seem to gain the upper hand. And if her domestic trials were not enough, she must keep up appearances. Particularly with the maddeningly patronising Lady Boxe, whom the Provincial Lady eternally (and unsuccessfully) tries to compete with.

➤ OOP. Find it at Amazon | Abes | eBay

The Dud Avocado - Elaine Dundy

9781844087600. Aug 2011. Introduced by Rachel Cooke. Cover design by Lucienne Day.

Sally Jay Gorce is a woman with a mission. It’s the 1950s, she’s young, and she’s in Paris. Having dyed her hair pink, she wears evening dresses in the daytime and vows to go native in a way not even the natives can manage. Embarking on an educational programme that includes an affair with a married man (which fizzles out when she realises he’s single and wants to marry her); nights in cabarets and jazz clubs in the company of assorted “citizens of the world”; an entanglement with a charming psychopath; and a bit part in a film financed by a famous matador. But an education like this doesn’t come cheap. Will our heroine be forced back to the States to fulfill her destiny as a librarian, or can she keep up her whirlwind Parisian existence?

➤ Find it at Amazon | Waterstones | Blackwells | Abes | eBay

Heartburn - Nora Ephron

9780349017358. Mar 2023. Foreword by Stanley Tucci. Cover design by Elza Sunderland.

Seven months into her pregnancy, Rachel discovers that her husband is in love with another woman. The fact that this woman has a ‘neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb’ is no consolation. Food sometimes is, though, since Rachel is a cookery writer, and between trying to win Mark back and wishing him dead, she offers us some of her favourite recipes. Heartburn is a roller coaster of love, betrayal, loss and most satisfyingly revenge.

➤ Find it at Amazon | Waterstones | Blackwells | Abes | eBay

Black Narcissus - Rumer Godden

9780349014043. Nov 2020. Introduced by Amanda Coe. Cover design features a textile from the V&A’s collection – a Parsee girl’s shirt embroidered with silk thread, featuring birds of paradise, flowers and plants in white gold and red on a deep blue background, from Surat, Gujarat c 1870.

High in the Himalayas, the mountaintop palace shines like a jewel. Built for the General’s harem, laughter and music once floated out over the gorge. Now it sits abandoned, windswept and haunting. The palace is bestowed to the Sisters of Mary, and what was once known as ‘the House of Women’ becomes the Convent of St Faith. Close to the heavens, the nuns feel inspired, working fervently to establish their school and hospital. But as the isolation and emptiness of the mountain become increasingly unsettling, passions long repressed emerge with tragic consequences.

➤ Find it at Amazon | Waterstones | Blackwells | Abes | eBay

84 Charing Cross Road - Helene Hanff

9781844085248. Jul 2008, 30th anniversary series.Introduced by Juliet Stevenson. Cover design by Marion Dorn.

This funny, poignant, classic love story unfolds through a series of letters between Helene Hanff, a freelance writer living in New York City, and a used-book dealer in London at 84, Charing Cross Road. Through the years, though never meeting and separated both geographically and culturally, they share a charming, sentimental friendship based on their common love for books. Discover the relationship that has touched the hearts of thousands of readers around the world, and was the basis for a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft.

➤ OOP. Find it at Amazon | Abes | eBay

Strangers on a Train - Patricia Highsmith

9780349007274. Sep 2016. Introduced by Claire Messud. Cover design by Marian Mahler.

The psychologists would call it folie a deux… ‘Bruno slammed his palms together. “Hey! Cheeses, what an idea! I kill your wife and you kill my father! We meet on a train, see, and nobody knows we know each other! Perfect alibis! Catch?”’ From this moment, almost against his conscious will, Guy Haines is trapped in a nightmare of shared guilt and an insidious merging of personalities.

➤ Find it at Amazon | Waterstones | Blackwells | Abes | eBay

The Talented Mr Ripley - Patricia Highsmith

9780349006963. Jun 2015. Introduced by John Sutherland. Cover design by Marian Mahler.

Tom Ripley travels to Italy with a commission to coax a prodigal young American back to his wealthy father. But Ripley finds himself very fond of Dickie Greenleaf. He wants to be like him – exactly like him. Suave, agreeable and utterly amoral, Ripley will stop at nothing to accomplish his goal.

➤ Find it at Amazon | Waterstones | Blackwells | Abes | eBay

Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Hurston

9781844085286. Jul 2008, 30th anniversary series. Introduced by Zadie Smith. Cover design by Loïs Mailou Jones.

When Janie, at sixteen, is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before meeting the man of her dreams, who offers not diamonds, but a packet of flowering seeds.

➤ Find it at Amazon | Waterstones | Blackwells | Abes | eBay

The Tortoise and the Hare - Elizabeth Jenkins

9781844087471. Aug 2011. Introduced by Hilary Mantel. Cover design ‘Japanese Floral’ pattern by Florence Broadhurst.

Imogen, the beautiful and much younger wife of distinguished barrister Evelyn Gresham, is facing the greatest challenge of her married life. Their neighbour Blanche Silcox, competent, middle-aged and ungainly – the very opposite of Imogen – seems to be vying for Evelyn’s attention. And to Imogen’s increasing disbelief, she may be succeeding.

➤ Find it at Amazon | Waterstones | Blackwells | Abes | eBay

Good Behaviour - Molly Keane

9781844087624. Aug 2011. Introduced by Maggie O’Farrell. Cover design ‘Bunny Dance’ pattern by Eley Kishimoto.

Behind the gates of Temple Alice the aristocratic Anglo-Irish St Charles family sinks into a state of decaying grace. To Aroon St Charles, large and unlovely daughter of the house, the fierce forces of sex, money, jealousy and love seem locked out by the ritual patterns of good behaviour. But crumbling codes of conduct cannot hope to save the members of the St Charles family from their own unruly and inadmissible desires.

➤ Find it at Amazon | Waterstones | Blackwells | Abes | eBay

The Group - Mary McCarthy

9780349018058. Aug 2023. Introduced by Monica Ali. 

McCarthy’s most celebrated novel portrays the lives and aspirations of eight Vassar graduates. ‘The group’ meet in New York following graduation to attend the wedding of one of their friends – and reconvene seven years later at her funeral. The women, fresh from college, vowed not to become stuffy and frightened like their parents, but to lead fulfilling, emancipated lives. Who really achieved this – and what sacrifices and compromises had to be made?

➤ Find it at Amazon | Waterstones | Blackwells | Abes | eBay

The Birds (and other stories) - Daphne du Maurier

9780349006666. Oct 2015. Short stories. Cover design ‘Boomerang’ pattern by Neisha Crosland.

A classic of alienation and horror, ‘The Birds’ was immortalised by Hitchcock in his celebrated film. The five other chilling stories in this collection echo a sense of dislocation and mock man’s sense of dominance over the natural world.

➤ Find it at Amazon | Waterstones | Blackwells | Abes | eBay

Don't Look Now - Daphne du Maurier

9780349006604. Oct 2015. Short stories. Cover design ‘Gypsy’ pattern by Neisha Crosland.

John and Laura have come to Venice to try and escape the pain of their young daughter’s death. But when they encounter two old women who claim to have second sight, they find that instead of laying their ghosts to rest they become caught up in a train of increasingly strange and violent events. The four other haunting, evocative stories in this volume also explore deep fears and longings, secrets and desires: a lonely teacher who investigates a mysterious American couple, a young woman confronting her father’s past, a party of pilgrims who meet disaster in Jerusalem and a scientist who harnesses the power of the mind to chilling effect.

➤ Find it at Amazon | Waterstones | Blackwells | Abes | eBay

Frenchman's Creek - Daphne du Maurier

9781844088782. May 2012. Introduced by Julie Myerson. Cover design ‘Moorish Circles’ pattern by Neisha Crosland.

The Restoration Court knows Lady Dona St Columb to be ripe for any folly, any outrage that will relieve the tedium of her days. But there is another, secret Dona who longs for a life of honest love – and sweetness, even if it is spiced with danger. Dona flees London for remote Navron, looking for peace of mind in its solitary woods and hidden creeks. She finds there the passion her spirit craves – in the love of a daring pirate hunted across Cornwall, a Frenchman who, like Dona, would gamble his life for a moment’s joy.

➤ Find it at Amazon | Waterstones | Blackwells | Abes | eBay

Jamaica Inn - Daphne du Maurier

9781844088775. May 2012. Introduced by Sarah Dunant. Cover design ‘Berry Flower’ pattern by Neisha Crosland.

Her mother’s dying request obliges Mary Yellan to make a grim journey across bleak Cornish moorland to Jamaica Inn, the home of her Aunt Patience and her overbearing husband, Joss Merlyn. With the coachman’s warning echoing in her mind and affected by the inn’s brooding power, Mary is thwarted in her intention to help her aunt. She finds herself drawn unwillingly into the misdeeds of Joss and his accomplices, and even more disturbing are her feelings for a man she dare not trust.

➤ Find it at Amazon | Waterstones | Blackwells | Abes | eBay

My Cousin Rachel - Daphne du Maurier

9781844087631. Aug 2011. Introduced by Sally Beauman. Cover design ‘Flamenco’ pattern by Neisha Crosland.

Orphaned at an early age, Philip Ashley is raised by his benevolent cousin, Ambrose. Resolutely single, Ambrose delights in making Philip his heir, knowing he will treasure his beautiful Cornish estate. But Philip’s world is shattered when Ambrose sets off on a trip to Florence. There he falls in love and marries – and then dies suddenly in suspicious circumstances. Before long, the new widow – Philip’s cousin Rachel – arrives in England. Despite himself, Philip is drawn to this beautiful, mysterious woman. But could she have masterminded Ambrose’s death?

➤ Find it at Amazon | Waterstones | Blackwells | Abes | eBay

Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier

9781844088799. May 2012. With an afterword by Sally Beauman. Cover design ‘Zebra’ pattern by Neisha Crosland.

On a trip to the South of France, the shy heroine of Rebecca falls in love with Maxim de Winter, a handsome widower. Although his proposal comes as a surprise, she happily agrees to marry him. But as they arrive at her husband’s home, Manderley, a change comes over Maxim, and the young bride is filled with dread. Friendless in the isolated mansion, she realises that she barely knows him. In every corner of every room is the phantom of his beautiful first wife, Rebecca, and the new Mrs de Winter walks in her shadow.

➤ Find it at Amazon | Waterstones | Blackwells | Abes | eBay

Excellent Women - Barbara Pym

9781844085262. Jul 2008, 30th anniversary series. Introduced by Alexander McCall Smith. Cover design by Orla Kiely.

Mildred Lathbury is one of those ‘excellent women’ who is often taken for granted. She is a godsend, ‘capable of dealing with most of the stock situations of life – birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sales, the garden fete spoilt by bad weather’. As such, though, she often gets herself embroiled in other people’s lives – and especially those of her glamorous new neighbours, the Napiers, whose marriage seems to be on the rocks. One cannot take sides in these matters, though it is tricky, especially when Mildred, teetering on the edge of spinsterhood, has a soft spot for dashing young Rockingham Napier.

➤ Find it at Amazon | Waterstones | Blackwells | Abes | eBay

A Far Cry From Kensington - Muriel Spark

9781844085279. Jul 2008, 30th anniversary series. Introduced by Ali Smith. Cover design by Lucienne Day.

When Mrs Hawkins tells Hector Bartlett he ‘urinates frightful prose’, little does she realise the repercussions. Holding that ‘no life can be carried on satisfactorily unless people are honest’ Mrs Hawkins refuses to retract her judgement, and as a consequence, loses not one, but two much-sought-after jobs in publishing. Now, years older, successful, and happily a far cry from Kensington, she looks back over the dark days that followed, in which she was embroiled in a mystery involving anonymous letters, quack remedies, blackmail and suicide.

➤ Find it at Amazon | Waterstones | Blackwells | Abes | eBay

Valley of the Dolls - Jacqueline Susann

9781844085255. Jul 2008, 30th anniversary series. Introduced by Julie Birchill. Cover design by Barbara Hulanicki.

Dolls – red or black; capsules or tablets; washed down with vodka or swallowed straight. For Anne, Neely and Jennifer, it doesn’t matter, as long as the pill bottle is within easy reach. These three beautiful women become best friends when they are young and in New York, struggling to make their names in the entertainment industry. Only when they reach the peak of their careers do they find there’s nowhere left to go but down – to the Valley of the Dolls.

➤ OOP. Find it at Amazon | Abes | eBay

A Game of Hide and Seek - Elizabeth Taylor

9781844085293. Jul 2008, 30th anniversary series. Introduced by Elizabeth Jane Howard. Cover design by Celia Birtwell.

During summer games of hide and seek Harriet falls in love with Vesey and his elusive, teasing ways. When he goes to Oxford she cherishes his photograph and waits for a letter that never comes. Years pass and Harriet stifles her dreams; with a husband and daughter, she excels at respectability. But then Vesey reappears and her marriage seems to melt away. Harriet is older, it is much too late, but she is still in love with him.

➤ OOP. Find it at Amazon | Abes | eBay

A View of the Harbour - Elizabeth Taylor

9781844089642. Oct 2013. Introduced by Sarah Waters. Cover design by Celia Birtwell.

In the faded coastal village of Newby, everyone looks out for – and in on – each other, and beneath the deceptively sleepy exterior, passions run high. Beautiful divorcee Tory is painfully involved with her neighbour, Robert, while his wife Beth, Tory’s best friend, is consumed by the worlds she creates in her novels, oblivious to the relationship developing next door. Their daughter Prudence is aware, however, and is appalled by the treachery she observes. Mrs Bracey, an invalid whose grasp on life is slipping, forever peers from her window, constantly prodding her daughters for news of the outside world. And Lily Wilson, a lonely young widow, is frightened in her own home. Into their lives steps Bertram, a retired naval officer with the unfortunate capacity to inflict lasting damage while trying to do good.

➤ OOP. Find it at Amazon | Abes | eBay

Angel - Elizabeth Taylor

9781844089345. Nov 2013. Introduced by Hilary Mantel. Cover design by Celia Birtwell.

Fifteen-year-old Angelica Deverell knows she is different, that she is destined to become a feted author. Escaping the dreariness of her provincial life, she locks herself in her room, pouring all her romantic longings on to the page.

➤ OOP. Find it at Amazon | Abes | eBay

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont - Elizabeth Taylor

9781844089338. Nov 2013. Introduced by Paul Bailey. Cover design by Celia Birtwell.

On a rainy Sunday in January, the recently widowed Mrs Palfrey arrives at the Claremont Hotel where she will spend her remaining days. Her fellow residents are magnificently eccentric and endlessly curious, living off crumbs of affection and snippets of gossip. Together, upper lips stiffened, they fight off their twin enemies: boredom and the Grim Reaper. Then one day Mrs Palfrey strikes up an unlikely friendship with an impoverished young writer, Ludo, who sees her as inspiration for his novel.

➤ Find it at Amazon | Waterstones | Blackwells | Abes | eBay

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton - Edith Wharton

9780349009674. Oct 2019. Introduced by Kelly Link.

In these powerful and elegant tales, Edith Wharton evokes moods of disquiet and darkness within her own era. In icy new England a fearsome double foreshadows the fate of a rich young man; a married farmer is bewitched by a dead girl; a ghostly bell saves a woman’s reputation. Brittany conjures ancient cruelties, Dorset witnesses a retrospective haunting and a New York club cushions an elderly aesthete as he tells of the ghastly eyes haunting his nights.

➤ Find it at Amazon | Abes | eBay

Writers as Readers - Virago Press (Various Authors)

9780349008622. May 2018. 40th anniversary. ‘A celebration of Virago Modern Classics’. Introduced by Donna Coogan. Cover design by Yehrin Tong.

In this collection, forty of the most significant writers of the past century tell us about one of their favourite writers by introducing books from the Virago Modern Classics collection, offering a glimpse at the treasures that have been published over the past four decades: they may be great works of literature; they may be wonderful period pieces; they may reveal particular aspects of women’s lives; they may be classics of comedy, storytelling, diary-writing or autobiography.

➤ Find it at Amazon | Waterstones | Blackwells | Abes | eBay


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