In retirement, she started writing – something she said she would never do. After co-editing The Modern Library: The 200 best novels in English since 1950 with Colm Tóibín in 1999, she turned to biography.
His first book, bad faith, was published in 2006. The critically acclaimed biography of Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, Vichy government commissioner for Jewish affairs, Callil had a distant but disturbing connection to his daughter, Dr. Anne Darquier. Anne was Callil’s therapist until she committed suicide in 1970 and this connection haunts the book.
In 2020, she publishes Oh Happy Day: These Times and These Times who traced the story of his impoverished 19th century British ancestors, who in various ways – both independently and as convicts – started a new life in Australia. Beginning with his great-great-grandmother, a factory worker down in Leicestershire, the book drew contemporary parallels to how the poor, asylum seekers and refugees are treated today.
Carmen Callil was born on July 15, 1938 in Melbourne. Named after the opera, her surname should have been Kahlil but the customs officer who processed her Lebanese paternal grandfather’s arrival at the Port of Melbourne anglicized it to ‘Callil’.
Her father Frederik Callil taught law at the University of Melbourne. His mother Lorraine Allen was of Irish and English descent. Callil grew up in a house full of books in an affluent suburb, with a sister and two brothers – Yvonne was born in 1935, Julian in 1937 and Adrian in 1942.
In 1947 Frederik died, after a slow and painful battle with Hodgkinson’s disease. There was little money left after this, so Callil became a boarder at the school, attending Star of the Sea Convent and Loreto Mandeville Hall. She hated them both, later writing, “It was the sort of Catholic nunnery that should have been deep in Ireland, but was actually in one of Melbourne’s most elegant suburbs… Mass every morning at 6:20 a.m., a tomato for supper. Sunday night and plenty of Irish brown bread the rest of the time. Rules, censorship and silence, and above all a feeling of disapproval.
After school she went to the University of Melbourne, which she compared to a ghetto; finding it cramped, boring and provincial. She read English, with Australian history as a minor. Learning about her country’s history was a profound experience and she used to sit in the library sobbing in horror at the terrible stories of transportation. She was less impressed with her English class, finding her teachers under the stifling influence of FR Leavis.
On her graduation day in 1959, Callil traveled to Europe where she taught English in Italy. A late developer, who had never met a Protestant before leaving home, she made up for lost time and quickly lost her virginity. “I was young and lively and had a wonderful time,” she recalls.
In 1960, she arrived in London, living in shared accommodation with fellow Australians. “It was like something out of a Muriel Spark novel, girls with thin means… We lived in a house on Edith Grove, five girls together, in a small apartment with about 1000 flights of stairs, and we always fell in love and cried in the bathroom.
After a stint as a buyer for the Marks & Spencer department store, she began working in publishing as an “advertiser”, one of the few roles open to women who did not want to be secretaries.
London in the 1960s was an exhilarating and intoxicating place. The demonstrations in Paris, the nascent anti-apartheid movement and the underground press of ounces, Frendz and the International timetables all provided an exciting backdrop to life for the wide-eyed antipodes. Callil spent his time with his “Australian mafia” – libertarian anarchists who were in fact drawn from the comfortable Australian middle class. “Some of us were hippies, but most of us were writers, journalists, or on television. We lived well, worked, and drank a lot, and we wouldn’t have died if not for the best Ossie Clark,” she wrote.
It was this Australian mafia that led Callil to feminism. When several of his friends decided to launch Ink – an offshoot of ounces – Callil, who became independent, was given the responsibility of advertising.
“Everything we women did for Ink – and there were many of us – in my memory, the lovely men of the left and hippiedom treated us like fluttering fairies, good at making tea and providing sex .”
Ink then collapsed after the ounces obscenity trial and went into liquidation in 1972. Another Australian, Marsha Rowe, was so enraged by her experiences there that she started the feminist magazine rib as a response. She was joined by journalist Rosie Boycott and they asked Callil to handle the publicity.
It gave Callil his light bulb moment. Sitting in a pub on Goodge Street in Fitzrovia in London one afternoon in 1972, she realized that if rib could publish essays and articles by women, she could do the same with books.
After Virago was established, Callil appointed Rowe and Boycott as board members and was eventually joined by Harriet Spicer, Ursula Owen, Lennie Goodings and Alexandra Pringle – who, like Callil, would become major publishing figures. British.
In 1982, Callil was recruited by Chatto & Windus and became general manager, bringing Virago in as a subsidiary. Now part of the large Hachette group, Virago is still as successful today.
Callil continued to perch on the barricades throughout his life, throwing the occasional grenade whenever the mood took him. An enthusiastic co-signer of letters to the editor in the British press, she has expressed her support for Extinction Rebellion, is unafraid to criticize the State of Israel for its treatment of Palestinians and has vigorously defended JK Rowling against allegations according to which she was transphobic.
She was also happy to push the sacred cows of her own golden generation. Although she adored Robert Hughes and Barry Humphries (“not politically, of course. He’s on the right of Genghis Khan”), she couldn’t stand Clive James. Speaking in 2020, she said: ‘I didn’t like him that much and he didn’t like me. What do you call the men who drape women over desks? »
In 2017 Callil was made a Dame for services to literature in honor of the Queen’s birthday.
Callil never married or had children and was pleasantly indifferent to it. “I wouldn’t have wanted to be married, I wouldn’t have been good at it… I never worried about the children. It doesn’t bother me one way or another.
She never returned to Australia saying, “I think I made a big mistake coming here. But I don’t think I made a big mistake by not staying in Australia because my generation was supposed to get married, have 700 kids and be a good Catholic, and I didn’t want to do any of that.
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