Browsers among the paperback racks of bookstores may well have noticed a series of books bearing the somewhat forbidding title ``Virago Modern Classics'' and adorned with invitingly pretty cover illustrations from period paintings. It features fiction by a wide range of women writers, from the formidable Victorian anti-suffragist, Mrs. Humphry Ward, to her outspoken critic, the still more formidable 20th-century feminist Rebecca West; from the once-influential but forgotten May Sinclair to the best-selling 1920s phenomenon Margaret Kennedy, author of ``The Constant Nymph.'' Not even the editors of Virago Modern Classics contend that each of the nearly 200 titles in the series is truly a ``classic.'' But since its inception in 1978, the series has tried to reawaken interest in a previously neglected tradition by reissuing out-of-print fiction by women.
Alexandra Pringle, currently editorial director of the series, joined the London-based Virago Press in 1978, just about the time the Modern Classics series was getting off the ground. As she explained in a telephone interview during her recent visit to the New York offices of Viking-Penguin, which publishes the series in America, the problem of books going out of print has been particularly harmful to women novelists. Not only does fiction by women suffer the fate of fiction in general, but, Ms. Pringle suggests, many women writers drop out of sight for long periods, often to meet the demands of domestic life, and this undermines their visibility.
Feminism is clearly a key factor in Virago's editorial judgment. But many of the authors in this series are definitely not feminists.
``We may choose a book because we think in literary terms it's first-rate,'' Pringle says. ``Or because we think it says something important about women and their lives. Or sometimes it's just something that we really happen to fall in love with, something that makes us laugh -- or cry. I sometimes think, if I like this book, perhaps others will like it too. And, do you know, this method works!'' Pringle, who grew up in London during the 1960s, concedes that her own taste has been shaped by reading in her youth the novelists of the '20s, '30s, and '40s, many of whom are now published by Virago Modern Classics.
The Modern Classics constitute half of Virago's total list, Pringle says, the other half being new fiction and nonfiction reprints of books by, for, and/or about women.
These include books like Elaine Showalter's influential ``A Literature of Their Own'' (first published in the United States by Princeton University Press), and ``The Writings of Anna Wickham,'' (cloth edition distributed in the US by Merrimack), Wickham being the independent-minded poet who was also a friend of D. H. Lawrence and Natalie Barney.
Before Penguin began publishing the series in America in the fall of 1985, ``Virago Modern Classics'' had been published in this country by the Dial Press. ``What made us sad,'' Pringle recalled, ``was that Dial selected only a small portion of our total list. They left out some of our favorites, including one by Rosamond Lehmann and another by Storm Jameson.
``They simply weren't as optimistic as Viking-Penguin about the chances of these books. But in Britain, we've actually found that the more titles we publish, the better they'll do. People will even purchase writers they've never read before because they've come to trust our judgment.''
Penguin currently brings out in this country about two-thirds of the 48 Modern Classics that appear each year in the United Kingdom. Many of the remaining third are books already published in America, often the work of American writers, like Edith Wharton.
Most of the list are reprints. ``At first,'' said Ms. Pringle, ``people thought we published only books no longer under their original copyright, and that our list must be very cheap to publish. But most of the books we publish, though out of print, are still under copyright, so that our authors do indeed receive royalties!''