Memoir: Ursula Owen’s Single Journey Only

Ursula Owen picture copywright Neil Spence

Ursula Owen picture copywright Neil Spence - Credit: Archant

The free speech campaigner and Virago Press founding director tells of her flight from Nazi Berlin and her exciting involvement in publishing feminist writers

Publisher and free speech campaigner Ursula Owen was forced to leave her native Berlin as a toddler.

Like many German Jews her family weren't observant, but the fallout of their enforced migration to Britain in 1939 would echo down the years.

Owen recounts her desperation to belong and her mother's struggles with mental ill health in her memoir Single Journey Only - the stamp on her one way exit visa from Germany. Her affluent south London upbringing was bounded by post-war restrictions on young women, a controlling father, and a mother who spent long periods in institutions.

"My family was never religious yet they felt themselves to be Jewish and the war made them feel even more so. Even though they converted to Anglicanism they thought of themselves as Jews."

She adds: "Throughout my early life there was the whole idea of how much I wanted to belong, but it turned out that there were perfectly good and useful things about not belonging and being an outsider."

A bright student, she studied medicine at Oxford and married a socialist academic, which led to spells in Lebanon the US and Egypt.

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"In the 50s if people asked what you were going to do, you answered in terms of what your husband would do. My friends and I assumed we would fit our working lives around what our husbands did, and we didn't' mind."

But Owen had difficulty having children, which perhaps left her freer to choose her own path. By the end of the 60s, her marriage was over, she had joined the women's movement and moved to Tufnell Park with her adopted daughter Kate.

She joined a weekly north London women's group which included feminist Sheila Rowbotham, and got into publishing.

"I always wanted relationships with men and I very much wanted to have children, but slowly I realised that marriage 24/7 wasn't what I liked or was good at. It was painful not getting pregnant, but although my father was authoritarian and quite controlling, something about him gave me the confidence to feel I could go out there into the market place and try things."

Starting at Frank Cass in the early 70s, she learned on the job - a reviewer lambasted her first efforts as "the worst edited book I have ever read," but she was mentored by a female colleague. "It was rather arrogant of me but I knew if a book was well written or not put together well."

In 1973 with Carmen Callil, she became a founding director of Virago Press, influential feminist publisher of Maya Angelou, Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood and of out of print books by neglected writers like Antonia White, Rosamund Lehman and Rebecca West.

It was an exciting time as Virago became a rival to commercial publishers and tapped into an audience for feminist writing. Owen, who remained a director until Virago was sold to Little, Brown in 1996, says: "The 60s were exciting but it was almost all about men. Men, not women wrote their memoirs, but we wanted to change that. It was as exciting as all enterprises which involve passion and ideas are. Anyone can print books, but we knew how to promote them, Carmen was a genius at PR, we sold Peggy Atwood (in paperback) and didn't undervalue her, her sales were very good with us".

She and Callil were close but then there were fallouts. "By the end she thought I wanted too much and I though she wanted everything. We survived it but there were wonderful as well as difficult times and I had lots of colleagues I got on well with."

Owen found Angelou for Virago's list.

"She had been published in America but no-one had published her in the UK. I went to America, bought the first book for £1,000, printed 6,000 copies and they were gone in a fortnight. She said 'you have taken my book and I will stay with Virago forever.'"

She bought Atwood's Just Surfing because she loved it and thereafter published all her paperbacks, as well as Carter's non-fiction such as Nothing Sacred and Marquis de Sade.

At a press conference to announce their debut 12-strong list, a journalist put up his hand and asked 'how are you going to find enough books for next year ?'

Owen laughs, "Finding writers was never our problem, what was fascinating was, he was living in a totally different world to us."

In recent decades Owen has worked for the Labour Party, and as Chief Executive for the Index on Censorship and still lives in the house in Tufnell Park she bought in 1972.

She made the transition from editing to writing fairly easily. "As an editor for 30 years I never thought of myself as a writer," says the 83-year-old.

"But I found myself liking writing, there were painful things, but I didn't find it difficult."

She adds: "I have lived a life surrounded by people who think about what life is about. I was part of the women's movement and as a publisher, it's always been a part of my life to think about why things happen."

Ursula Owens' memoir Single Journey Only is published by Salt Publishing £12.99.