This month I’ve chosen to feature Persephone Books, who are both a publisher and book seller. The shop (along with the office) is located in a Grade II listed building in Lamb’s Conduit Street, London, with it’s frontage suitably painted in Persephone grey. Voted No.14 in London’s 100 Best Shops 2019, by Time Out – it’s a shop that is definitely on my ‘want to visit’ list.
Persephone Books reprints neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers. To date they’ve published 137 books encompassing novels, short stories, diaries, memoirs and cookery books. Each is easily identified by an elegant grey jacket and a ‘fabric’ endpaper complete with matching bookmark.
Persephone Books was founded in 1998 by Nicola Beauman whose aim was to publish a handful of ‘lost’ or out-of-print books every year, the majority of them being interwar novels by women. The company took it’s name from the daughter of Zeus as Persephone is associated with spring, being a symbol of female creativity, as well as of new beginnings. Yet the colour grey doesn’t instantly chime with spring and creativity, so why that colour choice?
Persephone books are all grey because – well – we really like grey. We also had a vision of a woman who comes home tired from work, and there is a book waiting for her, and it doesn’t matter what it looks like because she knows she will enjoy it. Our books look beautiful because we believe that, whether they are on an office desk, by the Aga, or hanging in a bag over the handles of a pram, it is important to take pleasure from how they look and feel.
What is acknowledged, is that the now distinctive cover, is a guarantee of an intelligent, thought-provoking, beautifully written, good read. They are chosen to appeal to busy people wanting titles that are neither too literary nor too commercial, but most of all they only publish books that they love.
Persephone books are a standard price of £13 each or £33 for three in the UK and $20 each or $50 for three in the US. That said, twelve of the bestsellers have also been re-issued in more ‘bookshop-friendly’ editions (i.e. with pictures on the front). The text and paper is identical to that used in the 130 grey Persephone books, but because the Classics do not have the full-colour endpapers, they retail at £10 instead of £13.
P&P is extra, in the UK – £2.50 per book, Europe (including ROI) – £4 per book (about €4.50). Airmail to anywhere in the world – £6 per book or about $7.50.
So what did I buy recently? Well perhaps appropriately for the unprecedented times we find ourselves living in I opted for Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson (in our neck of the woods, the former was certainly the case for several weeks).
Vere Hodgson worked for a Notting Hill Gate charity during the Second World War; being sparky and unflappable, she was not going to let Hitler make a difference to her life, but the beginning of the Blitz did, which is why she began her published diaries on 25 June 1940: ‘Last night at about 1 a.m. we had the first air raid of the war on London. My room is just opposite the police station, so I got the full benefit of the sirens. It made me leap out of bed…’
The war continued for five more years, but Vere’s comments on her work, friends, what was happening to London and the news (‘We hold our breath over Crete’, ‘There is to be a new system of Warning’) combine to make Few Eggs and No Oranges unusually readable. It is a long – 600 page – book but a deeply engrossing one. The TLS remarked: ‘The diaries capture the sense of living through great events and not being overwhelmed by them… they display an extraordinary – though widespread – capacity for not giving way in the face of horrors and difficulties.’ ‘A classic book that still rings vibrant and helpful today… a heartwarming record of one articulate woman’s coping with the war,’ wrote the Tallahassee Democratic Review.
(On the endpaper we have used ‘London Wall’, a fragment of a Jacqmar scarf showing a brick wall as the background to the brightly-coloured slogans that were so much a part of wartime life).
I’ve got a growing collection of Persephone books now which includes:-
PREFACE BY HENRIETTA TWYCROSS-MARTIN
Miss Pettigrew is about a governess sent by an employment agency to the wrong address, where she encounters a glamorous night-club singer, Miss LaFosse. ‘The sheer fun, the light-heartedness’ in this wonderful 1938 book ‘feels closer to a Fred Astaire film than anything else’ comments the Preface-writer Henrietta Twycross-Martin, who found Miss Pettigrew for Persephone Books. The Guardian asked: ‘Why has it taken more than half a century for this wonderful flight of humour to be rediscovered?’ while the Daily Mail liked the book’s message – ‘that everyone, no matter how poor or prim or neglected, has a second chance to blossom in the world.’ Maureen Lipman wrote in ‘Books of the Year’ in the Guardian: ‘Perhaps the most pleasure has come from Persephone’s enchanting reprints, particularly Miss Pettigrew, a fairy story set in 1930s London’; and she herself entertained R4 listeners with her five-part reading. And in The Shops India Knight called Miss Pettigrew ‘the sweetest grown-up book in the world’.
PREFACE BY GREGORY LESTAGE
For fifty years Mollie Panter-Downes’s name was associated with The New Yorker, for which she wrote a regular ‘Letter from London’, book reviews and over thirty short stories; of the twenty-one in Good Evening, Mrs Craven, written between 1939 and 1944, only two had ever been reprinted – these very English stories have, until now, been unavailable to English readers.
Exploring most aspects of English domestic life during the war, they are about separation, sewing parties, fear, evacuees sent to the country, obsession with food, the social revolutions of wartime. In the Daily Mail Angela Huth called Good Evening, Mrs Craven ‘my especial find’ and Ruth Gorb in the Ham & High contrasted the humour of some of the stories with the desolation of others: ‘The mistress, unlike the wife, has to worry and mourn in secret for her man; a middle-aged spinster finds herself alone again when the camaraderie of the air-raids is over…
PREFACE BY JULIET GARDINER
Houses, architecture, living space, where the domestic happens: this is a strong theme at Persephone Books and RC Sherriff’s Greengates (1936), Persephone Book No. 113, is one of the novels that sums it up. The plot is timeless and simple: a man retires from his job but finds that never were truer words said than ‘for better, for worse but not for lunch’. His boredom, his wife’s (suppressed and confused) dismay at the quiet orderliness of her life being destroyed, their growing tension with each other, is beautifully and kindly described. Then one day they do something they used to do more often – leave St John’s Wood and go out into the countryside for the day. And that walk changes their lives forever: they see a house for sale, decide to move there, and the nub of the book is a description of their leaving London, the move, and the new life they create for themselves.
Juliet Gardiner, the social historian, has written an incisive preface in which she sets Greengates in context. This is what she says: ‘The novel is ostensibly about a house built in the 1930s, about how and why a retired couple come to buy it, and how it changed their lives. Its subject matter holds up a mirror to the social and cultural preoccupations of the decade: the desire for a home of one’s own, the slow seepage of an attendant form of modernism into a profoundly traditional society, the nuances of class, status and taste. It also addresses the urgent question of the changing nature of the countryside, with the fall in land values and the concomitant encroachment of the town, and the urbanisation of England.’
RC Sherriff excels at writing about everyday life and ordinariness. In Journey’s End his compassion for Mr Everyman was famously displayed, and this was so also in The Hopkins Manuscript, about an ordinary man whose main interest is his garden who is then caught up in impending catastrophe; and in The Fortnight in September, one of our best-sellers, about the Stevens family going on their annual holiday to Bognor, their one chance each year to escape the stifling routine of normal life which is so crucial for all of them.
Thus, in a sense, Greengates is a sequel to The Fortnight in September, with the great difference that the Baldwins have no children. In Fortnight, when Mr Stevens retires, his children’s lives, and possibly their children’s lives, will become an important part of his daily existence; Greengates is much more focused on the couple, on coupledom: their happiness when Mr Baldwin is in the City every day for lunch, their difficulty at adjusting to both of them being at home all day; and then their realisation that they could move out of London and have a new, interesting life – together.
The other fascination of the book is the architectural one: it is full of details about houses and furniture and cooking stoves and heating methods and generally how middle-class life was lived in the 1930s. Juliet Gardiner adds: ‘In his quietly wry, true to life and frequently rather moving novel Sherriff excelled as the acute miniaturist and profound observer of human foibles and frailties that readers will recall from The Fortnight in September. When this was published in 1931 its author was described as a worthy successor to Charles Dickens and it established his reputation as a sharp and perceptive chronicler of lives that, despite their undramatic domestic banalities, often reveal greater truths than might initially appear.’
We can safely say that anyone who has enjoyed The Fortnight in September, How to Run Your Home Without Help or They Knew Mr Knight (to pick, a little randomly, three books which cover similar themes) will very much enjoy reading Greengates.
PREFACE BY NICOLA BEAUMAN
Persephone book No. 1 was ‘written in a rage in 1918; this extraordinary novel… is a passionate assertion of the futility of war’ (the Spectator). Its author had been an actress and suffragette; after 1914 she worked at the Scottish Women’s Hospital at Royaumont and organised Concerts at the Front. William – an Englishman was written in a tent within sound of guns and shells; this ‘stunning… terrifically good’ novel (Radio 4’s A Good Read) is in one sense a very personal book, animated by fury and cynicism, and in another a detached one; yet is always ‘profoundly moving’ (Financial Times).
In our view William – an Englishman is one of the greatest novels about war ever written: not the war of the fighting soldier or the woman waiting at home, but the war encountered by Mr and Mrs Everyman, wrenched away from their comfortable preoccupations – Socialism, Suffragettism, so gently mocked by Cicely Hamilton – and forced to be part of an almost dream-like horror (because they cannot at first believe what is happening to them). The scene when William and Griselda emerge after three idyllic weeks in a honeymoon cottage in the remote hills of the Belgian Ardennes, and encounter German brutality in a small village, is unforgettable. The book, which won the Prix Femina-Vie Heureuse in 1919, is a masterpiece, written with an immediacy and a grim realism reminiscent of an old-fashioned, flickering newsreel.
(The endpaper fabric is an Omega Workshop linen, dating from 1913 when the novel begins. With its pattern of abstract shapes outlined in black ‘Pamela’ has an appropriate austerity; yet the soft curves evoke the Belgian hills and the blue, green and purple recall the suffragette colours).
PREFACE BY CHRISTINA HARDYMENT
‘Some of the smartest lessons in how we live now are to be found not in government speeches or fashionable film releases, but in the small grey covered books published by Persephone Books,’ wrote Andrew O’Hagan in the Daily Telegraph. ‘The volumes are usually lost classics of female writing; they promote the notion that understanding the past is a reasonable way to go about identifying the present and I have been looking at their newest release as a way of getting a handle on the idea of British domestic bliss.’
The book he was looking at was How To Run Your Home Without Help (1949) which, as its title implies, is a book about housework, republished because it is useful, it is a fascinating historical document, and, sixty years on, it is a funny and at times extraordinary bulletin from a vanished world. This book tells the newly servantless housewife what to do and is perfect for the newly-wed in need of some guidance or the son or daughter who has just left home.
AFTERWORD BY ANNE SEBBA
‘When I picked up this 1949 reprint I offered it the tenderly indulgent regard I would any period piece,’ wrote Nicholas Lezard in the Guardian. ‘As it turned out, the book survives perfectly well on its own merits – although it nearly finished me. If you like a novel that expertly puts you through the wringer, this is the one.
‘Hilary Wainwright, poet and intellectual, returns after the war to a blasted and impoverished France in order to trace a child lost five years before. The novel asks: is the child really his? And does he want him? These are questions you can take to be as metaphorical as you wish: the novel works perfectly well as straight narrative. It’s extraordinarily gripping: it has the page-turning compulsion of a thriller while at the same time being written with perfect clarity and precision.
‘Had it not got so nerve-wracking towards the end, I would have read it in one go. But Laski’s understated assurance and grip is almost astonishing. She has got a certain kind of British intellectual down to a tee: part of the book’s nail-biting tension comes from our fear that Hilary won’t do something stupid. The rest of Little Boy Lost‘s power comes from the depiction of post-war France herself. This is haunting stuff.’
EDITED AND WITH A PREFACE BY ANNE ULLMANN
When Tirzah Garwood was 18 she went to Eastbourne School of Art and here she was taught by Eric Ravilious. Over the next four years she did many wood engravings and these were widely praised and several were displayed by the Society of Wood Engravers. Alas, after she and Eric were married in 1930 a large part of her time was spent on domestic chores. In 1935 she had the first of her three children. In 1942 – the year she was operated on for breast cancer – she wrote her autobiography (in the evening, after the children were in bed); this has now been published with the title Long Live Great Bardfield: The Autobiography of Tirzah Garwood.
In The Wood Engravings of Tirzah Ravilious (1987) the novelist and designer Robert Harling wrote: ‘The manifold talents of Tirzah as wood engraver, artist and designer (especially of exquisite marbled papers) were well-known to her friends, but have been virtually extinguished by the steadily growing fame of Ravilious’s achievements. Tirzah was content for this to be so, for she was uncommonly and genuinely modest and a devoted wife and mother, but as far as her work was concerned, she certainly lost out.’
When she began her autobiography Tirzah wrote: ‘I hope, dear reader, that you may be one of my descendants, but as I write a German aeroplane has circled round above my head taking photographs of the damage that yesterday’s raiders have done, reminding me that there is no certainty of our survival. If you are not one of my descendants then all I ask of you is that you love the country as I do, and when you come into a room, discreetly observe its pictures and its furnishings, and sympathise with painters and craftsmen.’
And as her daughter Anne Ullmann observes in the Preface, writing was undoubtedly therapeutic, it enabled her to stand back and look at her life and helped her at a time of adversity to sort out a way forward.’ She concludes: ‘Time and the honesty of Tirzah’s words have made this an immensely important document and it is a valuable primary record of a woman who was at the centre of an important group of artists, and who was herself a very good artist in her own right.’
PREFACE BY JACQUELINE WILSON
This 1938 novel became a children’s literature classic when it was reissued as a Puffin paperback in 1955 (with the delightful cover partly reproduced here); but we have published it for both adults and children to read. It shows five children successfully looking after themselves when their parents go away and fail to return; and ‘it is partly because of modern curtailment of childhood independence that Persephone Books (which has a cult following for its elegant resurrection of novels by women writers) has reissued the novel,’ wrote Rachel Johnson on the Daily Telegraph Education page.
Jacqueline Wilson observes in her Preface: ‘Back in the fifties the book seemed entirely convincing. Reading it now I’m in my fifties it seems extraordinary… that the Dunnett children in the book were deliberately left on their own… Yet in spite of all her enormous household responsibilities the eldest girl, Sue, experiences a freedom and a sense of achievement not available to most Western teenage girls. She could certainly teach the teenage girls in my books a valuable lesson.’
A starring role in the book is played by the haybox, which makes a lasting impression on every reader…
PREFACE BY PENELOPE FITZGERALD
We first read House-Bound by Winifred Peck in 1985 when, in a feature in the Times Literary Supplement, the novelist and critic Penelope Fitzgerald, Winifred Peck’s niece, chose it as one of the books she would like to see reprinted. This was a repeat of the 1977 feature in which Lord David Cecil and Philip Larkin both chose Barbara Pym as the novelist they thought most unjustly neglected.
Penelope Fitzgerald wrote: ‘If I could have back one of the many Winifred Peck titles I once possessed I would choose House-Bound. The story never moves out of middle-class Edinburgh; the satire on genteel living, though, is always kept in relation to the vast severance and waste of the war beyond. The book opens with a grand comic sweep as the ladies come empty-handed away from the registry office where they have learned that they can no longer be “suited” and in future will have to manage their own unmanageable homes. There are coal fires, kitchen ranges and intractable husbands; Rose is not quite sure whether you need soap to wash potatoes. Her struggle continues on several fronts, but not always in terms of comedy. To be house-bound is to be “tethered to a collection of all the extinct memories… with which they had grown up… how are we all to get out?” I remember it as a novel by a romantic who was as sharp as a needle, too sharp to deceive herself.’
Penelope Fitzgerald, who died in 2000, agreed in 1998 to write about House-Bound; however, we waited to publish the book, and her Preface, because we wanted a good length of time to elapse between its publication and that of the rather similarly titled The Home-Maker, Persephone book no.7. So the publication of House-Bound is a celebration not only of Winifred Peck but of Penelope Fitzgerald.
Winifred (nee Knox) was sister to The Knox Brothers, the title of a 1977 book Penelope wrote about her father Evoe Knox and her uncles Dillwyn, Wilfred and Ronald. It is a pity that Winifred hardly appears in that book and in fact it has been difficult to find out anything about her, bar the fact that she was brillliant, like her brothers, was one of the first forty pupils at the pioneering (and still outstanding) Wycombe Abbey School and went to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford to read History. She married when she was 29 and over the next forty years, as well as having three sons, wrote twenty-five books, mostly novels.
House-Bound was written during the war and the war is both in the background and foreground: one of the questions that the reader is asked throughout the book is – what is courage? This is another book, like Few Eggs and No Oranges, Persephone book no.9 and A House in the Country, Persephone book no.31, which gives an incredible picture of life during the war as it actually was, rather than viewed with hindsight.
House-Bound also contains a more unusual theme: Rose’s daughter Flora is difficult, petulant and horrible to her mother, which is not something often written about in fiction (for obvious reasons, but perhaps Winifred Peck felt able to write about Flora because she had no daughters). Flora finally turns a corner; but it is painful to read about her until that happens.
Winifred Peck is also funny and perceptive about Rose Fairlaw’s decision to manage her house on her own. For years her family ‘had been free of nine or ten rooms in the upper earth, while three women shared the exiguous darkness of the basement.’ But, like Mollie Panter-Downes or Lettice Cooper, Winifred Peck could foresee the future and wrote informatively and amusingly, not complainingly, about the need for middle-class women to run their home without help, the title of one of our books and a key theme of many of them.
For more about Persephone and full details of their catalogue take a look at their exceedingly interesting and informative website here.