(This is the first in a new series in which we look at small and unusual English publishing houses).
Persephone Books: Reclaiming the Feminine Literary Past
For a number of years now Persephone Books have been republishing unjustly-neglected books, mainly by Englishwomen, in beautiful grey-covered paperbacks that not only have proper endpapers, but are sewn as well. Persephone are a small enterprise and publish a limited number of titles per year. Feminist with a small 'f', their major focus is on fiction that evokes the trials and pleasures of family life, work and relationships; in fact, the everyday experiences of ordinary women's lives. Although their reprints are usually focussed on middle-class life, they touch universal themes. I first discovered them when, some time ago, I was researching English food, and discovered their invaluable reprint of Florence White's Good Things in England.
A few examples will serve to illustrate their general area of focus. Winifred Watson's Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, originally published in the 1930s, was a runaway success for Persephone, and was even turned into a BBC radio serial. It tells the story of Miss Pettigrew, a hard-working, poverty-stricken spinster whose life is turned upside-down by a visit to the flat of a young starlet. Her unselfish efforts to straighten out the latter's amatory entanglements eventually bring her an unexpected reward in the shape of personal happiness and security. This modern-day fairy-tale includes a classic "makeover" scene, decades before the word was invented, and reminds us that there used to be frothy, amusing stories for women less angst-ridden than the novels of today.
Mariana by Monica Dickens (great-grand-daughter of Charles) is a portrait of an ordinary and believably flawed upper middle-class girl. The narrative sweeps through her school days, adolescence and young womanhood with a breathless felicity of style that renders it highly readable, if not at all mentally taxing (modern readers will, however, find Mary's dislike of Jews and envy of other girls somewhat off-putting). The narrative is frequently comical, particularly in its depiction of the heroine's traumatic experiences at drama school while taking lessons from the terrifying Mr. Rockingham ("For God's sake try to move like a woman instead of an elephant.") Mary's girlhood infatuations, sojourn in France and engagement to an entirely unsuitable, if charming, Frenchman, and eventual marriage to an untidy and lovable Englishman are all documented.
These are good, refreshing yarns, perfect for soothing a tired mind after a hard day's work. However, Persephone publishes more serious works as well. Vere Hodgson's Few Eggs and no Oranges describes, in a brisk, no-nonsense style, the author's day-to-day experiences of the Blitz in London and Birmingham, with an immediacy that no history text can offer. If you want to know what life was really like on the home front, this war diary will enlighten you. Although Hodgson is sometimes a little full of herself, her compassion and courage are inspiring, and her eye for telling detail gives her account authenticity, capturing the smaller privations of the war (such as having to use half-bad oranges -fresh ones were reserved for children-- to get juice for her elderly mother), as well as the larger ones. She also has a keen sense of humour, remarking on the irony of the rescinding of the Bill against Gloom and Despondency with the coming of peace, and is sometimes unintentionally funny herself, at one point intimidated by the sang-froid displayed by a "Platinum Blonde" during an air-raid.
Although some might find many of Persephone's offerings too genteel for their tastes, the truth is that nobody else is publishing these worthy books. Persephone Books is not merely a commercial enterprise, but an ongoing project of cultural custodianship as well, resurrecting the work of obscure and semi-obscure authors, many of whom, partly because of their sex, were neglected in their own day, and making it available to a modern readership to amuse, inform, and move afresh. In an age in which the fiction market is more ephemeral and commercialised than ever before, this is a great achievement.--Isabel Taylor
Copyright © 2006 Isabel Taylor