Agony Column Commentary


Persephone Books:
Literary Revivals
The Agony Column for May 20, 2004
Commentary by Serena Trowbridge

Persephone reads.
I have come across a publisher whose catalogue is simply a list of things I have to read. Persephone Books is a small London-based publisher that specialises in reprinting the work of “forgotten” writers, mostly women, which were out of print. Their list includes novels, short stories and classic cookery books, by writers that, were it not for Persephone, the twenty-first century might well have unjustly ignored.

The founder, Nicola Beauman, is also the author of A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-1939 and she is someone who sees the importance of these novels, as do a growing number of the British public. As Persephone celebrate their fifth birthday this year, and their fiftieth book is published, their mailing list has reached 10,000.

In their own words, the name was chosen because:

“ has a timeless quality; sounds beautiful; is very obviously feminine; and symbolises new beginnings (and fertility) as well as female creativity.

"We did not at first realise that Persephone also symbolises many other aspects of women's lives, for example, less cheerfully, she represents married hell (being raped and imprisoned by her uncle Hades).

"But mainly she is an image of women's creativity, and that is why our logo, based on a painting on a Greek amphora, shows a woman who is not only reading (the scroll) but also symbolises domesticity (the goose). She is not the goddess herself, but we preferred her to all other extant images of Persephone as well as to her own symbols - a daffodil, a lily, a pomegranate and a bat.”

Nicola Beauman, founder.
This says more about Persephone’s aims and ideals than anything else, and should encourage many male as well as female readers that these books are well worth a look.

There is a growing awareness that in a culture which celebrates the quick-selling, celebrity new author, there is a danger that we will lose sight of excellent works which have been popular with previous generations. How many of the authors in the catalogue you will actually have heard of might make this point; some – Noel Streatfeild, Monica Dickens etc – were writers we remember from childhood. Others, such as Frances Towers, might be recognised by short story aficionados, but many, such as Dorothy Whipple and Marghanita Laski, might have remained unread by this generation were it not for Persephone. These novels have received the support of a number of popular contemporary writers such as P D James and Jacqueline Wilson, who have written prefaces for some of these books.

Endpapers for 'Someone at a Distance'.
There seems to be a myth that writers of the first half of the last century, especially women, produced cosy domestic novels based on the domestic routine of subjugated women. For those of you who believe this, there are novels that show that while on the surface this might seem to be true, the reality couldn’t be further from this myth. The humour and the suffering of humanity is beautifully placed in the novels and short stories. After all, the twentieth century was full of amazing events which affected all who lived and wrote during that time: two world wars, the emancipation of women, developments in travel, science and philosophy. Women have a way of looking on and observing events with a wry humour, which is not to be missed. There are too many for me to go into detail, but as I read them I will do reviews!

There is one more important aspect of the Persephone experience to be considered. These are not just books, they are works of art in themselves. Paperbacks, they have thick plain grey covers which are a simple delight to the eye and the touch, with the distinctive Persephone logo. However, they are all furnished with beautiful fabric-design end papers, bright, varied, and with a matching bookmark, which is a nice, thoughtful touch. Fabric design is something which women have always done well, and is something we should celebrate as a design feature. More significantly, the designs featured always relate in some way to the book itself – being produced around the time the book was set or written, or being like a fabric described in the book, etc. This bonus feature makes the books highly attractive and ideal presents – but so far I’m keeping mine to myself! The link between the literary and visual arts is an important step for book design as a whole, and led to Persephone’s edition of Joscelyn Playfair’s A House in the Country being shortlisted for the British Book Design Awards in 2003. Books should look beautiful, and these really do!

Award-winning design on display.
So far I have only read five Persephone novels, including 'Tea With Mr. Rochester' by Frances Towers, 'Consequences' by E. M. Delafield, and 'Someone at a Distance', by Dorothy Whipple; I am dying to read more, and hope that this will whet your appetite for a bit of good old-fashioned reading. If you want to order books, or a catalogue, or just marvel at their list, go to their website. There is also a Persephone Quarterly magazine, which is free after you have placed an order. Also, Persephone is more than just a publisher; they have monthly literary luncheons in London, and a weekend of seminars and study at Newnham College, Oxford.