A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Can you believe that Persephone Books is almost 15 years old? I imagine many readers of Vulpes Libris will be very familiar with those beautifully elegant grey covers, holding not only interesting endpapers but wonderful books – for those who know not the joys that await them, let me explain. Persephone Books was set up in 1999 with the intention of publishing books which are (mostly) novels, (mostly) by women, and (mostly) from the early 20th century. There are plenty of exceptions to all three of those rules, but that gives you the gist.
No simple description can capture the joy these books have given me, and so many people, though. It wouldn’t be right to say that they are all cosy domestic novels (the reputation they have in some circles), because often dark things happen and difficult topics are addressed, but – collectively – they do have a nostalgia value that mingles with the intellectual and emotional rigour they present.
And I thought, for either the Persephone newbie or the fan who’s got plenty left to read, I’d have a flick through the catalogue and recommend some titles. I don’t love them all (and I haven’t read them all – I’ve read 45 of their 100 or so books, and dipped into a few others – but this is going to be a bright, positive post, so I shan’t mention the ones I don’t like as much. Come, join me on a higgledy-piggledy stroll through the catalogue, one thought leading to the next. Don’t expect reviews, or full synopses, but if anything takes your fancy – make sure to go to the online catalogue and have a look for yourself. And I’m happy to answer any questions in the comments.
Let’s start in the countryside. Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge is one of my favourite Persephone books, and is set in beautiful rural Oxfordshire – but isn’t all charm and roses, as it documents the difficulties and sacrifices a wife and mother must make. That rears its head elsewhere – in Richmal Crompton’s brilliant Family Roundabout (the book through which I found out about Persephone, having already read it in another edition), where two matriarchs with very different parenting styles learn about each other, their children, and compromise.
Those two books lead me off onto other Persephones about parenthood. What about the taut, heartbreaking Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski, where a man tries to track down the son he lost during the war – and is the boy he finds the right boy? The non-fiction equivalent is perhaps Mathilde Wolff-Monckeberg’s On The Other Side: Letters to my Children from Germany 1940-46, which should be essential reading for anybody wondering what war was like for Germans who were neither Jewish nor Nazi.
If this is feeling a bit too dark for your current read, why not try the equally inventive, but rather more comic, Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd. If you can swallow the conceit that Miss Ranskill has been on a desert island for the beginning of the war, then you’ll love the unusual slant on the war through the eyes of someone who has no idea what’s going on. It’s far from knockabout farce, but it is a brilliant way of presenting the insanities and inanities which accompanied WW2. And if it’s a critique of war you’re after, look no further than the misleadingly-cosily-named A House in the Country by Jocelyn Playfair. Finish off a wartime trio with Doreen by Barbara Noble, about the emotional and protective tussle between a mother and a temporary mother over an evacuee.
For something rather happier, grab Greenery Street. Denis Mackail’s novel portrays one of those unusual fictional creations – the happy marriage! It’s sweet and fun. Also great fun (and oddly daring) is Persephone’s runaway bestseller, Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson. You can even watch the film of that – and while we’re talking about Persephones which have been filmed since their reprint, Julia Strachey’s Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is surreal and bizarre – fantastically showing the curiosities of a family gathering for an ill-advised wedding day (and the film is good too).
I wrote ‘runaway’ in that paragraph, so it’s an apt moment to mention another of my favourites – The Runaway by Elizabeth Anna Hart, evocatively illustrated with Gwen Raverat woodcuts. A Victorian children’s book, it’s about a girl who finds another girl in the shrubbery… and it’s just lovely.
If that’s enough fun and frivolity, then you’re ready for some more hard-hitting fiction. Consequences by the exceptional E.M. Delafield is almost unremittingly painful, as Alex feels shut out of life wherever she turns, but Delafield is incapable of writing a bad book and this will put you through the wringer and leave you the better for it. Persephone-favourite Dorothy Whipple is at her best with Someone at a Distance, documenting a husband’s affair and the subsequent downfall of the marriage, but going a step further back and examining what brought the affair about. Ready for more? The first Persephone book, William – an Englishman by Cicely Hamilton, is about as uncosy as it’s possible to get, about an ingenuous couple of socialists who get dangerously caught up in the horrors of WW1.
I could go on for ages, but I think that’s probably enough. Well, I will finish with one more – Nicola Beauman’s A Very Great Profession. Nicola Beauman is the brains behind the publishing house, and each book is ultimately her choice. A Very Great Profession is in many ways the genesis of Persephone – a 1980s non-fiction overview of the middlebrow novel, many of the titles mentioned eventually found their way into grey covers.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this rigorous run through the pages of the Persephone catalogue. Do ask in the comments if you’d like any more details about any of these books, or other Persephone titles – or want to say your favourite – and do, of course, check out the Persephone website for more info.
Simon Thomas blogs at Stuck-in-a-Book and has been loving Persephone Books since 2003.