September 2004

Colleen Mondor

features

Reading with Persephone Books

Like all voracious readers, I have my own particular set of likes and dislikes. I don’t consider myself particularly highbrow or lowbrow, I can very easily be deep in the middle of some heavy nonfiction while also juggling the latest Robert Parker Spenser mystery. I tend to go heavy on the history titles, but I also adore Ray Bradbury and make weekly visits to my local comic shop for a whole variety of comics I have collected for years, Batman chief among them. I think a certain amount of eclecticism is important in a person’s reading material, the more well-rounded the better. The one thing I have never been, though, is a slave to a certain publisher. Even the smallest of houses have published titles that I do not like as often as they have turned out those that I enjoy. So I’m choosey all the time, making sure a book sounds exactly right before I pick it up. That was how I used to be however, before I discovered Persephone Books. Now I know exactly what I want to buy four times a year, because it is whatever they are publishing.

Persephone Books was started in the Spring of 1999 by Nicola Beauman. Nicola, who authored A Very Great Profession: The Women’s Novel 1914-1939, was acutely aware of the many lost twentieth century women writers. In forming a feminist press, she chose to publish mostly titles from that period, but more importantly, focus on books that express a brand of feminism not as defined by the 1960s or Ms magazine. Persephone, by its own definition, “differs from other feminist publishers in that they are more accessible, more domestic, the feminism is ‘softer'." As Nicola explained to me in a recent email exchange, “Modern feminism is much gentler, less aggressive, realistic, accepting that people have children and have equality with each other.” What all this means when it comes to the books is that the titles often focus on the challenges raised between home and the uncertain world that surrounds it. Many of them contrast the harsher ‘real’ world with “the secure family-based inner life." The fact that most of the books were originally published over sixty years ago (and some much earlier than that) has not affected their relevance. Author Elizabeth Cambridge, whose autobiographical novel Hostages to Fortune was published in 1933, centers around family life in an Oxfordshire village. It is not an usual or dramatic topic so I was curious as to why Cambridge’s novel merited publishing again, as opposed to a new novel written by a current author on the same general subject. It was an easy question for Nicola who responded, “…I can’t think of a writer I could honestly say was better than her [Cambridge], so in theory a modern writer could enlighten more [about this period] but they don’t.” And I guess that is the point, these are books written about people and places and a way of life that no one seems to write about nearly as well anymore. The kicker, of course, is that they are all just flat out great books to read. (Particularly Cambridge’s book which was so quietly sad and subversive that I almost didn’t realize how great it was until I was done.)

Over the years Persephone has developed a catalog that includes some recognizable names beside titles that most readers have never heard of. Noel Streatfield, who gained famed writing the children’s “shoe” books, had her very adult novel Saplings published by Persephone. Katherine Mansfield’s short story collection The Montana Stories is found here, as is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s commentary on Victorian relationships and marriage, The Making of a Marchioness. I recently read The Wise Virgins by Leonard Woolf, ordering it primarily ( I am chagrinned to say) because I had never heard of this novel by Virginia Woolf’s husband. Virgins was an unfortunate casualty of both World War I and Virginia’s more overwhelming literary success but it has found a happy home with Persephone. By the end of Woolf’s book I was shocked, stunned in fact, by the turn of events and yet I realize in retrospect that I should have expected it all along. I have just grown so unaccustomed to this style of writing, to the type of books where very quiet things happen in very dramatic ways to perfectly normal people without anyone thinking twice about it. Woolf reminded me yet again why I love this publisher so much. At Persephone they know that drama is found most often in the little moments every day, you just have to sit still and read long enough to notice it. Perhaps the most perfect example of this type of book, and my favorite Persephone title to date, is The Home-maker.

Originally published in 1924, The Home-maker is about obsessively determined housewife and mother, Evangeline, and her downtrodden husband, Lester. After an accident turns their world upside down they are forced to reconsider everything they know about a husband and wife’s familial duty. The effect of the ensuing role reversal on their children is the most fascinating aspect of the book as author Dorothy Canfield Fisher drops her readers head-first into the world as seen from a child’s perspective and does it so masterfully that you will be completely blown away. Go ahead, I dare you to read the scenes between Lester and his son Stephen and not be shaken into reconsidering everything you thought you knew about raising children. As Nicola wrote to me, “there’s nothing to match The Home-maker about role-swapping, she [Fisher] said it all, really.”

This is the book that belongs at baby showers everywhere and beyond that in the hands of any man or woman who has an interest in what makes a healthy happy family. I still cannot believe that The Home-maker was written in 1924 or that it ever fell out of print. For saving this book alone, Persephone would always have me in its debt.

A particularly unique thing about Persephone editions is their appearance: the classy silver bindings, all of them identical, and the unique end papers that color each book. The end papers are chosen carefully from fabrics that illustrate either the time period or the book’s emotional content. For They Knew Mr. Knight a novel by Dorothy Whipple about a normal family brought to tragic circumstance through the machinations of a crooked financier, brown and black endpapers suggest the industrial town the book is set in while the color reflects both menace and subtle threat. Conversely, for Marjory Fleming, the biographical novel about the child prodigy of the same name who died at the age of eight, the paisley endpapers reflect a choice of the most personal kind, “a shawl that she [Marjory] might have been wrapped in when, apparently recovered from measles, she was carried downstairs by her father in December 1811 [shortly before she died].” For Good Evening Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes, the choice was a design called "Coupons." This fabric, which dates to 1941, shows women’s clothing against a repeat of the number 66, the number of clothes coupons allowed a year during WWII. As this title is a collection of short stories from that period, the design could not be more perfectly matched to the content. All of the endpapers reflect an attention to detail that is rarely found in publishing today and thus that much more appreciated by the company’s fans. Each book is also accompanied by a bookmark that matches the endpaper exactly. It’s just another nice touch that we just aren’t used to from the big guys.

Every quarter Persephone sends out a lovely newsletter, which highlights not only the most recent offerings but also news, notes, short stories and reader essays. The Quarterly is a way for the company to stay in touch with its readers, and to extend a certain level of appreciation toward them for their business. It also makes us hungry for more books. This summer, as they published their 50th book, I was struck by the vast difference in the latest offerings discussed in the Quarterly. The World That was Ours is a memoir by Hilda Bernstein whose husband was arrested and tried with Nelson Mandela as one of the "men of Rivonia" in 1963. This book is about the days after his arrest and the trial that followed in what was one of South Africa’s darkest hours. The other new book is Bricks and Morter by Helen Ashton, a popular but now unknown inter-war author who wrote “entertaining and interesting novels” some of which became best sellers. In Bricks Ashton gives us the life of a London architect over a thirty-five year period beginning in 1892. It is unusual as it is about “a very decent, simple, sweet-minded creature who realizes that his marriage has been a mistake yet makes the best of things in a touching and impressive way.” Could there be two books less alike? And yet they fit so squarely in the Persephone mold, as Nicola reminded me by mentioning one of their earlier titles, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-43. “Hilda Bernstein’s book is about one of the key horrors of the twentieth century,” writes Nicola, “and sits well, I think, with Etty Hillsum’s letters and diaries.” Both bore witness to tragedy, and thus South Africa and Amsterdam find themselves standing side by side on the shelf of Persephone readers.

Persephone Books is the best kind of small publisher, one dedicated to its customers and determined to satisfy its own high standards for quality. Their collection is eclectic, unusual, and often surprising. “If I allow myself pride,“ writes Nicola, “I am proud that the fifty books form a collection -- I suppose I hope that if you bought all of them you wouldn’t need any other books -- hence cookery books, poetry, funny, serious, deep, lightweight." I could add to that list horror, thrillers, historical novels and nonfiction works about women and war and people whom we all should know but have sadly lapsed into obscurity. Persephone Books is an outstanding publisher and Nicola Beauman has every right to be proud. She and her staff have accomplished a wondrous thing in the modern publishing environment, a company with a cardinal rule, “we have to love every book.” The beauty of it is that their readers have happily fallen in love with each successive publication. Personally, I’m so glad I discovered them and I can hardly wait for my next Persephone delivery.