July 2005

James Morrison

Small, but Perfectly Formed

Persephone Books

For those of us who find real joy in fossicking through publishers’ catalogs, it’s increasingly clear that it’s the smaller, lesser-known firms who are producing some of the best books. This is certainly true when you talk about resurrected older works. There are so many books sitting on my shelves that haven’t been in print for decades, but are easily as good as anything coming out today. When a publisher like Persephone Books comes along, dedicated to revitalizing forgotten classics, it’s a real cause for wine and dancing.

I’m certainly far from the first to shower deserving praise on Persephone, but I can at least feel smug about the fact that I’ve been reading their fine rediscoveries for almost as long as they’ve been producing them. They’re lovely looking books, too. Sturdy paperbacks in uniform dove-grey dust-jackets, each with different endpapers and bookmarks to match. They don’t just satisfy the reader but also the book-fetishist.

Every keen reader has their own idiosyncratic tastes, and one of mine is a particular enthusiasm for the numerous wonderful novels that came out of the United Kingdom from the 1920s to the 1950s. Some of the writers of these books—Graham Greene, Elizabeth Bowen, Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Isherwood, Rosamond Lehmann, E. M. Delafield, Aldous Huxley—are still widely read today. Others—such as the marvellous Patrick Hamilton and Julian Maclaren-Ross—undergo periodic rediscoveries, and a scattered few of their books stumble back into print. Others, though, seem almost completely forgotten, and the reason often has little to do with the quality of the writing.

This is where Persephone comes in. They focus principally on female writers, and the style and range of writers reminds me of the once-great Virago Modern Classics series, now heavily slashed since Virago was swallowed up by Time-Warner. Persephone remains resolutely independent, and is all the better for it. They have so far republished nearly 60 titles, all of which remain in print. Here I’d like to focus on a number of excellent novellas that are scattered through their selection.

Julia Strachey: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding (1932)
Now this, this is the business! Beautifully written, every-word-counts stuff from a niece of the waspish and peculiar Lytton Strachey, it follows the interactions of a family on the wedding day of one of its daughters. That the marriage is unlikely to be a success is soon apparent, but that does not stop this from being a wonderfully funny book. Almost nothing of apparent importance happens, but you’ll be thoroughly gripped. A demonstration of the value and power of the novella if ever there was one.

Duff Cooper: Operation Heartbreak (1950)
The only novel by a renowned soldier, parliamentary minister and ambassador, Operation Heartbreak is the life story of a man who wants to be a soldier but who can’t seem to get a war to fight in. Willie Maryngton is a surprising main character because, despite being such an idiot, he completely captures the reader’s affection. He’s something of a Victorian remnant trapped in the dead time between the world wars, plagued by hopelessly outmoded ideas of gentlemanly conduct and “honorable” warfare, desperate to fight but frustrated at every turn. The plain, unexcited style of the writing carries a surprising emotional weight, and the potentially unappetizing subject matter is made completely absorbing.

Marghanita Laski: Little Boy Lost (1949)
If you ever need your heart wrung, this is the book to do it. Laski was a determined feminist and socialist who could write like an angel, and here she tells the story of a father’s desperate search for his son in the ravaged France of 1945. It’ll shatter you -- and that’s a definite recommendation.

Marghanita Laski: The Victorian Chaise-longue (1953)
Described by one critic as “a little jewel of horror,” Laski’s novella is a simple but nastily effective time-travel story in which a modern woman falls asleep on the furniture of the title and wakes up in the body of a Nineteenth Century woman, trapped and desperate. This deserves to be as famous as The Yellow Wallpaper, and has a similar atmosphere of choking tension.

Virginia Woolf: Flush (1933)
If your attempts to read Virginia Woolf have given you the hives, but you still wonder what you’re missing out on, this is the book to try. Bizarrely enough, it’s the fictionalised biography of a spaniel belonging to the great poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It’s also a pioneering true-crime story about a fiendish dog-napping incident. My only criticism is that this book, unlike everything else on Persephone’s list, is already in print in several different editions. A missed opportunity to revive some more neglected treasure, perhaps.

Amy Levy: Reuben Sachs (1888)
A close friend of Oscar Wilde’s and a suicide at the age of 27, Levy was a great writer. Her insider’s satire on Jewish London life is also a spirited answer to George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. It has all the best bits of Victorian fiction, but with none of the padding. If ever a writer was crying out for a revival, it’s Amy Levy.

Persephone also publishes many other fine novels and story collections, as well as various diaries, memoirs and cookery books, all deservedly rescued from oblivion. Though they don’t count as novellas, I cannot avoid plugging Betty Miller’s Farewell Leicester Square, Mollie Panter-Downes’s Good Evening, Mrs Craven and Minnie’s Room, Leonard Woolf’s The Wise Virgins, and Elizabeth Sanxay-Holding’s The Blank Wall, because, frankly, they’re all just bloody great. Go to Persephone’s website (Persephonebooks.co.uk) and start buying.