Walking into Persephone Books is like entering a time portal to the 1940s. Dotted around the shop-cum-publishing house are cloche hats on stands, comfortable looking armchairs and vases filled with tulips whilst classical piano music tinkles cheerfully out of the wireless. Customers happily drift about, declining any offers of help while the staff busy themselves in the tiny publishing office at the back, surrounded by stacks upon stacks of grey tomes and government WWII posters. The Apple Mac computers instead of type writers are the only thing that brings you back to the present. Like the novels it sells, the shop is simply pure escapist bliss.
I arrive just in time for tea and sponge cake (they always make time for afternoon tea) and sit down to chat with Lydia Fellgett who works on the publishing team. The Persephone women appear to live in a delightful literary bubble, which many office drones would be envious of. “We always talk about the dangers of ‘Leonard Bast-ing’ ourselves because our books are so precariously stacked up against the walls!” she notes. Naturally all of them are book lovers and happy to offer customers advice, knowing all the books and their authors inside out. “It’s a very personal service” Lydia explains, “You feel like you’re part of something. It’s lovely to have people come in and talk to you about books! We always print our customer’s reviews or blogs in our biannual newsletter – their opinions are an integral part of what we do at Persephone.”
But more than just being book enthusiasts, the team are also part of a wonderful and unique project. The basic mission of Persephone Books is to rediscover mostly female writers from the past, who have been unjustly forgotten and introduce them to a whole new generation of readers. However men aren’t excluded altogether as Lydia points out. “Although a lot of our books are written for women, we estimate that maybe 20% of our readers are male. We do have books with male protagonists and also a book by Virginia Woolf’s husband Leonard Woolf, together with other male writers RC Sherrif, Arthur Hugh Clough and Nicholas Mosely among many others!”
The Birth of Persephone Books
Founder Nicola Beauman was struck by the idea for Persephone 25 years ago, when she wrote a book called A Very Great Profession, about female writers in the years between World Wars I and II. This led Beauman to decide she was going to publish some of these writers whose books were no longer in print. An ambitious and some might say risky venture, but already a successful publisher, Beauman used her literary knowledge and business nous to get it off the ground.
“1999 was the year Persephone was founded, and we published six books, all of which were very different.” Lydia explains. “These included William – an Englishman, a WW1 epic; Mariana, a coming of age English classic ; Someone at a Distance, a novel on marriage and infidelity in the 1950s and The Victorian Chaise-Longue, a ghost story. All were completely different, but these were all women authors who Nicola loved. And thankfully our lovely loyal readers did too!”
Obviously Beauman’s choice of books was going to make or break the business. “If you’re a small publisher you have to pick and choose more carefully- if they’re literary or not they just have to be good reads. As a publisher you obviously have to be extremely well read, and you develop an instinct over time, as to what will work and what won’t. The title is important, which sounds incredibly shallow but if you’re a small publisher you need a memorable title, because the reason most books sell is by word of mouth. Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day is a great title because it’s a really memorable name. You also need a great first line, which again sounds incredibly shallow but when people are browsing for a new read, they’ll usually glance at the first page of a book they might buy. So from the get-go, they need to be instantly hooked.”
The lack of excessive branding and commercialism is evident in the minimalist grey book covers. “Nicola really liked that French tradition of publishing – keeping everything very plain and simple. But inside the end papers of each book are prints of textiles from the year the book was written – and in subtle ways they relate to its text. Textile design is also another specifically female art form, as most designers are and were generally women, so it’s rejuvenating that they too are being rediscovered in the same way as our authors.”
Their best-selling author is Dorothy Whipple. “She writes what we call ‘hot water bottle novels’ – you curl can up with them and just lose yourself in the story. And from the first line of Whipple’s novel Someone at A Distance you get this incredible sense of what could happen. You’re immediately ‘in there.’ I think these are the deciding factors for a publisher.”
Period Fiction from Persephone
The 1930s and 40s were obviously a tumultuous time in Britain. So why do Persephone Books focus mainly on this period? “After the First World War there were so few men, that a lot of women didn’t get married, so they had to forge a living for themselves – and they also had the time to write,” Lydia explains. “So instead of having babies they wrote books!”
“Dorothy Whipple sold millions of her books when they were first published in the 30s and 40s. Her last book came out in the 1950s and didn’t receive a single review. It’s kind of symptomatic of that age of women’s writing – not dying out necessarily – but in a sense tailing off; when women were meant to retreat back to their ‘place’ in the home as the men returned from war.”
Obviously since then, society has moved on, and although it is still difficult for women to combine work and motherhood, we are obviously a lot less hindered than our grandmothers’ generation. Yet still women of today still seem to enjoy visiting the WWII era through films, vintage clothing, Blitz parties – and of course novels. “Although second wave feminism has made an enormous difference to women’s working and private lives, books from this period have lost none of their resonance on an emotional and intellectual level,” explains Clara Jones, another publisher at Persephone. “For example, Someone at a Distance tells the story of marital breakdown and of a woman struggling to create a new life for herself with such skill and poignancy that it strikes a chord with every contemporary woman reader.”
And obviously women enjoy escaping into the unrivalled glamour of the 30s and 40s, best demonstrated the highly addictive Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Persephone’s best-selling book. Author Winifred Watson writes of a depressed and downtrodden governess who arrives at a new post at 10am, only to be swept up in the glamorous and extravagant world of concert halls, cocktails and jealous suitors thanks to her highly hedonistic and child-like mistress.
“We discovered Miss Pettigrew, when someone came into the shop and said it was her grandmother’s favourite book. We ended up falling in love with it and eventually so did our readers!” Frances McDormand read it and ended up playing the central character in the 2008 Hollywood film, which also starred Amy Adams and Shirley Henderson (it’s not as good as the book – be warned!) A blown-up poster of the film sits proudly on top of the book shelves – evidence of what can be achieved by rummaging through a heap of forgotten books.
Are any of their rediscovered writers still living? “We have a few authors who are still with us like Emma Smith, who’s an amazing woman and a natural story-teller. We have monthly book groups and she came along to the one that focused on her novel, The Far Cry. She sat on the upholstered arm chair and told us about her life – I don’t think we even spoke about the book! We just listened to her stories, completely mesmerised.”
A Room of One’s Own…
Why is writing and novels particularly popular with women as opposed to other artistic forms? “Historically, writing suited women as a creative outlet in so far as it is an activity that could be pursued in the hours snatched between domestic obligations and caring for children.“ Clara explains.
The wonderful aspect of Persephone Books (and why many customers sign up to automatically receive every new release) is their accessibility. Was there a reason why they didn’t want to venture too far down the more literary route? “I think the word ‘literary’ is quite a frightening one and that’s not what these books are at all! These are meant to be books for mainly women who want a bit of escapism- we do have more literary books. Every Eye I suppose is literary – depending on what that word means of course. I suppose you could use it to describe books that are denser than your average read, and heavily stylised. But our books are about everyday women’s lives and so academics have decided that that’s probably not a literary thing.”
As well as novels, Persephone also publishes several collections of short stories. “These are perfect for modern women I think, because you can read each one in the 20 minutes on the bus to and from wherever – or before you go to bed at night. A lot of the time it’s difficult to read a whole novel as we don’t have the time or the energy, so I think short stories fill that gap perfectly. Lots of people come into the shop and they say “Ooh no! Not short stories!” But I love them. We went to Port Elliot festival in Cornwall at the weekend, and we were doing an ‘elevenses’ [tea and a snack taken at 11 o’clock] with Diana Athill whose short stories we’re going to publish this spring. They were published in the States but were never published here because the genre is less popular with the British market. The mistake people make is that they read them all at once, when they’re really like a box of chocolates. You say “I’m just going to have one.” And then you have the whole box! When you know you just stick to one- to enjoy them more you need a pause in between to relish each one!”
What is it about the art of story-telling and the written word that seems to appeal to women so much? “Women like narratives, they like stories and storytelling. That’s where these kind of ‘gossip mags’ appeal to a female readership. Women are more verbose in general. If you look at what people read on the tube, women are almost always reading fiction and men are almost always reading non-fiction. Not to say this is true all of the time, but I’d say 90% and women will read novels. And that’s reflected in the Persephone list- although we do have great non-fiction. The World That Was Ours by Hilda Bernstein (whose husband was arrested with Nelson Mandela in South Africa) is her account of their lives during Apartheid in Johannesburg and about their eventual escape to England. And then there’s the author Etty Hillesum [a Jewish writer who was sent to a concentration camp] whose diaries we published about her life in Amsterdam. Next year we’re doing a suffragette novel- it’s quite hard to find a good novel written by a suffragette, because they were so busy campaigning they didn’t have time to write. But we’ve found one, which is great. But we’ll happily publish any type of book if it’s good and has the right kind of feel or subject matter.”
Would they call themselves a feminist bookshop? “We’re not feminist with a big “F” – maybe ‘soft feminists?’ People are scared to say they are feminists these days, but we are feminist but we’re not (adopts voice of a pantomime-villain) feminist!”
Feminist or not, if such a wonderful project like this can exist, and so many inspiring women were able to write in such a fraught period of history and create page-turning reads that are now flying off Persephone’s shelves, then maybe there’s hope for all of us struggling ‘would-be’ novelists out there…
Recommended Reads from Persephone Books
● Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day – Winifred Watson (1938)
A dowdy governess undergoes a Cinderella-style transformation and turns her life around in the space of 24 hours.
● The Far Cry – Emma Smith (1949)
To escape her frivolous mother’s clutches, 14 year old Teresa is dragged to India by her socially awkward and distant father.
● They Were Sisters – Dorothy Whipple (1943)
When three sisters each marry very different men, the story looks at how their respective lives subsequently turn out.
● Mariana – Monica Dickens (1940)
A humorous coming of age story, about a young girl growing up in 1930s England,
● Good Evening Mrs Craven – Mollie Panter-Downes (1939 – 1944)
A series of short stories Panter-Downes originally wrote for the New Yorker, focusing on domestic life (‘separation, sewing parties, fear and obsession with food’) during the Second World War.
Persephone Books is located at 59 Lamb’s Conduit Street London WC1N 3NB.
Books are £10 each or £27 for three. More information is available on the Persephone Books website.