There is a determinedly un-modern feel to the grey-fronted shop-cum- office of Persephone Books in Lamb’s Conduit Street, a leafy Georgian oasis not far from the British Museum. A blue and white jug of irises balances on a pile of books in the window, a tailor’s dummy draped in a First World War nurse’s uniform stands near a table of Persephone books, open at their delicious patterned endpapers, and a good strong cup of tea arrives in a generous old-fashioned enamel pot. Indeed, one can quite easily imagine Miss Pettigrew, the governess heroine of Persephone’s best-selling title Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (first published in 1938), putting her head round the door and feeling perfectly at home.
But the cosiness is deceptive. Persephone Books, now five years old, is one of the real success stories of modern independent publishing. Like many such ventures, it was founded on the passion of one person, Nicola Beauman, who, after a working life as a writer and publisher’s reader, concluded that there were ‘a lot of wonderful books not in print’ and determined to set about reviving them. Her particular interest was in women writers of the interwar period, a subject on which she had already written a book, A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel, 1914–1939.
So she rented a basement in Clerkenwell (‘very cold but nice, and cheap’) and brought out her first three titles. One of them – Cicely Hamilton’s William: An Englishman (first published in 1919) – is, she says passionately, ‘the best novel ever written about the First World War’.
And the critical response to this outstanding book? ‘A resounding silence – it had no reviews.’
However, with her first mailing list of between two and three hundred names, mostly of friends and old university contacts, she carried on, convinced that there was a market for her books if only she could find it. Gradually a review appeared h
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