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A Publisher in Bloomsbury

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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 he

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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 here, a newspaper piece there, until word began to get around that there was an interesting new mail-order firm publishing forgotten novels that you simply couldn’t put down. And two years ago, with 20 books on her list (all still available – Persephone books are kept in print – and all costing a standard £10), she moved to the premises in Lamb’s Conduit Street – smaller, but slightly warmer, and more central – and opened the shop. There is something restful and reassuring about the look – and feel – of a Persephone book, with its silvery-grey jacket, good-quality cream pages and interesting endpapers based on fabric designs from the era in which it was first published. On the jacket flap each carries a carefully selected extract rather than a shrill self-advertising blurb. One has the sense of being intelligently spoken to rather than shouted at. ‘I arrived at the design because I like French books, which are very uniform,’ says Nicola Beauman. ‘And I use fabrics because I think they are the great unsung art form, and they are usually designed by women.’ What goes on between those restrained covers and bright endpapers, however, tends to be neither restful nor reassuring. The focus of these novels may be domestic, but they are not simply indulgences in nostalgia. How uncannily modern are the dilemmas that drive Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s family in The Home-Maker (1924) – described by Carol Shields as ‘a remarkable and brave novel about being a house husband’. There may be no overt sex in Brook Evan  (1928), Susan Glaspell’s haunting story of first love and its legacy, but its effect is electric. As one reader wrote, ‘I couldn’t sleep or read anything else after I had finished it, I just lay there feeling a bit stunned.’ And as for Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple (1953), about the breakup of a happy marriage – ‘At the end of a Whipple novel you are gutted,’ says Nicola simply. Now there are 46 books in the catalogue – not all of them fiction, and not all of them by women (and not all English: the first two of these are American) but most dating from the period encompassing the two world wars. ‘I think this was a great age of literature. The a verage middlebrow writer then wrote infinitely better than now, ’ says Nicola Beauman. ‘Their style is better, their sentence structure is better and they have plots, of course – fantastic plots. I’d be devastated if someone couldn’t finish one of our books.’ On the contrary, their letters indicate that Persephone readers stay up, gripped, into the small hours: ‘I read The Wise Virgins almost at a sitting. . .’ ‘Had Little Boy Lost not got so nerve-wracking towards the end, I would have read it in one go. . .’ ‘I loved Hostages to Fortune – what spare writing and how relevant it seems today . . . your books arrive like a little oasis . . .’ Not all regular Persephone readers are female either – about ten per cent of them are men. Today Persephone is something of an institution, with its ow n quarterly newsletter, monthly readers’ lunches and even, last summer, a weekend conference at Newnham College, Cambridge, addressed by a clutch of high-profile women speakers, which was declared hugely enjoyable and an outstanding success, and is now to become an annual event. The staff has increased from one helper to a small network, mostly part-timers, including ‘a lovely young man who comes in after work’ and does the design bits on computer, and Nicola’s two daughters, who deal with the complexities of the website and the database (one is wrestling with label-printing now, amid supportive cries of ‘Well, it is doing it, but just not in quite the right place.’). It all looks rather relaxed and informal, but in fact it is incredibly hard work, especially the constant struggle for new readers. As Nicola says, ‘No grown-up publisher in a suit would do it, it’s so labour-intensive. I just feel a bit grief-stricken that there are so many people who would enjoy our books that we can’t get at without massive advertising, which I can’t afford. I feel’, she adds thoughtfully, ‘that if only they knew about Dorothy Whipple, their lives would be so enriched . . . But then she brightens. After all, Persephone was the Greek goddess of renewal who returned each year from the underworld, heralding the spring. ‘What I think is special about Persephone is that if you like one of our books, you’re probably going to like the next one,’ she says. ‘It’s a kind of loyalty, a feeling that you’ll not be disappointed. And we’re certainly not going to run out of books.’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 1 © Hazel Wood 2004


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