Thursday, June 25, 2009

Small Press Soapbox

I was introduced to Persephone Books incidentally when I read Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day last August. I had been trying to find a copy and the Persephone imprint was the only one I could find. I liked the book so much – a funny, delightful Cinderella story about nightclubs, jazz, and an old maid-ish woman finding joie de vivre quite by accident – that I made my friends try to watch the movie on my birthday. Though, as it was nearly one in the morning when we started, it’s safe to say it was rather a failure, as we fell asleep in the middle.

Since coming across Stuck in a Book’s blog, I’ve been looking out for Persephone books. The square fit, the thick, glossy covers, a challenge for the book collector… (Who doesn’t like sets of things?) There are only nine books available in the US, the Persephone Classics. The publishing house, which has two shops in London, has published another 72 titles which we are not able to access and which are all uniform, bound identically in grey with only the endpapers, taken from prints the year the book was originally published, differing.

Their purpose is described on the back cover French flap, “Persephone Books reprints forgotten twentieth century novels, short stories, cookery books and memoirs by (mostly) women writers. They appeal to the discerning reader who prefers books that are neither too literary not too commercial…” Persephone publishes authors which Virago Press has considered too soft and not feminist enough, the majority of which are published from the first half of the twentieth century, inter-war novels and books long out of print.

The second Persephone book I read was Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple, described by J.B. Priestley as the 20th century’s Jane Austen (as quoted by Leonie Cooper in the Guardian, February 2008). Written in the 1953, it is considered Whipple’s best work. A formerly affectionate and loving husband and father abandons his family for a young French temptress who is exorcising her own past and relieving her boredom by making every attempt at seduction. This happy, well-knit country family is driven apart by the affair and it is alarming to both the reader and the characters to see how quickly their lives separate and alter. Whipple does not attempt to make any grand statements about life, but allowing us to realize that even the oldest stories are still real and poignant to those who suffer through them. The happiest and most contented of homes can be driven apart and crushed by stereotypes. There is no easy path to redemption in this novel. The past is charred, the present painful, and the future holds no promise of a quick reunion. Whipple’s writing is sincere, non-showy, and empathetic.

Monica Dickens’ Mariana is a bildungsroman, the evolution of an ordinary girl named Mary (resembling Monica at times) with no great talents or qualifying characteristics aside from her three-dimensionality. It is, as Harriet Lane says in her introduction, “the portrait of a certain girl at a certain point in time in a certain place.” Set during the Second World War, cowering on her bed during a storm in which she hopes to hear that her enlisted husband has survived the wreckage of his ship, Mary relives her childhood summers at Charbury, her years of school and attempts at the stage, and above all, her search for love. Monica Dickens, the great-grand-daughter of Charles Dickens, is at turns humorous: “Old Strawberry was the Head Mistress…who was as sexless, omnipotent, and terrifying as God” and sincere, willing to suspend flippancy for the slow path towards self-awareness that na├»ve Mary makes: “You couldn’t die. You had to go on. When you were born, you were given a trust of individuality that you were bound to preserve. It was precious. The things that happened in your life, however closely connected with other people, developed and strengthened that individuality. You became a person.”

I put Mariana down at about 12 am last Monday night, being considerately high on coffee. Overwhelmed by my feelings – as coffee tends to affect me – I ran to my computer and sent the Persephone Press an enthusiastic email, vaguely hoping they would offer to fly me to England for a job as Official Lover of Their Books. The kind, staid reply came the next morning from Nicola Beauman, Persephone’s founder. (There was no job offer.)

Next, I will read Julia Strachey’s Cheerful Weather for the Wedding; having ordered it through the bookstore, I was shocked to see that while a bit more expensive than the previous volumes, it is significantly slimmer. Despite this foreseeable further drain on my bank account, I have decided to try and buy the Persephone books new and support the small publishing house, hoping for more to become available in the US as time goes by.

Give their blog, the Persephone Post, a look. Daily they post photos, paintings and various artifacts that appeal to the Persephone reader.

[Photos courtesy of Wheelmaker and Pipnstuff]


Michelle said...

Oh my goodness, they're so gorgeous... must resist urge to collect....

Paperback Reader said...

I am a lover of Persephone Books (and it is through them I discovered your blog as I am registered for Persephone Google Alerts) and find them to be truly beautiful. I was lucky enough to visit the Lamb's Conduit Street shop yesterday to pick up a copy of Katherine Mansefield's Journal to add to my collection.
Happy collecting!

Brigitte said...

Hi - was linked to your blog from my Google alert for Persephone.

Just wanted to let you know that the Book Depository in the UK ships free world-wide, including many Persephones.

Christy Edwall said...

Excellent, thanks - the Book Depository will probably be used very shortly.