A Post about Persephone

Readers of this blog, gentle and otherwise, may remember that I do appreciate distinctive editions that champion forgotten or out of favour books. I went to Persephone books last Tuesday, for a talk about Richmal Crompton. Crompton created William Brown, although she labelled him “a loathsome child” when she realised his fame eclipsed her forty one (yes, 41) novels for adults. Persephone publish one of them, Family Roundabout, and it was this that Dr Sara Lodge from St Andrews University was going to talk about, focussing on women wielding what influence they could in restricted circumstances; on neglected children and on bad writers. I’m glad women are less restricted now even if life still ain’t perfect, and of course I care about neglected children. But what really made my heart leap was the prospect of discussing bad writers. Who hasn’t had fun with the Bad Sex Awards and men writing women? Who can forget the lady novelists who come to live near William and express an anthropological interest in the doings of the Outlaws, or the pompous, detached male and female authors who claim personal hotlines to the souls of their unrealistic child heroes?

The talk was accessible and interesting, but I must admit my attention wandered once I knew the bad writers would feature at the end. My excuse is that the distractions at Persephone are hard to ignore. It’s the prettiest of shops, with framed posters and light wood bookshelves stacked with elegant books in trademark pale grey or with fine art covers (introduction and bookmarks part of the package). There are vases of flowers dotted among the vintage fabrics or in corners warmed by reading lamps. “You’ve just entered the 1940s,” said my friend when I arrived.

The shop was closed for the talk (I think), and crammed in nearly thirty of us on this cold day. “I knew the coats would be good!” someone remarked, examining the audience’s well chosen colours, natural fabrics and print dresses. The embarrassed lady who arrived late was found a place so graciously that I almost wanted to be in her sensible shoes. On the shelves at my elbow, leaving just room for our glasses  of wine or fruit juice, were stacks of books by Elizabeth von Armin (my mother’s favourite), Dorothy Whipple, Frances Hodgson Burnett. I discovered Amy Levy, “the Jewish Jane Austen”, recommended by Oscar Wilde. To my great joy there was Noel Streatfield, and having loved A Vicarage Family I was delighted to find a work for adults I hadn’t read. I rediscovered Marghanita Laski  – if you have never read Little Boy Lost you have a powerfully poignant treat in store. I remember Laski as a customer when I worked at my father’s bookshop and am so pleased Persephone have brought this and other books of hers back to life.

Half listening and half inspecting the room, it was no time before headmistressy* hands were clapped and we were asked to form a line for lunch (no need to ask this audience to make it an orderly line). And what a lunch! Delicious healthy mixed salads, fresh baguette and good cheese, chocolate pudding, more wine or fruit juice, and tea served in bone china cups with, of course, saucers. I almost wish I sweetened my tea, as I’m sure there must have been sugar tongs.

*A much loved headmistress, I think.Persephone 5

Once we were suitably replete and had digested, Dr Lodge’s talk continued. The pathos of the neglected children who recur in Crompton’s work was explored, the little girls dressed up as accessories to their mothers but not loved, the children whose parents forget their birthdays, the children whose needs and wishes are ignored and who are, occasionally, slapped. Oliver Twist it isn’t, but Crompton does criticise upper middle, middle class and nouveau riche ideas for bringing up children, or indeed leaving it to the servants and forgetting to check. The satire is gentle, but satire there is. Marriages are respectably unhappy, with cruel chinks in the polished face they present to the outside world, which mainly consists of suburbia. Crompton, a spinster, lived in Chislehurst, Kent and there were hints that in a later generation she might have chosen a female partner.

Then came the bad writers – Arnold Palmer from Family Roundabout apparently writes “tripe with a revolting veneer of literary virtuosity”. I can’t wait to learn more of him when I read my new copy properly instead of skimming it for quotes to give this blog post a veneer of authenticity. And finally questions, thanks to Sara (“So interesting! And not too academic!”) and a chance to browse and chat.

Persephone are interested in suggestions for forgotten authors they might republish (not only fiction). I see they already do one Ruth Adam but would love to see I’m Not Complaining reissued, and a book much loved by my mother and my 1970s self, glimmers to me from the past. This was Life with Lisa (1958) and a companion Leave it to Lisa, by Sybil Burr. I wish I still had them. They were Young Adult when teenagers had barely been invented.

What a discovery! If you’re in London, do visit, and if not they have an online catalogue of lovely ideas  – they will post you a gift wrapped book a month, for example. I’d like to thank friends Gill and Sheila for inviting me along, Persephone books for their hospitality, their imagination, and giving me the chance to use the word “spinster”. And advance thanks too: as a poor selling but well reviewed lady author I’m hoping that in seventy years Persephone books of the future will rescue my own Magic Carpet and Infinity Pool, dress them in a grey jacket and make me a vintage star.

©Jessica Norrie 2019

 

22 thoughts on “A Post about Persephone

  1. I enjoyed this post, and I’m ready to book a flight to London to attend the next event at Persephone Books! I clicked over to their website, and my buying finger was just itching and twitching on the mouse. Truly, so many books, so little time!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord Blog Magazine and commented:
    I am sure that many of you remember books that you read as a child or classics that are now out of print and you would love to read again. Jessica Norrie was invited to a talk at Persephone Books where they reprint books that have been set aside.. Here is a bit about the company…”Persephone Books reprints neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers. All of our 132 books are intelligent, thought-provoking and beautifully written and are chosen to appeal to busy people wanting titles that are neither too literary nor too commercial. We publish novels, short stories, diaries, memoirs and cookery books; each has an elegant grey jacket, a ‘fabric’ endpaper with matching bookmark, and a preface by writers such as Jilly Cooper, David Kynaston and Elaine Showalter.” Head over an enjoy Jessica’s account of the day and talk and I think it is a wonderful discovery..They have an online store and I enjoyed a great browse… #recommended

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Sally – and mist add that I’m racing through “Family Roundabout”, the book the talk was about. It’s what old fashioned reading dies best – sympathetic characters, good plot, little “ouch” moments we all recognise. A book to save for the next train journey or when you have a cold.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Such a marvellous account of your day – it felt like being there – thank you! It’s a long time since I’ve been to a Persephone lunch but I remember loving every minute and once I had the thrill of meeting Nina Bawden. As for Little Boy Lost – isn’t it one of those books that you never want to stop thinking about? I remember writing in a review that ‘There’s a marvellously thoughtful and illuminating afterword by Anna Sebba in the Persephone editions, but don’t look at this before finishing the book.
    And despite the devastating tension, resist the temptation to skip ahead. You need to read every word to grasp the significance of the ending. If ever a novel had a perfect final sentence, this is it.’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a lovely full comment! Will do my best to reply but on a tube train… I first read Little Boy Lost as a teenager. My parents would have recommended it. I grew up in a part of north London where most of my friends were Jewish and had lost grandparents or family in the war, so it would have felt quite personal. It’s also beautifully crafted although I’m sure I didn’t think in those terms then, and has repaid rereading several times since. Hooray for “quiet” books!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Lovely post. It sounds like a magical day. I have used Persephone’s online service but would love to visit the shop one day. I was buying DE Stevenson books – have you read any? I still have my parents’ Book Club copy of The Village by Margharita Laski.

    Liked by 1 person

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