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Persephone Books: Though she be but little, she is fierce!

Persephone, daughter of Zeus and married to Hades, is the Queen of the Underworld and the Goddess of Springtime, of new growth, of green shoots and of flowers. Persephone would seem the perfect name, then, for a small, almost cult-like, publishing house that unearths hidden treasures and celebrates female creativity.

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When Nicola Beauman founded Persephone Books in a room above a London pub in 1998, her intention was to publish female authors of the early twentieth century whose work had been unfairly lost or neglected. Almost two decades later Persephone has a catalogue of 122 books. The remit has been, albeit gently, expanded to include earlier and more recent works but Persephone operates with the proviso that they will only publish books that they ‘completely, utterly love.’ 

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Devoted also to the simple pleasure of holding and reading a beautiful book, Persephone Books have taken particular care in the design of their demure dove grey covers, their dispersion binding (which means the covers don’t crack when you lie the book flat) and their stunning, gorgeous endpapers. The endpapers might be based on furnishing fabrics of the appropriate era, or a silk dress ‘from a private collection’; what they evoke is a sense of quality and care, the antithesis of our current culture of disposability and convenience.

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In her Diary of a Provincial Lady, E.M. Delafield writes that ‘intelligent women can perhaps best perform their duty to their own sex by the devastating process of telling the truth about themselves.’ This sentiment is a common thread binding Persephone authors. Here are women, and a select group of men, who write the truth.

Whether it be Vere Hodgson’s Few Eggs and No Oranges, a gripping diary of life in wartime London, or Noel Streatfield’s Saplings, a study of the disintegration of a middleclass family, or Kay Smallshaw’s self-explanatory How to Run Your Home Without Help, what you get is honesty.

For those with an interest in food (everyone, surely), Persephone offer an abundance of good things. Florence White’s Good Things in England contains instructions for everything from making coffee to roasting swan. In They Can’t Ration These, Vicomte deMauduit , recommended foraging for food long before it was fashionable. Mrs Rundell was the Domestic Goddess of her day. Persephone Books present a facsimile of the 1816 edition of A New System of Domestic Cookery, which was a runaway success in Regency England.

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If I could find one fault with Persephone Books, in reality a fault in myself, it is that the obvious intelligence and elegance of this establishment is somewhat intimidating. Several women, whose taste in books I admire and trust, had to repeatedly nudge me towards these books while still I doubted whether they were for me. I didn’t understand, you see, that Persephone are champions of the Ordinary Housewife who dares to wield a pen.

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Persephone Books are a testament to resilience and to quietly heroic women who have always done more than simply keep the home fires burning. These books celebrate the creativity and achievement of women who write, women who grow flowers, women who put a dinner on the table every day of the week.

Hermione Lee, writing about a book which has, just this spring, been resuscitated by Persephone, wrote:

I have been haunted by Effi Briest...as I am by those novels that seem to do more than they say, to induce strong emotions that can’t quite be accounted for.

There, in a nutshell, is the essence of Persephone Books. They promise less, and deliver more.

The first four books in this list are those I have so far read, consumed in huge greedy gulps, the remainder are next on my wish list.

Diary of a Provincial Lady

‘Query, mainly rhetorical: Why are non-professional women, if married and with children, so frequently referred to as “leisured”? Answer comes there none.’

The Provincial Lady, who remains nameless, is kept busy entertaining guests, organising garden fêtes and ‘trying to reconcile grave discrepancy between account-book, counterfoils of cheque-book and rather unsympathetically worded communication from the bank.’ Her intellectual potential, clearly unsatisfied by the challenges of employing a satisfactory parlourmaid, is fulfilled by entering little league writing competitions in a local literary magazine and, presumably, by writing her diary.

This book made me laugh out loud until I snorted coffee out my nose in a most unladylike fashion, provincial or otherwise. Not just my favourite of the Persephone Books, so far, but quite possibly my new all time favourite. I plan to take this book as medicine, on repeat prescription, whenever Maudlin strikes.

Buy the Book
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Set in 1938 London, you might think of this as the book version of sitting down to watch a Fred Astaire film.

Miss Pettigrew is a ‘middle-aged, rather angular lady of medium height, thin through lack of good food, with a timid, defeated expression and terror quite discernible in her eyes, if anyone cared to look.’

A clerical error takes Miss Pettigrew to the doorstep of the self-styled Delysia LaFosse, an exotic starlet with charm, and men, to spare. After a staid and sensible lifetime of looking after other people’s children, facilitating other people’s adventures, a life of ‘spartan chastity and honour,’ Miss Pettigrew finally gets her chance, for one fairytale day, to see how the other half lives.

‘The fleshpots called: the music bewitched: dens of iniquity charmed.’

I found it was the book that bewitched, with charming illustrations and loveable characters who express the innate loyalty between women. Buy this book for a woman you know ‘who wouldn’t let another woman down.’

Buy the Book
Kitchen Essays

I have come across no book of recipes more beautifully, or seductively, written than Kitchen Essays .

‘Certain great moments of life can live on, safely stored in sub-conscious treasure houses, ready to be evoked at will for the refreshment of our spirits in hours of dearth or gloom.’

So begins the chapter entitled Thoughts of Venice from Home which includes excellent recipes for gnocchi, for a saffron risotto and for Fritto Misto which one can only imagine were almost unheard of in 1922.

Certainly, life was different when these essays were first published in The Times for the enjoyment and enlightenment of ladies who might then pass on the recipes to their cook or kitchen maid. What joy it is to imagine a time when tinned sweetcorn was a luxury to be procured from speciality suppliers or when an American cereal called Puffed Wheat was an irresistibly chic nibble to be served ‘lying invitingly on small mother o’ pearl shells...’

Still, things haven’t changed so much that you won’t find useful advice, for instance, on the use of ‘leftovers (as our American friends so neatly call them),’ or eating on the run:

‘No experienced traveller starts without a flask of brandy.’

Lady Jekyll’s recipe for ‘home-made Foie-Gras’, in reality a good chicken liver pâté, is a winner. Her Chelsea buns were the perfect breakfast-in-bed treat for a morning spent reading Miss Pettigrew and her Orange Jumbles went down a storm with a bowl of summer berries. Still on my list of must-makes are Chocolate Marée and real Barley Water.

Buy the Book
Making Conversation

Christine Trew married Edward, the sixth Earl of Longford in 1925 and moved permanently to Ireland where she wrote this and three other novels before she and her husband devoted their lives to keeping The Gate Theatre in Dublin alive. Making Conversation is an autobiographical novel about a young girl called Martha Freke who, like Longford, grows up without a father, and with a mother who makes ends meet by taking in paying guests. These guests, from spinster ladies to Serbian and Belgian refugees to a Greek Orthodox monk, provide Martha with a broad and unique education.

‘I don’t want to be anyone’s mistress,’ said Martha. ‘I’m not fond enough of physical exercise.’

This is a candid, excruciatingly honest, account of growing up, with all the painful embarrassment entailed. Longford, who was described by a contemporary reviewer as ‘a kind of Jane Austen with shingled hair and a cigarette between her lips,’ captures, with crystal clarity, all the torture of being shy and eager to please while champing at the bit to prove one’s intelligence.

Making Conversation is a must for fans of Nancy Mitford, or anyone who was young once.

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The Making of a Marchioness

Much of my time in the garden is spent trying to recreate the aura of escapism and retreat created by Burnett in The Secret Garden. I’m eager to discover her 1901 ‘wildly romantic’ novel for grown-ups. This Cinderella story has been rated by Rachel Cook as one of her best ever beach reads and described succinctly as ‘plain girl bags an aristo.’ 

Buy the Book
Greenbanks

‘The war had blown most people’s ideas sky-high, and the pieces had not yet come down. When they did come down, they would never fit together again as they had before the war.’

Greenbanks covers a period, from 1909 to beyond the end of the First World War, when women’s expectations were radically changed. Louisa, the matriarch of the Ashton family worries constantly about her adult children.

‘Always there was need of defending your children, no matter how old you got, you had to keep on with that...’

She worries about those children who she loves, according to some, too much and she worries equally about the one she no longer loves enough. As her children grow away from her, Louisa finds consolation in a bond with her youngest grandchild, a relationship which is free from expectations and disappointments. This is a book to remind each new generation of women of the courage of those who went before.

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Earth and High Heaven

Gwethalyn Graham remains a little known author even though, in 1944, Earth and High Heaven was a massive success. It sold one and a half million copies, was translated into fifteen languages and was the first ever Canadian book to top The New York Times bestseller list. Described as a Canadian Romeo and Juliet, Earth and High Heaven is set in Montreal during the Second World War. Graham tells the love story between Marc Reiser, a jew, and Erica Drake, a gentile and what’s more, ‘one of the Westmount Drakes.’

This is the most recent of Persephone’s publications and it seems tragic to note how relevant the themes of racism and exclusion remain today.

Buy the Book
Cheerful Weather for the Wedding

This looks like a bit of fun. It is about a girl who knows on her wedding day that she is about to make a mistake. It was described by The Guardian as a 'brilliant, bittersweet upstairs-downstairs comedy' and recommended as a subversive gift for a bride or her mother.

Buy the Book

To avoid confusion or disappointment, please note that where Persephone Books are listed as being available in two paperback formats, for example Kitchen Essays, the first, less expensive, format is a traditional paperback with a beautiful picture on the cover. The second, or slightly more expensive, paperback format boasts the distinctive Persephone grey cover, with a grey dust jacket, dispersion binding and exquisite endpapers.

Irish blogger and book reviewer. Official contributor to Bookwitty.com and author of Bookwitty's monthly 'Cooking the Books' feature. Erstwhile microbiologist with an MSc in Food Science, she ... Show More

3 Comments

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Nicola McKenna
Loved your intro to this piece SultanaBun, and oh how I love me a book binding that doesn't crack (no sarcasm, I really do)! Thanks for this, I will check out those books as soon as. Nicola.
Mellowshellie
This seems like a place I would love to visit. I feel like mentioning, I'm studying in a field complimentary to your masters and I find that cool :D
SultanaBun
Thanks so much for commenting. I think the Persephone shop is like a portal to another world! Good luck with your studies.

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