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