Persephone Books: Bringing Forgotten Writers Above Ground

Music: Louboutins–Aubrey Logan

There’s a bookshop in London I’ve been dying to visit ever since I found out about it. Persephone Books: the independent publisher that reprints neglected mid-twentieth century books by predominantly female writers. The books are handpicked by a small team, and Persephone Books has a monopoly on most of its published works. With a small store in Bloomsbury and a healthy website, it’s not surprising that it’s surrounded by a loyal community of readers equally passionate about Persephone’s vision.

Thus, after a stretch of concert-filled weekends, I decided to reward myself with a visit. My fiancé and I took the train to London on Friday night, and after a few necessary errands to Whittard’s, Hamley’s, the National Gallery and a much-needed sojourn at the Royal Haymarket to rest our aching feet (in front of the RSC production of Love’s Labour’s Lost), we stopped off at Persephone Books on Lamb’s Conduit Street.

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It didn’t disappoint. A small tasteful shop, with neat piles of grey-jacketed books, and helpful staff reviews—not so much advertising as identifying the subject matter. There were a few familiar names on the spines—Noel Streatfield, Virginia Woolf—but I was resolved not to let any bias overtake me.

I wanted one book: a voice I could connect with, or maybe a conflict that appealed to me. I picked up almost every volume in the room, read a page or two, inspected the patterned endpaper, stroked the smooth pearly dustjacket. The books are incredibly handsome. They’re printed in Germany, I believe, and their appearance, weight, paper quality and print are incredibly pleasing to my bibliophilic little heart. No, no. I wanted one book. Just one.

The upshot of all this was The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding for myself, The Hopkins Manuscript by RC Sheriff for my fiancé, and Consider the Years, a book of verse by Virginia Graham.

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Our day’s purchases.

Graham immediately charmed us with her witty perspective on city life during WWII. Personally, I struggle to find poetry I enjoy; and although Graham herself called it verse rather than poetry, her humour and mastery delighted me. It’s surely destined to become a family favourite.

My fiancé tells me that The Hopkins Manuscript is ‘hilarious’. Having studied Sheriff’s well-known play Journey’s End at school, I’m curious about his prose, and will probably have devoured THM by the time I get round to writing another blog post.

The Blank Wall is No. 42 in the Persephone collection. The endpaper is copied from a period furnishing fabric, and the book comes with a matching bookmark. Interestingly, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding was hailed as great by Raymond Chandler, one of the ‘big four’ American suspense writers of the time. Yet although The Blank Wall has been adapted into two films, the book itself remained obsolete until Persephone Books republished it in 2003. My taste in literature is somewhat domestic, so it suited me to find a thriller from the perspective of a 1940s housewife. At first the main character, Lucia, frustrated me with her flustered ways and inner confusion. But her unlikely position as an accidental murder coverer-upper, her humanity, deceit, and capacity for doing the wrong thing with a complete lack of moral guilt, were so refreshing, that as the book progressed, I found myself enjoying her consistent inconsistencies more and more. Moreover, the central relationship of a mother and her daughter, with the father away fighting, will always have my attention. Without giving too much away, I loved The Blank Wall. Would read again.

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If you’re thinking of visiting Persephone Books, bear in mind that each and every book is priced at precisely £12.00—an excellent price for their quality, both literary and material. You can even purchase a subscription, whereby the bookshop will send you a book a month for as long as you subscribe—perhaps that would suffice for a Mother’s Day present. Or even, if you’re feeling indulgent, it would adroitly fill your hole of self-education into forgotten female writers of the last century.

A Change in Point-of-View

Music: Judie Tzuke–Blackfurs

Big news: I’ve finished Captain Corelli’s Mandolin!

I’ve learnt so much about Cephalonia, the fiasco of World War Two, and the passage of post-war civilisation. Gated, backward, quirky island culture was portrayed to a T (I should know). The humour was exactly my jam—from the first scene, during which Dr Iannis extracts a fossilised pea from his deaf patient’s ear. The characters were ridiculed without being trivialised, and the prose provoked thought without choking me on philosophy. I loved the recurring gags, such as the doctor’s system of peeing on his herbs in strict rotation.

Louis de Bernières is a master of bathos.

The eponymous character didn’t appear until over a third of the way through—an interesting decision, considering that the blurb gave me the impression of a love triangle. Yet I think it’s a strength of this book, and of many great works of literature. Note that Jane Austen limits even her ficklest characters to one love interest at a time (open to argument). Fact is, Pelagia is one of the greatest women I’ve ever read—she’s strong, honest, clever and unrelenting, admits temptation, admits regret, admits her morality is mostly circumstantial. Oh, yes, de Bernières pays great attention to the circumstantial! He’s not above beginning a chapter with ‘Dr Iannis was in a terrible mood for no reason other than the fact that it was a very hot day’ (or WTTE). It really is true to life.

Dayum, though. It gets dark. So much for a bittersweet, much-belated note of hope at the end: you only have to Google Cephalonia’s history to find out what the climax is plummeting towards.

Really what I want to discuss, though, is narrative perspective.

I often hear writers talking about which POV to use—first person, third, even second, tense. It can be hard to choose. I understand.

So, De Bernières was writing a massive ass hist fic. His solution to the which-perspective problem? ALL OF THEM. Chapter one is close third person on an unqualified, free-thinking Greek doctor. Chapter two is the first person monologue of Benito Mussolini!

There are chapters of letters showing the passage of time, chapters formatted like a dramatic duologue showing the progression of a relationship; it goes on. In the first half of the contents, seven chapters are entitled ‘L’Homosesuale’. It later becomes clear that these chapters are the sections of an Italian soldier’s ‘confession’ of his role in the war. This makes them easy to group and read in order later on, and see how his path crosses with the islanders.

I loved the thought and craft that went into it all—effortlessly, de Bernières sped up his pacing with a constantly surprising POV, incorporating aspects that broadened the story to far more than a mere romance or a tragic war crime. When you’re reading the POV of a goatherd mistaking bombs for fireworks, and an English parachuter for an angel, you know you’re in deft hands!

Now I talk about POV and me (because I’m self-centred like that). Ever since I started writing, it’s been in third person. I call it my ‘natural voice’; that’s where I feel comfortable. For that reason, I may have entertained a snobbish attitude at some point in my past, and for that I now apologise. I’m only just learning what a tool it can be to employ the right perspective. No POV is more valid, more correct or more effective than any other. It’s simply than different systems work for different books, and must be chosen accordingly.

I can’t believe how long it took me to recognise that! My WIP is in first person. It just is. One of my MCs has no physical presence (hard to explain, but it boils down to the word ‘ghost’). As a third person realistic contemporary writer, I’m soooo out my comfort zone it’s not even funny. But I got this. His first person POV feels so right.

Anyway, enough of me.

Check out this post by JA Goodsell, another #PitchWars hopeful, in which she discusses the merits of both first and third person and why it’s so important to think about your choice. 

Speaking of Pitch Wars, I’m so grateful to Brenda Drake and the team for putting together this enormous contest. ❤

I was lucky enough to snag some CPs via #FicFest a few months ago, with whose help I prepared my book for the contest. In submission week I met the Teen Squad (the other underage entrants (oops, that sounded as if PW has an age limit…)), and I’ve read two of their books so far. So. Much. Talent. I just want to squee about how wonderful and supportive this group is, how great it is to spar with GIFs, suss out our male characters’ underwear preferences, blaspheme against dentist appointments. These are real teens with teen worries and teen joys and a seriously good handle of real teen dialogue.

Rant over. It’s cool. I hope I’ll stay in touch with everyone I’ve swapped MSs with over the past three months, because what with my critique group and the #teensquad, I’ve finally found my people.

But hey, always room for more. Do comment your thoughts on de Bernières and/or narrative POV!