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.

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