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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Jerusalem: Hymn of England

Today I played at Beamish Museum in a celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the hymn ‘Jerusalem’. Beyond doubt, it’s worth a blog post. (Side-note: I can’t seem to keep a consistent tone in my writing today. I hope it isn’t horribly noticeable.)

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I’ll begin with its history. Set the scene: 1916. For two long years, war had decimated the youth of Europe. Ypres. Verdun. Loos. Arras.

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On Thursday I spent half an hour at Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium. The number of graves–and the number of those unmarked–…

Poet Laureate Robert Bridges had recently edited an anthology of patriotic verse, and rediscovered in it the sixteen lines which serve as a preface to William Blake’s epic poem ‘Milton’. Though passing unnoticed at publication in 1808 and throughout that century, these lines Bridges now gave to the composer Sir Hubert Parry, requesting that he set them to music.

The tune was written, arranged, printed, sung at a campaign meeting by various choral societies of London. The women’s suffrage movement took it up, as did public schools such as Elizabeth College in Guernsey—they speak of it with more ardour than most teenage boys display towards anything (with the possible exception of FIFA). The famous composer Edward Elgar wrote his own orchestration, and so its popularity soared, and became a symbol of English morale.

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The Western Front 1916

In 1918, the war ended—and Parry passed away. Since then, Jerusalem has been used by all the major political parties, adopted as the anthem of the Women’s Institute, rugby teams, the hymn book, and the Proms.

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I’ve found so many articles about Jerusalem that are focussed almost entirely on Sir Hubert Parry. In the first place, it seems counterproductive to esteem a composer for a single work. I, for one, know none of his earlier music, but since he died two years after Jerusalem became the Georgian equivalent of a number one hit, it rather eclipses the entirety of his previous career. In the second instance, I find it far more interesting to discuss the words of Jerusalem, chiefly because they’re steeped in controversy.

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountain green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

The most common interpretation is a religious one. Firstly, it’s important to understand that Jerusalem is a standard metaphor for Heaven in Church of England jargon. This is explored in the two verses: the first Jerusalem, and the second Jerusalem.

The four questions in the first verse are a speculation drawing upon an apocryphal story, in which Jesus visits England during his early years. It follows that if this visit happened, Jesus would have ‘brought’ Heaven to England, representing the first Jerusalem.

Progressing to the second verse, it’s easy to derive parallels from the Book of Revelation. Revelation tells of the glorious second coming of Jesus, just as Blake writes of a new Jerusalem taking root in England.

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Angel of the Revelation: Blake was also one of the leading visual artists of the Romantic era.

But was it so idealistic as it sounds? ‘Dark satanic mills’ is often attributed to the Industrial Revolution sweeping England inside out—but, more deeply than that, Blake is attacking the bondage of institutions, organised religion, education, and the corruption inherent in Victorian society.

Does that negate any religious intent? Blake was committed to social change, and he held staunch revolutionary views for which he was at one point charged with treason. But though intensely religious, the real irony lies in the usage of his words, rather than their interpreted meaning: originally defaming the ‘institutions of repression’, his poem has become a symbol of national solidarity and patriotism. It appeals somewhat to the English humour.

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Nevertheless, I believe something of Blake’s original intention is yet preserved. The bourgeois generals sending thousands of men to their death in the Great War are analogous to the social shackles of Blake’s Victorian England. Today, the bonds of capitalism and social class loom still on the minds of the English people.

When I watch the crowds of tourists filtering through Beamish Museum stop by the bandstand and pour their voices into the hymn, knowing the words as if writ on their hearts, singing of the Lamb of God though many may be atheists, and ‘England’s pleasant pastures’ though they won’t admit their patriotism even to themselves, I can’t help but think that this song has touched them. Its stirring words, its iconic tune: no wonder they’re trying to make it our national anthem. ‘God Save the Queen’, as MP Toby Perkins argued earlier this year, is the anthem of Britain, but as of now, the country of England has none to officially call our own. None but this one.

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If you want to read more about Blake and Jerusalem, here’s a great article.

 

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