Sunday, 21 June 2009

Happy birthday, Persephone Books

Persephone are 10 years old this year. They were celebrating at one of their London bookshops on Thursday last week, and as I happened to be in London for work, I went along. The place was thronged with readers lured by the three-for-two offer and the promise of champagne and buns. Perhaps they'd all be consumed by the time I arrived, because tepid mineral water was the order of the day, but I made good use of the special offer, and went home with:

William - an Englishman by Cicely Hamilton, playwright, suffragette and author of Marriage as a Trade and the lyrics to March of the Women, which I've had the pleasure of singing this year. This was Persephone's first book and I've been hankering after it for some time.

Plats du Jour by Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd, a book that brought continental food within reach of British cooks during the late 1950s, or at least within reach of their imaginations.

and finally Miss Buncle's Book which tells of the impact on a small English village when one of their number publishes a bestseller which consists of thinly-veiled portraits of the local characters.

Despite the cock-up on the catering front at their birthday party, I can wholeheartedly recommend Persephone's output to anyone interested in women's writing and the 20th century - although there are some earlier books too for diehard Victorianists. There are some marvellous books to be found in that elegant grey livery, and Persephone are responsible for leading me to some inspiring work, particularly Leonard Woolf's The Wise Virgins which gave me the theme for my MA dissertation, the marvellous Every Eye by Isobel English, and Marghanita Laski's tense, powerful Little Boy Lost, the book that led me to Persphone after reading Nicholas Lezard's review in the Guardian. Happy birthday, Persephone, and here's to another shelf-ful of French grey spines.


  1. Hi, I am curious to hear your opinion of The Wise Virgins, I don't believe you have written about it on your blog?

    I have read several reviews that call it misogynistic, but I don't understand why Persephone would have published it if it were.


  2. Hi lethe,

    I found The Wise Virgins immensely interesting and enjoyable. There are some expressions of misogyny from among the characters, but this doesn't make for a misogynous book in my opinion. The novel is about Harry, a young Jewish man living with his family in suburban London, and his relationships with the family of girls next door and with the unconventional Camilla he meets at art school, and her Bloomsbury-dwelling family. These two cultures clash repeatedly, both within Harry and at various points when they intersect.

    There are obvious autobiographical elements, but the plot is not obvious, and nor is the identity of the Wise Virgins of the title. One of the very interesting things about the novel is the positive interpretation it presents of suburban spinsterhood, usually the worst possible outcome for a woman in a novel of the interwar years.

    As well as issues of gender roles and women's freedom and scope, the novel also handles anti-semitism and issues of class. I also found it very well-written and the characterisation is subtle and consistent.

    I wonder if the misogyny charge originates in part from negative views of Leonard Woolf himself? There have been a number of readings of Virginia Woolf's life that cast him as a repressive, jailer figure who thwarted her ambitions. I've read a little about him, more about her, and I can't really take that stance - undoubtedly he made mistakes in his care of her, but they were founded on good intentions. Some biographers have Virginia reacting very badly to the novel, and it may also be protectiveness of her that inspires the criticism.

    Anyway, I certainly recommend The Wise Virgins. I re-read it, for my dissertation, alongside V Woolf's The Voyage Out, and there are interesting connections and comparisons - they were published in the same year, I believe.

  3. Hi catalpa,

    I'm sorry, I've only now found your reply, so here is a very belated thank you!

    Yes, I particularly remember a scathing review by Mark Hussey in Modern Fiction Studies, but since he is a devout member of the Church of St Virginia-who-can-do-no-wrong I wondered just how fair his review was.

    I think I'll first read The Voyage Out, then The Wise Virgins, and then Night and Day, which I believe was written in response to Leonard's novel.

    Thanks again for your very helpful answer!