Monday, 1 August 2011

Nicola Beauman

Last week I was lucky enough to attend a talk by Nicola Beauman, part of the Clifton Montpelier Powis Festival in Brighton, on rediscovering lost writers.  She told us a great deal about the mechanics of publishing, how she came to start Persephone Books (an unexpected legacy provided the capital) and how she goes about finding and publishing the Persephone titles, choosing the fabrics for the endpapers, and generally running the business.

She talked a lot about Dorothy Whipple and the now notorious "Whipple Line" operated by Virago; Dorothy Whipple exemplified bad writing for Virago, and Carmen Callil in particular, and writers who came below the Whipple Line were not published by Virago.  A recent BBC Radio 4 programme about women's writing interviewed both Carmel Callil and Nicola Beauman, and this debate was given another airing.  I'm with Nicola Beauman on this one; she said she couldn't see what the problem was with Dorothy Whipple's writing, and neither can I.  I have a sneaking suspicion that those who criticise her books have only read the opening chapters; when I read High Wages recently I thought I could detect stock characters and a predictable plot in the first few pages, but the novel didn't turn out as I expected at all.  Nicola pointed out that there is no critical writing on Whipple, and suggested that she may be impossible to write about; I like a challenge, and High Wages fits well with the theme of the third chapter of my thesis, so I'll be giving it a try.

For DPhil reasons I am interested in the notion of the middlebrow, and Nicola used this word a few times in her talk, but shied away from it rather, locating her texts somewhere in a category slightly above the middlebrow; however, she say that she hoped Persephone would have the effect of those engines of middlebrow culture, the interwar Book Society and Boots Lending Library.  I wanted to ask her whether she thought the term "middlebrow" was reclaimable, if we could use it to describe books without shame, but we ran out of time for questions.  She was much more robust about the notion of Persephone Books as feminist, but exemplifying a non-separatist feminism that includes a space for men - hence the male writers included among Persephone authors.

During questions, Nicola raised the awful prospect of an end to Persephone, and hinted that she might sell the company to the right buyer.  Should there be any millionaires or venture capitalists reading this who'd like to preserve Persephone, I hope they will reflect on the possibility.  If you get a chance to hear Nicola speak, do take it: she is a very interesting and entertaining speaker with lots of things to say.

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