A paean to Persephone Books

by James

I discovered this small London based publishing house quite by chance a few years ago, when I  read an article in the Weekend FT with the inimitable title of  simply ‘I am doing it for the books’ .  A profile of and quote from Nicola Beauman with regards her ongoing role as the founder of Persephone. She remains in charge to this day, with what by any stretch of the imagination must be one of the most challenging jobs in any business: running a young, independent company specialising in what most people would consider to be a deeply unfashionable part of the market, and all this in the wasteland or wilderness that is the current state of almost every part of your industry. All this, it would appear from my single visit there, from a small desk at their charming shop and HQ in Bloomsbury.

For a decade or more after leaving school, I devoured the classics and almost anything else I could lay my hands on that remotely caught my attention, as manifested by my frequent trips down to my local Waterstones, (which in due time not surprisingly turned into clicks on Amazon) when over time I would come home or receive parcels laden not with the worthy and improving titles I had hoped for, but increasing loads of dross. So being one who when he realises he’s in a hole tends to stop digging, so it became more and more of a challenge to find anything I wanted to read. The end result being increasingly forlorn perusals through mine or Dad’s bookshelves. More often than not drawing a blank, my most likely reading would probably be some business or finance book that I’d heard about in the course of my work.

So back in 2008, reading this article and finding out about the firm for the first time, but remaining sceptical, given then as now it describes itself as ‘reprinting neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly women) writers‘ thinking it must be something like Virago, which I’d never been much of a fan of growing up, I ventured on to their website for a look around and maybe order a book or two. Almost immediately it became my new favourite publisher (replacing the The Folio Society and Everyman’s Library which had pretty well run their course for me). So you won’t be surprised to read I’ve always paid as much attention to the quality of the bindings as the contents, sometimes the one to the detriment of the other. It was also a particular almost childhood delight for me to discover a new quality British niche publisher since I remember growing up going on various educational or exchange type trips to France and envying them the riches to be found in the panoply of bookstores of some sort or other to be found on almost every street corner, from the newsagent kiosks, the Papeteries (stationers) and the bookshops themselves, which all seemed to be filled with such a diversity of quality paperbacks or what have you one couldn’t help but feel sure that the French publishing industry was vibrant and thriving, benefiting all concerned – publishers, authors, booksellers and of course readers. The fact we live in a very different world these days is another matter.

The whole experience of buying these books was a delight. An easily navigable, attractive website with every detailed attention paid to making it as easy as possible for you to peruse the catalogue and find the right book. No mean feat when you consider that while you may be familiar with some of the authors, under the circumstances,  it’s unlikely you’ll know anything of any of the titles, unless your specific paths had previously crossed for different reasons. The same meticulous approach can be found in the books themselves, both as an object, that compared with some tatty paperback or hardback from the lastest bestseller list,  far from being an embarrassment, is likely to occupy pride of place in your briefcase or handbag or the like. Every one of them an individual marvel, with their smart uniform Persephone Grey dust jackets and cream ‘labels’ belying the unique, period endpapers and matching bookmarks that for them alone would be reason enough for collecting the books.

While I understand the books may not be widely available or even that visible on the high street, whenever I do come to mention Persephone to the right sort of someone, more often than not they’re already well acquainted with it. And for those of a nervous disposition, placing orders is very straightforward, either through the website, on order from your local bookseller, or even from the elephant in the room who shall remain nameless. For whatever reason you may come into contact with them, the staff are an absolute delight to deal with.  All in all, it’s not surprising that Persephone and its readers have come to form a real community if not a club that doesn’t require membership as it displaya all the hallmarks of a more social type organisation: newsletters and other periodicals both the old fashioned way and a vibrant virtual presence on the social networks of internet 2.0 that goes beyond simple commercial marketing or advertising, coffee mornings, readings and other events and so on.

Lastly, just a personal comment about what I’ve found so special about the Persephone world in the couple of dozen or so books I’ve read so far. Each of which is exceptional. Hardly surprising that something that was lost for decades and sought out and rediscovered will only see the light of day again if it’s unique in some way and stood the test of time in its own right and on its own merits. A far cry from a lot of the rubbish that gets churned out each year by the majors and is flogged in large quantities and/or on a limited campaign basis, where if a book isn’t an immediate best seller or at least hit its targets, it gets remaindered and risks the ultimate ignominy of being pulped. So unsurprisingly, the main concern for all involved becomes basically covering the author’s advance and all the other costs of producing a comparatively small number of titles on sort of a sink or swim basis where they seem to be almost betting the house on every title. Like in the music or film industry, these sorts of high stakes lead to an increasing aversion to risk, and a commensurate decline in nurturing talent and quality that will stand the test of time. I can’t imagine there being much need for a Persephone type media organisation in another 50 years.

While obviously this post hasn’t had much to do with lit crit, just one or two personal remarks about things that have particularly struck me after a first reading, though I suspect I’ll be rereading my collection many times with great pleasure for years to come. The most common preoccupation, not actual subject matter but looming in the background like an ominous grey thundercloud, is the War. What’s so fascinating is to read novels written at the time, not as historical or period pieces, but as current events when in many of these novels and short stories even the outcome of the war wasn’t known. Authors actually knew what they were talking about in describing how people went about trying to live their lives, how they felt and what it was really like whether it’s an adulterous young bride whose husband is dispatched indefinitely overseas; a family trying to preserve its heritage in the face of unstoppable social change, be it a stately or historic family home, a business, someone’s very family or even their own sense of identity. On the other hand they might be dealing with something more lighthearted like a collection of short stories about small incidents or petty niggles of everyday life as events/history go on around them. Elsewhere, there are wonderful novels about minorities, the aristocracy and  the ties that bind it with the USA; not forgetting the downtrodden and dispossessed so to speak, on both sides of the pond, and in one, which is one of my particular favorites I think, for this reason probably, that even in telling a story about your regular working man and the simple pleasures of his couple of weeks annual family holiday by the seaside, it still doesn’t neglect social realism.

What’s fascinating and to my mind possibly unique about this period, and one reason why it may have seen such a flourishing of woman writers, is that again because of the war, they were the only ones around who lived or at least aspired to any semblance of a normal life, let alone be in a position to read about it or write about it. Every book I’ve read so far has been a gem even if unsurprisingly I doubt anyone would take equal pleasure in every volume. I don’t think I’d be overstating the case to suggest that Persephone will be seen as a real national treasure for resurrecting and preserving this part of our heritage for future generations according to almost Reithian ideals and doing it with such style.