Sunday 27 March 2011

An evening with Persephone Books

Mary Francis writes:
Persephone Books reprints neglected novels, diaries, short stories and cookery books by women writers such as Dorothy Whipple and Katherine Mansfield. They are all carefully designed with a clear typeface, a dove-grey jacket, a ‘fabric’ endpaper and bookmark and a preface by writers such as Jilly Cooper, Adam Gopnik and Jacqueline Wilson.

Founder Nicola Beauman was due to talk to us on Friday, at Headingley Library, about the origins of Persephone, how books are chosen and about some of the authors. Unfortunately, Nicola then had a pressing commitment across the Atlantic, but in her place came one of her team, Miki Footman.

Miki told us something of the beginnings of Persephone - of how Nicola Beauman, while researching for her own book - A very great profession: the women’s novel 1914-39 - realised how very many titles from that period were out of print. She founded Persephone Books in 1998 to reprint (mostly) women writers and (mostly) of the inter-war period - and now has 90 titles in print.

Persephone is an unusual publishing house. It has remained small and independent - and its books are distinctive. For those who love the feel and the look of a well-produced book, they are a delight. The quality paper and the jacket, the typeface and those beautiful endpapers - and also the wonderful binding (apparently called Dispersion Binding - I hope I have that right) that enables the book to lie quite flat when open, without any cracking of the spine. 

There is now also the Persephone Classics series, with illustrated jackets, which may appeal more to those who are slightly unnerved by a plain dove-grey cover.

Waxing lyrical about book production is wont to provoke some puzzled looks from e-book enthusiasts - and, indeed, it was a surprise to hear from Miki that nowadays Persephone is not only producing audiobooks (very worthwhile) - but is venturing into the field of e-books also, in response to at least five email requests per day. So it seems there is definitely a demand for these titles, written so long ago, to be read with the current technology.

Miki told us a bit about working for Persephone. The staff consists of just five people, including Nicola, and the office where they work is also a shop, in Lamb’s Conduit Street in London, where passers-by are ‘encouraged to come in and take notice’. It sounds a delightful place to work, with everyone doing a bit of everything ... actually, Miki referred to painting the toilet floor as one job she’d undertaken recently!

Persephone also produces a free magazine twice a year. Called Biannually, it contains articles, reviews, details of forthcoming titles and any events - and usually a short story.

So how do Persephone choose their titles? They concentrate mainly on books that reflect women’s everyday lives. Their titles are ‘realistic, not idealistic,’ ‘more accessible, more domestic’ and they see the feminism in them as ‘softer’ than that from the other feminist publishers. They try to have many different genres, they do include books by men (generally ones concerning women’s lives) and they don’t overlap with other publishing houses. They also have to love every book they publish. There is no hope of a book selling well ‘unless someone is passionately behind it’.

Miki talked about some of their titles, such as the best-selling Miss Pettigrew lives for a day. There were Monica Dickens and Marghanita Laski - names I knew - and others, like Mollie Panter-Downes, that I did not. Nor did I know about Noel Streatfield, other than as a writer for children, or Betty Miller, mother of Jonathan. And I must read some Dorothy Whipple sometime .... she is a favourite of Nicola’s, it seems.

The session ended with lots of interesting questions from the audience - and only the slightest whiff of controversy as to whether their list might be a little middle-class and why works such as Phyllis Bentley’s Inheritance (that featured in one of the LitFest events last year) were still out of print. Or might it be that such works simply don’t fit with the criteria? But it was obvious there was a lot of interest in the great work that Persephone is doing in rescuing some splendid titles from obscurity and bringing them to our attention.

Many thanks to Miki. Thanks also to Radish Bookshop, who regularly stock Persephone titles, for bringing along some books for us to buy. And for anyone who couldn’t get to the talk, do take a look at - and maybe, if one day you have some spare time in London, why not visit that intriguing shop in Lamb's Conduit Street?

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