Archive for March 2007

30 March 2007

The Persephone Biannually (the first, after thirty-two Persephone Quarterlies) has gone to the printer. Now we are getting ready for the April mail-out; hoping for some reviews of the two new books; enjoying a very funny piece by Charlotte Smith in the Sunday ExpressS’ magazine about How To Run Your Home without Help (this will be reprinted in the Biannually); and looking forward to the Classic Serial this Sunday April 1st and the following Sunday April 8th (Easter Sunday). This is an adaptation by Michelene Wandor of The Making of a Marchioness and its sequel The Methods of Lady Walderhurst (both of which are included in our volume, Persephone Book No.29) starring Lucy Briers, Joanna David, Miriam Margolyes and Charles Dance. Do try and listen, it should be fun.

We have had many replies to our second (monthly) email letter in which we suggested books that would make good presents for Easter for oneself or one’s host, for example Kitchen Essays and Gardener’s Nightcap. If you are reading this but are not on our email list do add yourself in by going to the Persephone Books home page and typing in your email address in the box on the left-hand side.

So, along with everyone else, after the clocks went forward we have been spring-cleaning, planting in the window boxes outside the shop and longing for the days when we can sit in the garden to eat our lunch.

For now, it is too cold to do anything but walk briskly round Bloomsbury. Jane Bell, who supplies titles for our Vintage Books shelves, gave us a book called Our Sisters’ London: Feminist Walking Tours by Katherine Sturtevant. Here are some of the highlights in the area round Lamb’s Conduit Street: Start at Russell Square, where, at No.56, Mary Russell Mitford (who wrote Our Village, and bred Flush and then gave him to Virginia Woolf) once held a literary dinner party for Wordsworth, among others; the Pankhurst family lived at No.8 (now part of the Russell Hotel) from 1888-93 and Christabel, Sylvia and Adela used to play in the square; and Mary Datchett in Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day worked at the women’s suffrage office in Russell Square.

Then walk through to Queen Square and look at the beautiful building housing the Mary Ward Centre; here you can learn French or Italian, do a computer or a dance course, or have a cheap vegetarian lunch. The Centre is named after Mrs Humphrey Ward and was the Female School of Design from 1861 until 1908, when it merged with the Central School of Arts and Crafts. When Fanny Burney lived in Queen Square from 1771-2, the north end of the square was still on the edge of open countryside and she could see the slopes of Hampstead and Highgate. No. 29, now part of the National Hospital, was the site of the Working Women’s College, founded in 1864.

Now walk along Great Ormond Street and turn right into Lamb’s Conduit Street. After coming in to Persephone Books at No.59, turn left into Rugby Street, where Ted Hughes was lodging when he and Sylvia Plath were first married, and walk through to Great James Street where Dorothy Sayers lived (there is a Blue Plaque). Finally, turn left into Doughty Street where Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby shared a flat (another Blue Plaque).

This feminist walking tour of Bloomsbury will be continued at a future date. For now, we hope you all have a very good Easter break. I shall be in New York and greatly look forward to seeing eighty East Coast Persephone readers at the tea on April 14th.

Nicola Beauman
30 March 2007
Lamb’s Conduit Street

15 March 2007

The shop buzzed with activity this past fortnight as we continued to grapple with design options for next year’s Persephone Classics; set up and sorted out the software programme Constant Contact which allows us to send out emails to everyone (if you are not on our email list, do sign up in the new box on our homepage); sent off review copies of our spring books, The Shuttle and House-Bound; arranged the summer events; and held our ninth book group.

However, the bustling streets around Persephone Books seem a world away now, as I sit by a floor-to-ceiling window in Williams College library, the Berkshire mountains looming in the distance. I am here in western Massachusetts on a short holiday visiting my sister and am eagerly absorbing the fresh mountain air, blinding sun reflecting off deep snow drifts, clear blue skies, dark green firs and invigorating wind found in the rural New England landscape (see the picture below). Yesterday, as I crunched along snowy trails in a nearby forest to watch maple trees being tapped, and then enjoyed freshly brewed maple sugar on ice (it is the annual ‘Maple Sugar Festival’). I wondered if Susan Glaspell, who wrote Persephone books No 4 & No 26 and lived on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, ever did the same.

Last week, the first Wednesday of the month, eighteen of us gathered around a table laid with bread, cheese, and madeira to discuss Persephone Book No 9, Few Eggs and No Oranges, or a ‘Diary Showing How Unimportant People in London and Birmingham Lived Through the War Years 1940-45’. Vere Hodgson’s diary, which is set in Notting Hill, is particularly resonant because it is based, like us, in London. When I introduced the book I remarked on this, and several people said their bus or tube journeys to work suddenly became more poignant when they passed St Paul’s Cathedral, for instance, and recalled its damage during the Blitz; or waited in the Underground amidst a crush of commuters and visualised the hundreds who bedded down there during air raids. We agreed that our lives seemed far easier when viewed in the light of those living in England in a time of rationing, black-outs, and incessant bombings.

All were amazed at people’s nonchalance. I read an excerpt from 31st January 1941: ‘A lady in the Mercury café told me she was having lunch in Oxford St. Suddenly a terrific wonk shook the place; all the cups and saucers danced and rattled about on the table. The man opposite her said calmly: “That was a bomb, wasn’t it?” She replied: “I’m sure it was.” And they all continued to eat their meal.’ Shocking to our peacetime eyes, we agreed, but as I had heard in previous weeks from Persephone readers who lived through the war, they just had to ‘get on with it’.

But the daily fear that Londoners lived with should not be under-estimated, and the reader must look past Vere Hodgson’s matter-of-fact, often dispassionate style. For instance, in characteristic understatement she ends an entry during the Blitz on 27th September 1940 with the following lines: ‘Bad news everywhere. Dakar failure. Japan joining the Axis. Military divisions of Germans going to Spain. I do not expect such another happy night as last. It will be incendiaries, or time bombs – which? So I close my diary for tonight, and hope the morning will come with me alive to see it…’

Going to bed fearing that one might not wake up again made us glad indeed to be living in 2007, when a noisy neighbour or the revving of a motorbike might be the biggest threat to a peaceful night’s sleep. Furthermore, propping our eyes open late at night as we read about what happened to Vere Hodgson during the nightly air-raids, we were humbled by the thought of her then getting up the next day to be at work by nine.

Vere Hodgson describes herself as a ‘recorder rather than a writer, a diarist of ordinary rather than extraordinary people’, and we discussed how this style gave her broad appeal. She manages to encapsulate a whole society on a very human level with her mix of personal and public anecdotes. Although many could not relate to her personally, because she kept her inner dreams and desires private, she still captivated us. We entirely sympathised with her public persona and the daily events that told a story of human suffering and coping in a crisis.

And we loved her brilliant, humorous anecdotes. I described the best, in my opinion, which was on 11th August, 1940. Vere writes about three Scotsman who escaped from the Germans, are recaptured, start speaking in strongly accented Gaelic, the top interpreters are brought in yet none can decipher their words, the Scots are given a world map and, pointing to a far-flung Russian outpost as their home, they are let go!

Speaking about anecdotes raised the question: does one need to read the book straight through (it is the longest Persephone book, at 624 pages)? Interestingly, half the group read bits and pieces while the other half read it in one go. We concluded it could be done either way; just dipping in one gives one a sense of what it was like to live in wartime England and the reader is certainly absorbed by the anecdotes; yet one does lose the larger thread of the story. When Vere finds a flat, or finally gets an orange, or when her mother falls ill – these small triumphs or tragedies are lost when not read chronologically, and so too the greater sense of a life lived.

I shall end with a point Jenny Hartley made in her preface to the book – that Vere’s experiences and emotions in her diary reflect those of many other women from other countries, even those ‘on the other side’ (the title of a book Persephone will soon republish). This common experience is forefront in my mind as I have just watched Clint Eastwood’s excellent Letters from Iwo Jimo, a film that portrays the war from the Japanese soldiers’ perspective. The central message is the same: these soldiers are, at heart, feeling the very same emotions as their American adversaries.

New England landscape

Emily Hill
15 March 2007

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