4 April 2020

The painting below is Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo by Richard Samuel and it shows a group of women writers 250 years ago – in 1778 to be precise. They are Elizabeth Carter, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Hannah More, Catharine Macaulay, Elizabeth Montagu, Angelica Kauffman, Elizabeth Griffith, Elizabeth Ann Linley and Charlotte Lennox.

Muses CV19

The artist Michael Alford added the masks so wittily. He is a superb painter: look at this Trompe L’Oeil Bookshelf taken from his website here. This almost seems preferable to real books.

Trompe-LOeil-Bookshelf.

So we have now been in lockdown for twelve days and  don’t have to state the obvious: there are some good things that are coming out of this horrible time. One friend in Somerset is delivering vegetable boxes (the local flower shop overnight converted into a fruit and vegetable shop) and is hugely enjoying getting to know more of her neighbours even at two metres distance. Lots of people have written wonderful emails which will one day make an informal collection – Lockdown Letters perhaps? The birdsong is amazing. Venice has been transformed. Angela Merkel showed really statesmanlike qualities and gave a wonderful speech here (it’s so sad that we don’t have anyone in authority in the UK whom we can respect and listen to). And, on an even more serious note, surely the time is over when nurses are not paid enough and people earning over £100k are not taxed properly?

However, there is so much to worry about, ranging from friends who have the virus to the lack of protective equipment to the situation in countries like India, and yet there is only so much worrying one can do. For anyone lucky enough to be safe at home, this is a time of rest and reflection – rest because all the exhausting things we normally do are now not happening and reflection because we now have hours and hours to think.

Persephone Books is closed and although we occasionally go to Lambs Conduit Street (by car) to check everything is okay, we retreat home rapidly because it is so weird and upsetting seeing our normally bustling street completely deserted. However, there are green shoots. On Easter Tuesday one Persephone girl at a time is going to go in and start catching up on orders: about fifty weren’t fulfilled when we closed on March 23rd and about fifty have come in since (we then write to people who ordered and almost all of them write nice messages and say they are in no rush). Then we are hoping that in early May we can start being in the shop regularly and that on May 21st we can publish the two new books (The Oppermanns  by Lion Feuchtwanger and English Climate: the Wartime Stories of Sylvia Townsend Warner). But this is far from certain, one important reason being that Central, who store our books, are closed and  at the moment have no definite date for reopening. Fingers crossed.

And what else? The days go rapidly past, as they do for many people, in a blur of meals, half an hour in the sun, gardening if you have a garden, a daily walk, social media – the short story on @fransbookshop on Instagram has been a great hit  – and through it all the struggle not to look at the news and feel worried. The resolution to re-read Middlemarch have turned to dust. And we were SO surprised when a very very intellectual friend of mine said she was hugely enjoying Anne of Green Gables on Netflix. She will be watching Belgravia next (the worst thing ever but so tremendously enjoyable).

And otherwise what has  kept us going? Well the Guardian (which we now have delivered) has wonderful articles by eg. George Monbiot here  and Heather Rose here and Roger Cohen here.

Could Brexit possibly not happen we are all asking ourselves, especially  after reading Rafael Behr and hearing on the radio that there will be no asparagus this year (basically our favourite food) because there is no one to pick it. And realising that the the tree felling for HS2 is going ahead. Some might say that the society we live in deserves to be felled by a virus, though I would think that goes a bit far!   

And our lockdown extravagances? Half bottles of champagne (but obviously they are hard to buy, we just happened to have half a dozen for ‘a rainy day); and ordering plants from Gardening Direct and Sarah Raven; do watch this footage of our ancestors working at Bletchley here: you have a shamefaced feeling that they would not have been so crass as to stockpile toilet paper; and Rachel Cooke wrote an excellent article about criticism headed ‘what is the point of a critic if not to tell the truth?’ (she had criticised Mary Beard, who had objected). And she said: ‘These days you’re more likely to find a perfectly ordinary book acclaimed as a “masterpiece”. Critical inflation is rife, and pity the innocent reader, about to rush out and buy a new hardback.’ We so agree with this and try at Persephone Books always to be honest: we say if we think a book isn’t for everyone, we admit if it isn’t the best prose ever, we make it plain that even the blessed Dorothy Whipple is not in the same league as EM Forster or Elizabeth Taylor (though sometimes she approaches them) and that Mollie Panter-Downes is a better stylist. The only point Rachel Cooke doesn’t make (perhaps it has never happened to her) is how acutely painful it is to be on the receiving end of a bad review. Hilary Mantel was once  cruel about a book we wrote and as a result even her name makes us feel ill, to read her would be physically impossible.

Finally: no knead bread is having a moment – you leave it for twelve hours ie.overnight, recipe here . One needs a good slice of bread and a glass of champagne to get one through  The World at War (brilliantly made but naturally very harrowing). Here’s raising a champagne glass to: the future

Nicola Beauman

as of 59 Lambs Conduit Street  

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59 Lamb's Conduit Street, London WC1N 3NB