Orlando: a Biography was published in 1928 and was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s affair with Vita  Sackville-West. ‘It presents a woman’s view of history through a subversive mock biography of an Elizabethan nobleman … Virginia Woolf’s extraordinarily funny and profound vision reminds us that not every history has to take a conventional viewpoint.’ (Of course the profundity has been wrecked, for some of us, by the deliciously funny Gloomsbury: when things have been particularly grim in recent months  – it’s a year today since the Referendum – an episode of Gloomsbury has been a great help; we sell the box set in the shop.)


‘Persecution in Europe affected many establishment figures. In nineteenth century England, sodomy remained a capital offence and one individual whose life was wrecked was the British dilettante, antiquarian, MP and close friend of Lord Byron, William John Bankes (1786–1855). In this letter of 1818, the English polymath Thomas Young (1773–1829) writes to the father of Bankes asking it to be forwarded to his son who was travelling in Egypt. Young asks the gentleman traveller to look out for the missing fragments of the Rosetta Stone. In 1815 Bankes discovered an obelisk which later played a significant role in the decipherment of hieroglyphs.’ More about Bankes on the British Museum website here. And of course Anne Sebba has written a fascinating biography of him which we sell in the shop.



E M Forster began writing Maurice in 1910 and finished it in 1914, its impetus being the unexplained suicide of his friend and contemporary Ernest Merz in the summer of 1909. Maurice is a novel about how things might have been in a less repressive society. This is a still from the end of the (excellent) 1987 film: despite society’s constraints, the lovers (played by James Wilby and Rupert Graves) will have an enduring relationship.


‘Shakespeare’s sequence of 154 sonnets is mostly addressed by the poet to a man, while some of poems are to a mistress. They were first published in 1609, but in a later edition of 1640 many of the masculine pronouns were changed to feminine … It is of course impossible to guess an author’s private life from reading his fictional works, but it is noteworthy that some of the greatest love poetry written in English is apparently by a man to a man.’ This is Sonnet 116 (not in fact 119) in the 1609 edition.

gilded youth

After a visit to Queer British Art at the Tate we bought a copy of A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World by R B Parkinson. It is a very unusual book, being informative, witty and generous-spirited (and we now sell it in the shop). This week on the Post: five images from the book. Here is A gilded youth reading a book of poetry, painted by Riza-yiAbbasi. Iran, 1625 –6. It’s an opaque watercolour, gold and ink on paper.


The Call is almost a fictionalised biography – of Edith Zangwill’s stepmother Hertha Ayrton: there are so many fascinating synergies between ‘Ursula’, the heroine of the book, and Hertha that it will take a long and detailed Publisher’s Afterword to point them out (the more ‘from the heart’ Preface will be written by the journalist Elizabeth Day). Here are just three synergies: Hertha/Ursula was the first woman to be invited to read a paper at the Institution of Electrical Engineers; during the First World War she invented a design to sweep poison gases from trenches which was originally dismissed by the War Office – Ursula invents a device to extinguish liquid fire which ditto is initially rejected; and throughout the (oddly fascinating) descriptions of the scientific experiments in an attic in Kensington runs an intense and unwavering commitment to votes for women.


Like all the best men, Israel Zangwill was a great believer in his wife’s causes and ‘a staunch supporter of the women’s suffrage movement’ (p.765 of the invaluable book of that name by Elizabeth Crawford). But come to think of it why on earth wouldn’t you support the suffrage movement? It’s impossible to think of one rational reason. And yet millions of people did not support it. This is Israel and Edith, maybe on their honeymoon in 1903, although they look a bit weary and put upon so it’s probably more like 1910 or ’11. (Perhaps a clothes historian could accurately date the dress for us?)


Edith Zangwill, about whom Persephone readers will be hearing a great deal more: we publish her novel The Call in October 2018, to coincide with the anniversary of the (very partial) granting of the vote to women in 1918. Reading The Call is both fascinating and horrifying (and oddly gripping). And it is extraordinary to read about the suffragettes being routinely kicked, abused, having stones thrown at them – by men, normal, or seemingly normal, Englishmen. And why? For what? Often The Call reminds one very much of our present struggle – for kindness, sanity, tolerance, calmness and rationality; which alas in 2017 is symbolised by the struggle to remain in Europe, whereas a hundred years ago it was symbolised by the struggle to get votes for women. Come to think of it, the suffragettes had SO many things in common with remainers. Plus ca change…


A photograph of Israel Zangwill taken in 1890. Spitalfields Life’s guest writer Nadia Valman wrote about him here; and here is a link to an excellent free app for a Spitalfields walk – it uses Zangwill’s novel Children of the Ghetto as a ‘walking guide’.


Exhausted but happy: the prospect of remaining European is now more than a painful gleam in the Persephone gals’ eyes. Yesterday we were slumped on the sofa, but happily reading a perfectly brilliant novel, The Call by Edith Zangwill (1875-1945). (If anyone has any Edith Zangwill novels, please could they lend them to us – they are impossible to find.) So this week on the Post the Zangwills and their circle, which means of course starting with Amy Levy (1861-89)  – in fact the subject of the Book Group last week – because we have always had a theory, discounted, however, by both the biographers of Amy Levy, that she was in love with Israel Zangwill (1864-1926). Do read the marvellous Reuben Sachs if you haven’t already done so.

Back to top

59 Lamb's Conduit Street, London WC1N 3NB