A Latecomer to the Festivities

As much as I loved getting away from it all in Bath last week, I was disappointed that my holiday clashed with Persephone Reading Week, and I couldn’t take part as I would have liked to. I’m now caught up on all of the action, however, and I have taken great joy in exploring everyone’s reviews, many of Persephones I have not read, and observations on Persephone Books in general. Thank you, Verity and Claire, for organising such an enjoyable event, and I can’t wait for next year’s already!

Persephone is a rarity in that, as much as it is a publishing house, it is also like a private club; those who empathise with the ethos of Persephone and fall in love with the books it prints are drawn into the company of others who feel the same, and find that they have much more in common than just an adoration of these elegantly packaged forgotten gems. An online community has sprung up; friendships have been formed, books have been sent across oceans to keep the Persephoneless fed, new literary loves have been found, all because of one woman’s passion for ‘silly woman novelists’. And aren’t we all immensely grateful for her passion, and for the day we all separately came across the existence of a charming little shop down a sidestreet in Bloomsbury?

Persephone’s carefully chosen novels are so important to me because they express my outlook on life. The importance of a comfortable home, a loving family, loyal friends; of courage in the face of adversity; of love; of laughter; of taking joy in the small things – stopping to notice the beauty of a tree in its autumn splendour, the pleasure of eating a freshly made cake, the happiness that comes from giving someone else a reason to smile, and of embracing life with everything we have and understanding that happiness is not something to be pursued, but instead a state that everyone can live in, when they accept and enjoy the life they have, rather than the one they have not.

Persephone books contain the stuff of life itself; of real life, of the everyday, in all its mundanity and dullness, of all its disappointments and lack of glamour, and perhaps it is because of this that they fell out of favour and so out of print, necessitating their rescue by a modern audience desperate to read about characters who have lives like theirs, rather than the sensation driven, beautiful people filled books with Happy Endings that seem to have saturated the market in the post war years. For as much as life is wonderful, and glorious, and joyful, it is also tedious and dull at times, and it is good, no; marvellous, to know that I am not the only one who looks across the rooftops of London whilst doing yet another load of washing up and wonders…is there more for me out there than this?

And so it is always with great delight that I pick up a new Persephone, as I can be safe in the knowledge that I will enjoy it, and there will be someone, somewhere to discuss it with afterwards. That someone will probably also have enjoyed it, and will also love many of the other things I do; crafts, art, museums, theatre, travels, obscure authors…this is not to say that those of us who love Persephone are not a diverse bunch, not at all; but we all do seem to share many core interests, which is a wonderful illustration of how well Nicola Beauman and her team have encompassed a certain lifestyle, set of interests and general attitude towards life in choosing the novels they have decided to print. What a feat they have achieved.

I have included photos of my Persephone collection, including Persephone titles in other editions. I hope you enjoy them!

Beautiful Bath

Well who doesn’t enjoy pretending to be in Jane Austen novels and generally flouncing about in historical locations? Certainly not me, as I had a brilliant time in ‘historical’ Bath, which shoved its history in your face at every corner, but in an endearing way. Costumed guides? Check. Every other building named after a Jane Austen novel/character/place? Check. A ye olde tea room on every street? Check. It all added up to a holiday as only good old England can do, and once I had recovered from five days of camping in a sodden field and feeling like the dampness and tiredness would never end, I got into being a tourist and got my camera out at every opportunity!

Like every self respecting Bibliophile, my first stop was the Oxfam Bookshop. An excellent selection of books, plenty of Viragos (so many I had to leave several behind, so if you’re in the vicinity, get there as soon as you can!), and for a tenner I became the new owner of old green Virago copies of A Pin to See the Peepshow, The Soul of Kindnessand A Game of Hide and Seek, and a biography of Winston Churchill’s mother Jennie Jerome, one of the first ‘Dollar Princesses’ and her sisters, called Fortune’s Daughters, that I’d been wanting to read for a while.

Onwards to the Jane Austen Museum, which was nice but frankly a bit disappointing; I’d expected more from my £7 entrance fee than some displays showing the historical context of early 19thc Bath and a few costumes from not very well known adaptations. Jane Austen doesn’t even have a connection with the building the museum is housed in. If you’re going to Bath and were fancying a trip, I’d advise you skip it if you already have a good knowledge of Austen and her books. I’ve heard Chawton, her cottage in Hampshire, is much better for getting a real feel of Austen and how she lived, so I shall try that for my next trip outside of London.

 

We followed this up by a trip to the Abbey which was absolutely stunning. The walls are literally covered in commemorative plaques to the good, great and also ordinary citizens of Bath from the 1600s to the Victorian times. Absolutely fascinating, and humbling, and wonderful to be able to see a glimpse of what these now largely unknown people meant to those they left behind.

The next day we went to the Assembly Rooms and Fashion Museum which was housing a touring V&A exhibition on The Supremes (work follows me, it seems) alongside its usual displays. It was fantastic and as I have a particular interest in the history of fashion this was one of my favourite Bath sights. The Assembly Rooms were very interesting too but I didn’t really get an impression of the space as the Supremes exhibition was taking up the ballroom.

After this we went to the Circus and the Royal Crescent, which we ran along Anne Elliot style, much to the amusement of passers by. The architecture in Bath really is breathtaking; its uniformity is very soothing to the eye and it is fantastic to see how new buildings have to conform to the stonework and style of Georgian Bath. The grandeur of the Crescent, looking down over onto the hills beyond was wonderful, and I almost had a moment of thinking I would like to live there, but then I pulled myself together…I am a Londoner, after all.


I came across a terrific independent bookshop down a side street, Mr B’s, which sold Persephones and the anniversary hardback Viragos…and upstairs they had a Reading Booth where you can pay by the hour to have sole use of a soothing room in which to enjoy uninterrupted reading…it’s a truly delightful shop and well worth a visit.

And yesterday…we went to Tyntesfield, a fairly newly acquired National Trust property that is covered in scaffolding as it’s a ‘live conservation’ project, the Trust’s first. Fully restored, it will be amazing; it’s a Victorian gothic pile that had a collossal amount of money spent on it at the time, inside and out, to create an authentic ‘Gothic’ look. The inside was stunning but in a very bad condition, and like the land time forgot…old perambulators, umbrellas, toys, etc, just hanging about as if the family just upped and left yesterday. It was fascinating to see the conservation in progress and to understand a little more the sheer scale of work that goes into bringing a property up to a standard that will allow public access. I shall be sure to go back in a few years’ time to see the completed work.

After Tyntesfield our final stop was The American Museum in Britain, the only museum of Americana outside of the US. It was hands down one of the best museums I’ve ever been in. Interactive, interesting and varied displays, striking objects, and a wonderful layout, not to mention a brilliant exhibition on Folk Art and a world renowned collection of stunning quilts. I would have driven from London to Bath for the day just to visit, it’s that good. The cafe does excellent cakes and cookies too, and there’s a lovely gift shop that’s set out like a General Store. AND you get to dress up as a pioneer!! Please do go if you get the chance.

I’m now at home and exhausted. But I must finish Dorothy Whipple’s The Closed Door and Other Stories so that I feel I haven’t missed out on Persephone Week completely. Review forthcoming!

I hope you enjoy the pictures. Oh, and please do look at Naomi’s wonderful blog that I recently discovered after she emailed me…it turns out we work down the corridor from one another at the V&A and I have now been busted at my habit of blogging whilst at work…tsk tsk!!!

Young Anne by Dorothy Whipple

I just love Dorothy Whipple. Reading her books gives me the same feeling of cosiness as Sunday evenings in Winter, sitting in my pyjamas in front of the (gas) fire, with a cup of tea, some hot buttered crumpets, a stack of chocolate biscuits, and some form of BBC literary adaptation on the TV. It’s complete comforting bliss, but with the nagging feeling of something just around the corner that is going to be unpleasant…this would be Monday, ready to make you get up at an ungodly hour and board a train to a job you’d rather not be doing. And that’s exactly what Whipple’s books are all like, in my experience…a warm, cosy, comforting world threatened by an external, uncontrollable and unstoppable force just lingering around the corner.

And this is great stuff. I suppose if Dorothy Whipple were writing today her books would have pastel covers and be read by people who also like Jodi Picoult and Cecilia Ahern, because between the 30’s and 50’s Dorothy W was a very popular lady indeed, with her books being Book Society choices, being read by every war hardened romantically starved housewife, and even being made into long forgotten films. I intensely dislike chick lit but somehow if it’s 50 years old and comes in a musty smelling hardback, it’s alright with me. Kind of like bodice ripping soft porn yarns; I’d run a mile from that sort of book if it were modern, but somehow, Grace Metalious I’m talking to you, I don’t mind a bit of sexy sex from the days when ladies wore suspenders if it’s wrapped in an original dustjacket and looks respectable on my shelf.

Carmen Callil at Virago might have turned her nose up at Whipple and refused to republish her because she thought her books were too lowbrow and terribly written (the rudeness!) but thankfully Nicola Beauman saw sense and has republished some of her novels under the Persephone imprint, of which my only complaint is – why hasn’t she published them all?? Since discovering the wonderful world of Whipple I have been hunting down all the ones Persephone doesn’t reprint, and trying to find them at a reasonable price to boot, so I was delighted to snag Young Anne from ebay for 99p a month or so ago. I just got around to reading it this weekend, and I thought it was marvellous.

It tells the story of Anne Pritchard who lives in a fairly well to do Northern town with her unsatisfactory family and beloved servant Emily. We are briefly sped through Anne’s childhood in the first couple of chapters, and then Anne becomes 18 and lovely and falls in love with her best friend Mildred’s cousin George Yates. But of course these things are never simple and while Anne and George love each other with an intense passion, Anne finds she can’t carry on after a nasty revelation from her cousin (which was a bit unrealistic I thought, but it must be one of those things you have to understand from a mid century viewpoint) and she gives George up…then war gets declared and Anne becomes a secretary. At work she meets Richard Soames, who is much older than her but intelligent and funny and eventually they marry. Anne thinks everything will be lovely and she will be happy once she is married, but then the 1920s hit and Anne is beautiful and loves to dance and wants to have a sparkling fun life like her other young friends…but Soames wants none of it and Anne’s life becomes increasingly lonely. When George comes back after the war, Anne realises just how dissatisfied she is with her life, and everything gets turned upside down…I’ll leave it at that because I don’t want to ruin the plot, but it all ends in characteristic Whipple style, with a nice bit of self sacrifice and hope for the future, which reflects her Christian moral stance that is clearly evident throughout all of her books.

It wasn’t the best Whipple I’ve read, but as a first novel it’s really very good. It is also interesting from the respect of being able to see the starting point of her talents and how she developed them over her career. Like her later novels, Young Anne is well characterised, involving, realistic and simple yet engrossing in its way of telling the story of small town life and all of its secret disappointments. It is definitely worth a read if you can get hold of a copy, and if you’d like to borrow mine, email me as I’m happy to send it out to people. I know how rare it is so it would be rather selfish of me to just let it sit gathering dust on my shelf. You would have to promise to send it back though!!

Brook Evans by Susan Glaspell

I read Fidelity a while ago and absolutely loved it…it haunted me and left me feeling a bit emotionally drained, which was quite unexpected. I had never read any Susan Glaspell before so it took me by surprise to discover that all of her work apart from what Persephone reprints is out of print, as she was, quite simply, an outstanding writer.

So, when I found Brook Evans in a charity shop I pounced on it. It joined the to be read pile and last week it finally got its moment in the sun. Or in the dreariness really, as summer disappeared last week and still hasn’t returned. The joy of English summers.

Anyway, I read it in a few days, and it knocked me sideways. Susan Glaspell has a way of ripping people open and exposing them to their very cores that makes you feel stunned and uncomfortable yet hopelessly transfixed by them and their fate. Their souls become tangible and the rawness and honesty and pain is wonderful. I love it.

In a nutshell Brook Evans tells the story of three generations of a family, shaped by love and the lack of it, moulded by the pain of one woman’s loss and one man’s sacrifice. The book starts with Naomi Kellogg, an Illinois farmer’s daughter, being courted by the boy across the way, Joe Copeland. His mother thinks she is not good enough for him, so they see each other in secret by the brook that separates their parents’ land. Joe is tragically killed shortly after, leaving Naomi pregnant. A local, overly religious man, Caleb Evans, who is held in high regard by the townspeople and Naomi’s distraught parents, agrees to marry Naomi, because he loves her, and take her out west to Colorado to start a new life and give her and her child respectability. Naomi, wracked with grief and filled with hatred towards Caleb, goes on to give birth to a daughter, Brook. The story then goes on to relate Brook’s life and how she turns away from her mother, unable to understand her bitterness and belief that love is everything, leaving her forever when she is just 19. Going on to forge a life of her own, she only realises when she is a mother herself and discovering real love after a lifetime of dutiful wifehood, what a life of loneliness and unfulfilment her mother was trying to rescue her from in attempting to give her a chance at real love.

It’s powerful and emotional and desperately, desperately sad…especially towards the end, when Brook is filled with regret towards the way she treated her now dead mother. It is similar to Fidelity in that it shows Glaspell’s obvious belief that love was the ultimate prize in life and that nothing should stand in its way; a life without love, once love is known, is a life of bitterness and yearning for a happiness that will never come again; a life without love, when love has never been known, is always going to be a life of unfulfilment and an unknowing emptiness.

If you can handle the bleak yet beautifulness, then read it. I managed to snag a copy of Prodigal Giver, which I believe has a different title in the US, off ebay a while back so I can’t wait to get stuck into that when I am ready to be battered by Glaspell’s painful prose again.

Holiday Reading

I’ve just finished The Enchanted April which was, as the title promised, simply enchanting. A review will be forthcoming at some point in the near future, but for now I am going to review the books I read on my recent Greek island holiday, as The Enchanted April reminded me of the pleasure I had on my holiday, which again reminded me that I hadn’t reviewed all of the books I read on said holiday. So here they are – a Virago haul gathered from one of my favourite book shopping haunts – www.oxfam.co.uk – many a bargain to be had and it all goes to a good cause, so it’s guilt free shopping.

The first book I read was E M Delafield’s The Way Things Are, which is sadly out of print but used copies are fairly easy to get hold of. I was very much looking forward to reading this, as I love the Provincial Lady books and I also really enjoyed Persephone’s reprint of Consequences, so I was expecting great things. Nicola Beauman of Persephone wrote the Introduction that’s not really an Introduction and should actually be a Conclusion because it spoils the story if you read it first (I never learn) and in it she states this is her favourite Delafield, so once I read that I was practically giddy with excitement expecting a masterpiece to surpass even Provincial Lady proportions. But, to be perfectly honest, I was just the littlest bit disappointed. Oh, it was witty and it was touching and so true in the way only Delafield can be; she perfectly describes the frustrations and boredoms of looking after a house and children and how futile it can all seem, but rather than lifting all of this with humour like she does in the Provincial Lady, in The Way Things Are, it all stays rather flat and sad, and I was left feeling rather sorry for Laura, the leading lady, whose humdrum life with her monosyballic husband Alfred will never give her what she needs. She’s a rather colourless heroine though, who is a bit too passive for my liking; she seems incapable of coping with life in general, and it is her sister, Christine, who defies social convention to live the life she wants that actually ended up being the focus and the delight of the book for me. It was good, and it was funny in places, but this is the sort of book that needs to make its mind up whether it should be funny or sad because it can’t be both, and in trying to be both, it just ends up being not really much of either.

Next up was F M Mayor’s The Squire’s Daughter, which describes the slow decline and break up of an Edwardian family as it enters the post war era. It is mainly about the beautiful Ron, who can have any man she wants, but can’t find one she actually does want, and the way she is torn between her life of frivolity and fun and the duty she owes to her declining father, trying to keep his ancestral home while he is drowning in debt. This book seems to be about bright young things and a girl’s search for a husband, but it is also very much about parents and children and family and the mixture of guilt, love and duty that binds them all together. I loved it; I fell in love with the characters, I cried just a little bit, and I got swept away by the gentle, all pervading sadness of it all…of how regrets and mistakes can shape lives and take us down paths we never wanted to go, and how, too late, we realise that we’ve gone too far to ever turn back. It is wonderful and I long to read more of F M Mayor’s work.

Last but not least came Ann Veronica by H G Wells. I’ve been wanting to read this for a while, as I’ve read a lot of books on women’s history, single women, spinsters and such like over the past few months, perhaps reflecting my fear that I will become one, eaten to death by my cats once I have scared all my friends away through my bitterness, and Ann Veronica kept cropping up as an example of the ‘New Woman’. So I thought I’d see what H G Wells had to say about this phenomenon. It is supposed to be based on Amber Reeves, Maud Pember Reeves’ (of Round About a Pound a Week’s fame) daughter, who had an affair, and a child, by Wells (who didn’t?), and is about the intelligent, beautiful and headstrong Ann Veronica, who longs to be educated and self sufficient and have adventures, free from the confines of marriage and childbearing. She runs away from home to live in London and go to college, and there many men fall at her feet, she gets involved with the woman’s rights movements of the day etc etc etc until she finds true love outside of her social class and gives that all up, which was interesting as it raised the question of whether women really wanted their independence, and gives the impression that Wells thought women’s true happiness comes within marriage, and they just need to accept it. It’s good and very interesting from a historical perspective, and also fascinating to have a man’s perspective on the woman’s question, but I did get a bit annoyed with the Ann Veronica worship by every man whom she meets..she never says anything particularly profound as far as I’m concerned and if she looked anything like Virago’s chosen portrait on the front cover, I’d be running away, not towards her! And Wells’ treatment of Ann Veronica was a little patronising, showing her at her happiest when she is married and pregnant and being the Victorian ideal of woman…so I’m not really sure what this was book was trying to say…perhaps that the ideal of the New Woman could never work in real life, as women want to be wives and mothers anyway? It’s open to interpretation, of course.

And here is a picture of where I was staying while reading these novels; Molyvos, in Lesbos. Absolutely stunning, and the perfect place to get away from it all, relax, and read. I’ll be back again soon, I hope.