A Love Letter To Persephone Books

By celebrating the forgotten works of women writers they are contributing something vital to literature – shining a light on those stories which are so often ignore, neglected and overlooked
Publish date:
May 29, 2013
books, reading, literature, publishing, persephone books, miss pettigrew, waterstones

Throughout my life, books have been precious things to me – from dog-eared Roald Dahls to the family collection of Agatha Christies that I cherish, they represent adventure, comfort, solace and nourishment.

I don’t see myself ever swapping the crowded, colourful shelves of paperbacks, hardbacks, coffee table books and comics that fill my flat for any e-reader and so recently I’ve started becoming more aware of the importance of supporting small, independent publishers so they can continue to supply me with the reading material I crave.

Chief among these is Persephone Books – a true gem in what can sometimes feel like a literary wasteland of ghost-written celeb ‘memoirs’, cynical chick lit and plastic porn. As Waterstones so wittily declared with this glorious display (another reason to frequent bricks and mortar bookshops – the joy of browsing), all you really need is ONE shade of grey.

That grey is the cool, unassuming colour that all Persephone books are cloaked in and it was chosen for a reason. Each title is an unsung heroine of Twentieth Century literature which Persephone has discovered and republished to bring it to a new audience. The books are beautiful (shouldn’t matter, but of course it does) – just the right weight, neatly numbered, with vivid illustrated linings.

Its most famous success is Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson – a classic Cinderella story about a middle aged governess in dire straits who experiences a wonderful day (complete with makeover scene – gotta love a makeover!) that changes her life forever. It was made into a film starring Francis McDormand.

It’s a subtly drawn, warm and often funny story that highlights the very real distress women found themselves in if they never married, as a lack of education and employment opportunities placed them in a desperate situation that often ended in quiet, private destitution. Many Persephone titles are concerned with this theme (shout out to Agatha Christie here too – she had great compassion for impoverished spinsters too, even when they’re murderers!)

Almost all of Persephone’s books were written by women and many concentrate on the domestic sphere in the early and middle parts of the last century. These quiet, innately female takes of frustration, sacrifice, courage and, yes, passion, are often left out of the literary canon and I’ve never understood why.

They’re not ‘dramatic’ enough? Aggressive? Worldly? All those clichéd macho traits that seem to be so highly valued and mean that for every strutting, posturing Hemingway we’re missing out on a dozen Barbara Pyms or Winifred Watsons. Shameful.

The Persephone bookshop is a delight – a tiny spot on Lambs Conduit Street that’s filled with shelves of those chic grey spines and tables piled high with lovely bookish accessories. You can buy book tokens or a subscription for yourself or as a gift (6 months is £60, 12 months is £120) and you get sent a book each month in the post. And being a small, British business without the luxury of ‘creative’ accountants, we can assume they pay their taxes properly...

Persephone is personified in a way by Miss Pettigrew – unassuming, but intelligent, brave and determined to do the right thing. By celebrating the forgotten works of these women writers they are contributing something vital to literature – shining a light on those stories which are so often ignore, neglected and overlooked – quiet but vital accounts of the everyday lives of ‘ordinary’ women which are anything but humdrum.

By letting those voices be heard, Persephone gives us something priceless and I love them for it.