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16 February 2023

So we have tied a couple of hundred books in a beautiful deep pink velvet ribbon, tucked in two ‘Closed Door’ napkins, and on Valentine’s Day imagined the happy recipients opening them.

Otherwise it’s been a normal Jan/Feb; sometimes walking the office dog has been excruciatingly cold but at other times the sun has appeared warmingly over the trees. Our neighbour has gone off to Hermanus for a month’s holiday by the sea, taking with her The World that was Ours by Hilda Bernstein.

This is surely one of the best books ever written about the tragedy of apartheid and the fight to overturn it, but from a domestic, everyday, human point of view, and we are so, so proud to have it on our list. (And the modesty of our writers! We found it when, years ago, we did a tea in a village hall near Oxford - I gave a talk, handed out tea, and hoped that people bought books - and a woman said to me, I’ve written a book. Yeah yeah I thought. But it turned out to be The World that was Ours!)

All our weekday mornings begin with the Persephone Post, now done so fascinatingly by Jane Brocket. Here is one of this week's Cressida Campbell paintings:

Our Sundays also get off to a very good start because of Jane's blog - Yarnstorm on Substack. My favourite so far this year has been the hymn of praise to the milk bottle (and see below) but last Sunday’s exploration of the Elizabeth Line was marvellous.

Tár has just appeared on Curzon Home Cinema so we shall be watching it this weekend. It’s had very mixed reports from friends: our family ex-conductor, who knows what he’s talking about, couldn’t praise it enough (for realism) while a friend nearly passed out from boredom. But a re-watch of Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources has been an unexpected hit all round. How incredible it is that (if one can afford it) one can type the title of a film into google and ‘watch’ and almost always one can find it. Not invariably of course, which is why we go on showing They Were Sisters (tomorrow) and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (next week) etc. in the shop.

Look at this 1908 photograph of a friend's Great-aunt Anne at Imperial College in her B.Sc class aged 22. Unimaginable to be the only woman in a class of nearly thirty men.  One hundred and fifteen years ago!

Simon Kuper wrote a piece here about the beauty of C19th European cities compared with C20th ones, citing roads and skyscrapers as the main culprits: ‘A woman I know who grew up in an English new town says she realised only later that living amid ugliness had made her childhood unhappier.’ People don’t often say this. But it is true there are some of us for whom the ugly is so upsetting that it is almost painful, in a way that would be thought ridiculously over-sensitive  by the majority: horrible paving stones put down where grass had been; the wrong red; coloured rubbish bins rather than the beautiful wrought iron ones they have in Paris; the list would take days to write out. But the point is that, yes, some of us are appalled when something is ugly, although try to damp down our shredded nerves. This leads on to what we call ‘a daffodil in a milk bottle’ (cf Yarnstorm mentioned above). Any room, any space, any messy desk can be made beautiful with a proper glass milk bottle with daffs in it: another book we have always wanted to write.

Hence our re-publication in 2011 of The Sack of Bath, years before we thought of bringing Persephone to Bath. It points to one of the things Persephone cares about, stands for indeed, which in this instance is seeing the beauty in (sadly demolished) small cottages set against the ugliness of the Balance Street flats or the hotel at the bottom of Walcot Street. The obvious parallel is between neglected fiction and neglected buildings, but there is far more to it than that. But when someone wrote in a round-up of forthcoming fiction, mentioning some neglected authors: ‘In 2023 “rediscovering” is not only a trend but a moral pursuit', we could only agree. But the same applies to all those trying to save buildings from decay or development; it is a moral pursuit.

Yet the fact is that we have managed, by sheer good fortune, to position ourselves in a part of Bath which has not been wrecked, and in any case now, thank heavens, the conservation tide has turned. Pleasingly, one of our discoveries doing The Persephone Literary Map of Bath (£5) was that John Betjeman lived here during the war, lodging in Macaulay Buildings and walking down to work at the Admiralty in the Empire Hotel. But even he failed to stop the 1960s wrecking ball, and it was not until Adam Fergusson and Lord Snowdon took their photographs, and Adam published his book in 1973, that the greedy developers and the councillors who enabled them had to re-think. It’s sobering and a bit humiliating that Kuper ends his piece by saying: ‘the best physical bits of today’s best cities were built  by our ancestors.’

Tangentially related: there is great anguish in the UK because ‘they’ are trying to stop us having the occasional open fire. However, the Guardian let slip here that logs are okay as long as they are seasoned or kiln-dried and have moisture levels below 20%. (Sadly, this is extremely unfair on people who don’t have room to store logs or can’t afford kiln dried).

We would love to be able to get to Sylvia: a Musical at the Old Vic, but instead on television we adored Nolly with Helena Bonham-Carter (what a marvellous thing that she is the new President of the London Library, an inspired appointment) and are still faithful Call the Midwife watchers.

There is a new book by Marion Turner which is a biography of The Wife of Bath (does it actually mention Bath the place?), another  called The Rise and Fall of Corporate Feminism: Women in the  American Office 1960-90  by Allison Elias which we would love to read but it’s a mysterious £115, and a third called Lodgers, Landlords and Landladies in Georgian London by Gillian Williamson which we would also love to read but it’s £85.  However, a new biography of ‘our author’ Katharine Mansfield by Claire Harman is an affordable £18.99; it was reviewed by our esteemed preface writer Lyndall Gordon in the New Statesman. Better value is Janet Malcolm’s Still Pictures at £14.99. What an incredible writer she was! Really, Persephone books are extraordinary value, though we say so ourselves.

Rachel Joyce wrote in The Times (behind a pay wall), about Someone at a Distance, ‘a beautiful and moving story, not just about love, but the lies we tell to protect love. Whipple writes her characters with the kind of understanding that comes from a keen observer of the ordinary. Her style is clear-eyed and precise, superbly elegant and subtle, witty but never showy.’ And Rachel Joyce concludes: ‘In Dorothy Whipple’s own way – quietly probing, loving and truthful – she was just as disruptive as the writers of the 1960s who replaced her.’ This is what DW’s detractors didn’t see and still don’t see (we are thinking of you, Backlisted Pod), they just don’t get her brilliance – could it be that it’s too subtle for them?! The nearest parallel is Elizabeth Taylor. No wonder she, like Ivy Compton-Burnett, adored DW's work – although would not admit it.

Finally, well three finallies: it's interesting that an excellent and award-winning sauvignon blanc now comes from the Woodchester Valley vineyard near Bath;  we mourned the death of Kit Hesketh-Harvey, my goodness how we mourned him; and we would love to go to a) the new exhibition of Alice Neel’s work at the Barbican and b) to the Vermeer exhibition (but tickets are already sold out).

Nicola Beauman

8 Edgar Buildings



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