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15th June 2023

The two October books are going to the printer in a month, so one of the tasks for June is choosing the endpapers and doing the jackets – the biogs on the back flap and the ‘nifty quote’ on the front flap. We often wonder if it would have made a difference having conventional blurbs (cf. the interesting book Blurb Your Enthusiasm: An A-Z of Literary Persuasion by Louise Willder) but are mainly relieved we don’t have to spend hours thinking of synonyms for brilliant and unputdownable (all listed in the Willder book of course).

It’s quiet in the shop (we call it the Liz Truss effect, overseas readers will need to google to see what that means) but actually there is almost always someone browsing or asking for advice. It’s simply that there isn’t a buzz. But we realise every day how lucky we are that mail order is the staple of our business. Thank you, thank you, dear readers reading this and also buying our books online.

And one doesn’t want to moan… but the effects of Brexit are ongoing and in fact there was an article in The Author (the journal of the Society of Authors) about the mad way European customs is allowed randomly to demand extra payment when they deliver a book. (It ranges from three to twenty-five euros.) It mentions a small Manchester-based publisher called Confingo  which ‘used to enjoy healthy sales of books to the EU’ but now can’t send them any more. It ‘has expended much time and energy in seeking ways to improve the lot of its customers’ and yet, like us, it can’t find a way to stop customs charges being imposed on delivery (sometimes, not always). We are the same. But we go on trying.

We found the Jonathan Freedland book (still in the bestseller list) too depressing to read. Although it’s important to know the facts, some things are unbearable to read about. We fear that the same may be true of Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad by Daniel Finkelstein but since it has been compared to those two great books, The Hare with Amber Eyes (by the grandson of one of our authors, Elisabeth de Waal) and East-West Street by Philippe Sands (who did a marvellous event in Lamb's Conduit Street about Hare, Manja, Farewell Leicester Square and his own book) we feel we must read it. However, it won’t be among 'the fifty books we wish we had published' as we are not selling hardbacks anymore. Even with their £5 off sticker they don’t exactly fly off the shelf (though this may of course be due to the fact that we have two such excellent bookshops, Mr B and Toppings, so close by). But we have spruced up our paperback selection and added more titles eg. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Cranford,  Le Grand Meaulnes, more Elizabeth Taylor and more Forster.

Talking of Forster, there was an excellent adaptation of A Room with a View on Radio 4, catch up here.

It is 75 years this month since the first publication, in the New Yorker, of Shirley Jackson's short story 'The Lottery' which is in The Persephone Book of Short Stories, PB No. 100. Of course it is a huge shock for someone who has never read it before, and indeed someone came in to the shop a couple of weeks ago to express her dismay and incredulity. Here is what the New Yorker said about it this week: 'The story was launched into a world still recovering from the shock and devastation of a war in which communities had turned on their own members, offering them up for murder – or, in some cases, carrying out the killing themselves. “The Lottery”, in which townspeople draw lots to see who among them will become the victim of a yearly ritual revealed only at the story’s end, perhaps veered too close to a representation of truth. The response in letters to the editor – hundreds of them, more than any other New Yorker story had inspired – was, for the most part, either confused or outraged.'

In London a plaque was unveiled to the suffragette Sophia Duleep Singh (1878-1946).

And the director of the English Heritage Blue Plaque scheme made a statement asking for recommendations for more women to be honoured. O tempora, o mores! We suggested Amy Levy years ago but she was turned down smartly. Well, we shall give her and all our London-based writers another try: we are thinking particularly of Cicely Hamilton, Edith Ayrton Zangwill, Marghanita Laski, Noel Streatfeild, Betty Miller, Florence White, Vere Hodgson, Elizabeth Jenkins and F M Mayor; Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf already have plaques.

Do read this obituary of the extraordinary Jean Argles who, when she was Jean Outram was a code and cipher officer for SOE.

We have been reading An Uneasy Inheritance, a memoir by one of our preface writers (Round about a Pound a Week), Polly Toynbee. It made us deeply uneasy, and not just for the reasons you might imagine: the central premise of the book is that it is extremely unfair and wrong that some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouth and others aren’t. Which is of course profoundly true. (But what was one’s mother’s mantra? ‘Life isn’t fair.')  But the reason we found the book upsetting is Polly’s unabashed criticism of one of ‘our’ authors, Rosalind Murray, author of The Happy Tree, PB no. 108. This is, in our view, an outstanding novel about the effect of WW1 on the generation left behind, on a par with Dusty Answer or Testament of Youth or Cynthia Asquith’s Diaries. Polly never met her grandmother, has not read The Happy Tree, and believes (as did her father) that her grandmother was "a monster". Of course one cannot know the truth about anything (the first rule of biography, or life-writing as they call it now, is not to believe something unless corroborated by two people). But Persephone readers will understand that we feel loyal and protective towards ‘our’ authors and to see one of them rubbished in print is upsetting. 

There was an article in the AJR journal here about Isca Sulzberger-Wittenberg. Aged 100, she is the oldest living child psychotherapist. This is inspirational: ‘At 97, missing her beloved cello which she could no longer play, she took up the piano – "which I always thought inferior to the cello" and started taking lessons.

Which reminds us to remind you that we now have the promised piano and the Persephone concerts will be starting in our beautiful upstairs room on Thursday September 14th at 7pm for 7.15pm. The £15 cost includes a glass of champagne and a cheese straw, the (professional) musicians will  play for an hour, and the music will be weighted towards café or salon music and the emphasis will be on women composers if at all possible. Please ring or email to reserve a place. 

We are delighted that the garden belonging to Agnes Jekyll’s sister-in-law Gertrude Jekyll, Munstead Wood near Godalming in Surrey, has been saved for the nation by the National Trust.

Agnes of course lived nearby at Munstead House and Gertrude’s biographer remarked that ‘if she was an artist-gardener, then Agnes was an artist-housekeeper.’ (The grey edition of Kitchen Essays has just reprinted. Below is the front cover of the Classic edition.)


Nicola Beauman

8 Edgar Buildings

15th June 2023



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