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21st November 2023

Well, everything is a mess at the moment, making it very hard to know how to ‘comport’ oneself. It was the (unchangingly wonderful) Mozart Fest here in Bath, we had early lunch with friends before a concert and afterwards realised, with shame, that (because there was so much else to talk about) we had forgotten (as is customary) to express despair about the Israel-Hamas war, about Ukraine, about the planet, to metaphorically and in unison wring our hands. Maybe we all have compassion fatigue: that may be an incredibly selfish thing to say but all this empathy, anger and upset is exhausting. (And for those of you who, understandably, want to give up reading the Letter at this point: there is some marvellous news at the end, so take heart.) 

However, continuing on the gloomy note: last Thursday was the 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht and we thought we should remind Persephone readers about The Oppermanns, PB No. 136, which was written in the summer of 1933 in order to alert people to the Nazi threat and was published, in the original German and in translation, just before Kristallnacht. And yet, and yet, there is only so much agony you can all cope with. Reading The Guardian, watching Channel 4 News at 7, and then imagining oneself as an Israeli hostage, or the mother of a baby in the hospital in Gaza, or an Ukrainian waiting for Putin’s latest onslaught, is a daily misery for all of us – even if the details vary from day to day. It’s unbearable. Yet, mysteriously, the human spirit is resilient enough that we go on with our little lives, buying hyacinths (‘Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself’), going to concerts, thinking what to have for supper. 

Nevertheless, the point of Sofia Petrovna, PB no. 149, which we have just published is that after a while human beings reach breaking point and cannot go on. We paid tribute to this incredible and must-read book at a Persephone concert (ironically on the anniversary of Kristallnacht) with Trio Paradis playing a dozen pieces of (mostly) Russian music as fifty of us sat with a glass of champagne in the beautiful upstairs room and momentarily things didn’t seem too bad. (The next Persephone concert is Jools Scott playing the Erard on December 14th, please do come if you live in or near Bath.) 

So forgive us if the rest of this Letter seems trivial in the light of all that’s happening and if we are too sick at heart even to mention the absurdity of turning someone into a Lord (‘ten lords a-leaping’) to give them a post in government. Instead some good news: we have been entranced by Lessons in Chemistry on Apple TV.

The acting is incredible, there’s actually a plot, it’s involving, and then it’s fascinating, if upsetting, about 1950s attitude to women and to race. Like the best art you can’t stop thinking about it. Whereas Machinal, the 1928 play by Sophie Treadwell, which has been brilliantly revived at the Ustinov Theatre in Bath, is an absolute tour de force, and the acting and the costumes and the direction are superb. But still it doesn’t leave you with quite enough to think about because in one sense it’s unsubtle: it's simply saying that the heroine has been driven mad  by the ghastliness of the patriarchy; and that capital punishment is vile and abhorrent. Nevertheless, it’s sent us off to re-read Fidelity, PB no. 4, and Brook Evans, PB no. 26, since Susan Glaspell was a close friend of Sophie Treadwell’s: ‘Trifles’ (1916) and ‘Machinal’ (1928) are extremely similar in that both women are driven insane by their complacently terrible husbands. (Has anyone read Sophie Treadwell’s novels?) 

Other good news: Onslows are having an auction of posters on November 30th. Anyone coming in to the shop knows how we love a good poster and, shockingly, we have made a list of twenty-five that we covet madly.

Let’s hope that the bids creep up before the final day as really we don’t ‘need’ any more posters. (We sell three marvellous reproductions for £10 each and have a changing stock of original, framed posters for sale for £450 each.)

Thrillingly, James Daunt (who runs Daunt, Waterstones and Barnes and Noble) gave an interview to the New York Times and look what he chose as his background:

 We must pay tribute to the architectural firm Mae, which has won the Stirling Prize for an absolutely beautiful day centre for residents of a retirement community in south London. It was modelled in a modern yet generous way on a Grade I listed almshouse founded in 1695 by Sir John Morden and built by Sir Christopher Wren’s master builder and successor, Edward Strong: 'the new building makes reference to the historic architecture in its colonnade, roofscape and brickwork.'

We must also all pay a mental tribute to Phyllis Latour, an SOE wireless operator in France during the war, who has died aged 102.

And a final tribute: to the people of Sheffield who had their lives shattered for years as they fought to save their trees (we have mentioned them on the Letter several times before). Here is the Guardian ‘long read’ about this battle, which was eventually won but only after 5600 trees had been felled. ‘Several protesters became tearful while describing their feelings of powerlessness, the sound of chainsaws hacking down beloved trees, or the breakdown of personal relationships as their lives were consumed by the protests.’ One reads this in total disbelief at the intransigence of Sheffield Council.

We were delighted when Timothy Mowl, in a talk about his and Julian Orbach's book called Unbuilt Bath ie. the buildings and schemes for Bath that never happened (most of them simply frightful) paid tribute to our author Adam Fergusson (who wrote The Sack of Bath, PB No. 93, in 1973 and helped put a stop to the destruction of the artisan terraces) and said that there should be a statue to him in Bath. Hear, hear.

And we were pleased when an article in the New York Times headed ‘How to Stay Sane in Brutalising Times’ (things may be generally frightful but they are not yet ‘brutal’ in the UK) mentioned Etty Hillesum, author of PB No. 5 An Interrupted Life, as one of the author’s heroes. ‘As the Nazi occupation lasted and the horrors of the Holocaust mounted, she became more generous, kind, warm and ultimately heroic toward those who were being send off to the death camps…. At Westerbork she became known for her sparkling compassion, her selfless love… She left a legacy: what it looks like to shine and grow and be a beacon of humanity, even in the worst imaginable circumstances.’ It is eighty years since Etty died on November 30th. (Of all the disgusting things about the Nazis, one of the most unbearable is that they kept such meticulous records.) On that day Susan Stein is coming from New York to perform her extraordinary Etty play and to give a talk about Etty, both events take place in our beautiful upstairs room and there are still tickets.

And now the very, very good news: first of all, there is going to be a retrospective of our favourite, our absolutely favourite, Posy Simmonds. At the Pompidou no less. How incredible (and how typique that it is the French who will celebrate her rather than us; but then of course ‘no man is a hero in his own country’). It’s an accolade SO justly deserved. It also means that the day trip to Paris we have been promising ourselves will now definitely have to happen before April 1st. For those who can’t get to Paris, do watch this charming video of Posy talking about her work (scroll down here). And those people who aren’t intimately familiar with Posy's output – remedy this tout de suite!

The second piece of good news is that Miss Buncle's Book, PB No. 81, is going to be Book at Bedtime on Radio 4 for two weeks beginning on November 27th and ending on December 8th, read by Madeleine Worrall and abridged by Clara Glynn. That will be a nice piece of escapism. Also, if you can bear to think about Christmas already, do have a look at our Christmas offer, which this year consists of a Persephone book of your choice tucked inside a re-usable fabric envelope i.e. it is both beautiful and useful and, at £25, rather good value too. And perhaps you would like to come to a Persephone event or even our Christmas Open Day on December 7th for free gift-wrapping along with mulled wine and mince pies? Details and tickets here.

 Nicola Beauman

8 Edgar Buildings







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