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19 July 2021
It is hot in the UK. However – and we feel extremely lucky – not nearly as hot as in many parts of the world. Our thoughts are particularly with the now-destroyed Lytton in British Columbia, 95 miles north-east of Vancouver, report in the Guardian here, because this is where PB no. 58 Hetty Dorval (1947) is set. This short novel is about a young woman who seems to have behaved unconventionally, indeed immorally ('a very ugly story has followed her from Shanghai to Vancouver'). But is she objectively a 'Menace'? Or is this a novel about the pernicious effect of gossip? Hetty has chosen to live outside ‘normal’ society, yet why should she be condemned for behaving differently? The Spectator compared Hetty Dorval to Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier and called it ‘a strange little treat’. Yet it languishes somewhat on our list, largely because its author is not someone UK readers have heard of. Now this Canadian classic has taken on a new and bitter resonance.
How often we have used the word classic! We have just sent out emails to literary editors and reviewers asking if they would like to review our October books, The Deepening Stream and The Rector’s Daughter (please apply to us if you would like to do so) and it is SO difficult to refer to either book without calling it a classic. Indeed,The Rector’s Daughter was reprinted many years ago first as a Penguin Classic, and then a Virago Modern Classic, so it definitely has that status. But The Deepening Stream? Shamefully, it has never been recognised as one of the greatest, possibly THE greatest, novel in the Dorothy Canfield Fisher canon. However, it is true, highly as we rate it, we do not expect it to eclipse The Home-Maker, which is beloved of thousands and thousands of Persephone readers. Nevertheless, our task for August will be to try and write the new Biannually in a way that conveys how extraordinary it is. (We shall be sending this out on October 1st, three weeks earlier than usual – in part because there was no Biannually in April.)
The other two books we shall be writing about are the two new Persephone Classics. (Trivial point: when we launched this list of, now, fourteen titles, we wanted to call them Persephone Perennials not Persephone Classics but, perhaps over-scrupulously, we felt we should not stray onto the territory of the mighty Harper Perennial.) Our thirteenth and fourteenth Persephone Classics (ie. the volumes with pictures on the front rather than the traditional grey covers) are Miss Buncle’s Book and They Were Sisters. This is the picture we have used for the former.
Of course the aim of this Letter is to convey interesting news, certainly not to be too downbeat. But we can't deny the truth: here in the UK most people are pretty low. Mainly we are exhausted after fifteen months of Covid; but also by: government corruption; football hooligans; the water companies’ corruption (cf. the George Monbiot film free on You Tube here); the Great Post Office Trial here; Grenfell; Windrush; the deep and enduring worry of climate change; the madness of Brexit (European readers will know that it has now become impossible to send books to Europe); almost everything. But a very cheering note has been the England football team behaving with decency and kindness. (Read Raheem Sterling here.)
And novels are always a solace. We are reading Night Falls on the City by Sarah Gainham. Now this is an incredible novel! It would make a perfect Persephone book but is massively long and having recently published The Oppermanns, being about to publish The Deepening Stream and beginning to plan for The Waters Under the Earth next year, all three weighing in at 600 pages, we simply don’t feel we can cope, either financially or intellectually, with a fourth massively long novel. But comments would be very welcome. We know Kate Mosse championed Night Falls on the City when it was reprinted a decade ago, if there is anyone who feels passionately that there should be a Persephone reprint we’d like to hear from them.
Other news: during the pandemic some of our friends and relations need much more day-to-day help than in the past. Two helpful websites: ShareandCare, a.k.a. Homeshare, matches people who have a spare room with younger people who need somewhere to live: the householder receives fifteen hours of help and companionship a week and the sharer has somewhere to stay. It’s ‘a positive way of allowing people to remain independent in their own homes.’ And the older householder, or the younger one giving them presents and help, should take a look at a new website called GrannyGetsaGrip which believes that 'aids for physical independence should complement individuality and taste, without compromising on quality.’ This is a brilliant idea and when those of us who are not getting any younger need a long-handled garden fork or a well-designed oak ‘grab’ rail or a tray to have meals in bed (our absolute fantasy is to be brought breakfast in bed but alas Gilbert, now fifteen months, has rather put paid to that) or a beautiful throw (which in fact we have ordered for the sofa in Edgar Buildings), we shall head for Granny Gets a Grip. Or ask our friends and relations to do so.
As well as the launch of the new Biannually, and the new books, we are also beginning to think about having events. The first floor is very nearly ready ie. there is the sofa, a kettle, a sink with hot and cold water, pictures on the walls, and thirty folding chairs. So the Persephone Parlour or piano nobile (name to be decided) will be used for book groups (we are thinking of having three monthly groups, one at 11, one at 1.30 ie. just before school pick-up time, and one at 7, please let us know what you think of this plan), lunches, talks, seminars, film showings and chamber music concerts. Then we are wondering about more informal, drop-in Elevenses at Persephone. Or Tea with Persephone. Or something like that. In any event we shall have fun planning the events and hope quite a few of you will have fun attending them. The first is planned for September 15th when the piano nobile will be ‘christened’ with a glass of wine and a talk about Persephone Books; the second is on October 1st when there will be a discussion about The Call and Dorothy Whipple called ‘From Z to W: Zangwill to Whipple. (We shall write to Bath/Somerset Persephone readers about the first two events, after that events will be announced in the Biannually as usual.)
Actually there is scope for doing 'From A to B' for all our authors eg. Ashton to Bonham, Cambridge to Delafield. And in fact the Times Literary Supplement this week ran an excellent piece by Sarah Lonsdale (who wrote the book about ‘rebel’ women writers with several pages in it about Stella Martin Currey) on Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield.
It makes the good point that the unnamed diarist (but we always think of her as Laura, apply to A Very Great Profession for reasons why) ‘was a serial liar who by the end of the first instalment of the diary had told at least half a dozen untruths, sometimes to avoid hurting other’s feelings, sometimes to deflect her husband’s ill-temper, but many times simply because it was easier to lie than to confront social awkwardness.’ But these are white lies, which we all tell every day in the name of politeness, quite unlike our prime minister’s lies. Cf. the article in this week's New Statesman on this topic which begins: 'It is truly dizzying to live in the UK these days, if you have a good memory. Life under the Johnson government means that whatever they tell you today, it will all have changed by tomorrow. Whatever you remember, it never happened like that.'
Dizzying indeed. Once upon a time the English only lied in order to be kind and polite. Which is why, when German refugees arrived in England in the 1930s they were given a booklet called While You are in England: Helpful Information and Guidance for Every Refugee (most beautifully reproduced by the excellent Wiener Library a few years ago).
One of the nuggets of Helpful Information it contained is that ‘the Englishman values good manners far more than he values the evidence of wealth. You will find that he says "Thank you" for the slightest service – even for a penny bus ticket for which he has paid.’ And herein lies a profound truth: our government values the evidence of wealth far more than it values good manners. Apologies. We do try and keep this Letter as politics-free as possible but it isn't always easy.
On a happier topic: all fingers crossed that we can begin monthly film showings on the first floor to a small socially distanced group of twenty-five people. We are thinking of launching with Suffragette in October, going on to E M Forster: His Longest Journey (a documentary by Adrian Munsey) in November, Ethel and Ernest in December and They Knew Mr Knight in January. As in Lamb's Conduit Street we shall serve a cream tea at 4 o’clock, show the film and follow it with a glass of madeira. Tickets are free for the film but we ask people to contribute to the cost of the refreshments.
And on another happy note: The Fortnight in September is being published in America in early September, just before it's read on Radio 4 in the UK (from September 13th-24th). Here is the US cover.
Finally, Isabella Tree’s Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm is one of the ‘fifty books we wish we had published’ and we were interested in this interview with her by Laura Battle in the Financial Times. And did you know that the film of Little Boy Lost is available free on You Tube? Marghanita Laski disliked it because of the singing. But there isn’t very much, it’s only there because Hilary’s wife is a singer, and actually the film is very good. And pretty faithful to the book, which is the important thing.
8 Edgar Buildings
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