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19th January 2024

This month’s Persephone Letter is about a place: Hampstead in North London. Of course it is difficult to write about without ensuring that many of our readers will simply reach for the sick bag: because, yes, it is a huge privilege for anyone who lives there and yes, very sadly, it has now become associated with the extremely wealthy. Yet, oddly enough, much of the ‘old’ Hampstead still survives. Goodness knows how, and it is true that most of the writers and artists who used to live in Hampstead can no longer afford to do so; but there is a spirit, a demeanour, that has survived completely intact. And our January Letter is not at all wide-ranging, but simply celebrates these qualities. 

Its inspiration was thinking about two Hampstead men, very different and yet not so different: Nicholas Winton and Merlin Sheldrake. The former is celebrated in the film One Life. It’s a terrible title but a marvellous film (trailer here), in fact simply not to be missed. Not only is it beautifully shot, the period detail is spot on and the acting superb (Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham-Carter, Romola Garai, Jonathan Pryce.…). But more than this, it’s about values. Huh, you Persephone readers think, here we go, a little rant about politics. No, no, just watch the film and see for yourself the link between the values of the film and the values (we hope) of Persephone books: a perfectly ordinary man, leading a perfectly ordinary domestic life, does something quietly amazing, without then boasting about it or indeed ever mentioning it again. It's domestic feminism in action, except in this case domestic activism. 

Similarly, Merlin Sheldrake: he has written an outstanding book (about fungi):

                          

But as you will gather from listening to him on the excellent episode of Private Passions last Sunday here or reading this New York Times magazine article here, he is modest and generous and witty. And the link? Both Nicholas Winton and Merlin Sheldrake lived in Hampstead, in the same road in fact. We would like to suggest that they embody its values, but that might be a) pushing it b) a bit pompous.

The road they lived in is Willow Road:

For anyone visiting London it should be very much vaut le détour (and could also include the National Trust’s Goldfinger House).

Willow Road runs along the edge of Hampstead Heath, the magical Heath which was saved from being built on by our ancestors sitting on committees, delving into their pockets, giving up their time, in order to preserve it for Londoners. The Heath is unique and no other city in the world has anything like it. The picture below shows the Lime Avenue which is one of the approaches to the Heath and (the writer of the Letter is going to boast now) she is SO proud that one morning years ago she stopped the council from putting tarmac on the path (by causing a huge fuss) and so it has remained beautifully gravelly.

And, finally, yes, there is a real point to celebrating Hampstead on this Letter. It's that so many women writers lived there. In fact two or three times (and perhaps it is due another outing) Persephone Books has sponsored a talk on 'Hampstead Women Writers', taking the form of an imaginary walk round the thirty or so houses lived in by the different writers. The reason why Hampstead was home to so many was explained, unsurprisingly, by Virginia Woolf. She never actually lived there, but often visited, and this is what she wrote on 3rd December 1917 when her husband Leonard Woolf was giving a lecture in Hampstead and she went with him. ‘Strange what a stamp Hampstead sets even on a casual gathering of 30 people, such clean, decorous, uncompromising & high minded old ladies & old gentlemen; & the young wearing brown clothes, & thinking seriously, the women dowdy, the men narrow shouldered; bright fire & lights & books surrounding us, & everyone of course agreeing beforehand to what was said.’  (A marvellous last phrase; what she meant was that because everyone was liberal, do-gooding, tolerant, trying hard to be helpful, they weren’t disputatious.)  Again she made this point when she referred to going to tea with Margaret Llewelyn Davies in the ‘immaculate & moral heights of Hampstead’ (at 26 Well Walk).  And on another occasion visiting the same friend, in September 1927, she wrote about ‘Hampstead, red, sanitary, earnest, view gazing, breeze requiring.’ 

So who were some of the dowdy, earnest women writers who lived in this sanitary, immaculate place? They included Katharine Mansfield, May Sinclair, Sylvia Lynd, Theodora Benson,  F M Mayor, Elizabeth Jenkins,  Phyllis Bottome, Edith Sitwell, Elizabeth Myers, E Arnot Robertson,  Amber Reeves,  Daphne du Maurier, Pamela Frankau, Kay Dick, Kathleen Farrell,  Marie Stopes, Eleanor Farjeon, Penelope Fitzgerald, Patience Gray,  Marghanita Laski,  Alison Lurie and Elizabeth Jane Howard. Included, mind you, for there are a lot more and in modern times Margaret Gardiner, Margaret Drabble and Deborah Moggach. We must also make a bow to Fred Uhlman, author of the incomparable Reunion.

To conclude: let’s not forget that Adela Quested, the heroine of one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, A Passage to India, lived in ‘an artistic and thoughtful little suburb of London’. Naturally this was Hampstead.

(If anyone is minded to go and do the walk round the women writers' houses, please write to us and we will be pleased to send the list of addresses.)

Nicola Beauman

8 Edgar Buildings

Bath  

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