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21 October 2021

Life at Persephone Books continues, some might say totters, on as usual. No detail is surely required if we declare that the main stress has been Brexit. In fact a BBC producer came in and asked us to be on a programme talking about its effects on a small business – but actually we feel incapable of being articulate, it all just makes us want to sob. The absurdity of it! The cruelty! Or rather insensitivity! The time-wastingness! And all so that a few people in this country can feel that they have ‘control’. 

However, we had one triumph. We have obtained an IOSS number (don't ask) without which you cannot send books to Europe. And wonderful Matt who does our website has managed to instal a gizmo whereby the customer, and us, are told how much VAT we have to pay on each EU order. (We cannot demand that they pay because the amounts are relatively tiny and no one would bother to fill in all the forms in order to pay one or two euros and receive – a Persephone book.) All these VAT amounts (and naturally every country charges different amounts ranging from 5.5% to 25%) are then totted up each month and will total about five thousand pounds a year. Now the struggle is to discover who to pay the money to. You madly google ‘how to pay VAT to the IOSS authority’ and naturally nothing comes up. If only we had the right kind of crony to sort out these things out for us.

But what is SO cheering is that through all these difficulties you, our readers, continue to place orders. We are sure that occasionally our website has driven you as bonkers as it drives us. But thank you thank you. It is so much appreciated. And surely this too will pass…

So the books that sell most at the moment are, obviously, the two new books, The Rector's Daughter and The Deepening Stream. Maybe this is a good moment to talk about what we call 'nifty quotes' ie the quotes on the  flap and the bookmark. Twenty-one years ago we decided not to have blurbs but to have a 'telling' quote from the book, well we hope they are telling.  Choosing this is quite a lot of fun. When we are proofreading we keep a list of possibles and then, just before going to print, decide which one to use. Here is a The Deepening Stream reject:

This did not at all mean that they were a silent family. Quite the opposite. Their admirers said their home was one of the few in which real conversation was carried on. In the light of this repeated saying and of the house talk with which she was familiar, Matey defined conversation to herself as talk intended to cover up what you were thinking about. If it gave you a chance to show off, so much the better.

This is the nub of the book in a way because it is why Matey has a dysfunctional childhood. But of course it doesn't give the essence of the book enough, only one aspect of it. Similarly, we loved this quote early on in The Rector's Daughter but it was only about one aspect of the book:

'You know I think all you people are so wrong about Miss Jocelyn,' said a very handsome wife who had been twice married. 'I believe the great passions and the lasting ones are for the plain women. They're the ones who can keep men, because they're loved for something inside them...Those eyes show Miss Jocelyn has something rather particular inside her. She may chance to meet a man who'll realise it and then being very plain and badly dressed will simply make no difference at all. Only, of course, there are very few of those men about.'

And at the same time Expiation is having a moment because of the page of original reviews in the Biannually. Then there are mysteries. Why have five people from New Zealand ordered The Godwits Fly one of the girls will say? (Perhaps they are a book group?) And yesterday was rather special because we have given some books to the Landmark Trust; and we packed them up in four large boxes to be sent to their headquarters at Shottesbrooke.

A reader recommended we read Until That Day (mysteriously re-titled Day of No Return) by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor. Thank you, thank you, it is a superb book and in its way as memorable as Address Unknown (one of the Fifty Books we Wish we Had Published). Kathrine KT wrote some short stories and we are now reading these, hoping that at least one will be able to go in the Third Persephone Book of Short Stories in 2023 (suggestions gratefully received).

There was an interview in the Financial Times with our heroine Brenda Hale. It was to publicise her memoir Spider Woman: A Life. We loved reading about her life and then the casual detail that ‘her daughter is now chief executive of the London Stock Exchange’! Then we listened to Elizabeth Days's marvellous interview with her on the How to Fail podcast here: 'Lady Hale joins me to talk about battling sexism in law, her failures at school and academia, the loss of her father at a young age, the death of her beloved husband during Covid and her 'abject failure to knit a dishcloth aged five.' Along the way we cover, Beyonce, spiders, Ian McEwan and much, much more.'  

The Guardian ran an article about Becontree.

Whatever one might think aesthetically about rows and rows of rather bland semi-detached houses, the reality is that it is a very comfortable way to live and people so much prefer having their own front door, on the ground, and a garden, rather than living in a tower block. Well, there is a proviso here. If there is a genial and efficient porter who watches all comings and goings, then tower block life can be very comfortable. Why so many tower blocks have become a disaster to live in is because politicians do not see the crucial importance of having a caretaker/porter. 

We have been making some rather left-field literary parallels recently. Someone on NPR radio said about The Fortnight in September here: ‘There’s more than a dash of resemblance between Fortnight and both Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, which were published a few years earlier. But there’s also a dash of Winnie-the-Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood magic here.' This was an unexpected comment. As unexpected as when we said to one of the Persephone girls, why on earth do you think the Faber reprint of Margaret Kennedy’s The Feast has done so well and they replied, because it’s like the William books. This too was fascinating. And very true. The Feast, like the William books, is extremely safe. You won’t find anything upsetting there. The goodies are good and the baddies are bad and there are lots of characters and nothing too contentious happens, and it's the kind of book you chuckle over, so the William comparison is a perceptive, if slightly cruel, insight. Of course the cover of The Feast was a stroke of genius. Who could not resist this as a staycation book?

We have been reading the rather fascinating Mary Churchill’s War: The Wartime Letters of Churchill’s youngest daughter edited by her daughter Emma Soames. They are very much in the same spirit as Laura Grenfell in the latest edition of the Persephone Biannually (which by the way is available online here, we have recently improved the quality of the uploaded Biannually and are hoping readers abroad might start printing it out).

Everyonel loved the film of The Dig and now Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack’s Sutton Hoo photographs have been catalogued and are miraculously and freely available online here.

There was a letter in the FT pointing out that over half of London’s front gardens have been paved over which means more flooding, warmer houses and no trees, plants and soil to absorb CO2 and air pollutants. And what a disaster this will be in the long term.

A marvellous building has won the 2021 RIBA Stirling prize, which is unusual. It’s not that the building is particularly beautiful. It’s that Kingston University’s six storey Town House is a hymn to one of the reasons for going to university: meeting people, 'It is a place of wide sociable staircases, broad public terraces,  and open-plan study areas that look across to dance studios and performance spaces. In its free-flowing generosity, it is the opposite of the usual institutional world of silo-ed academic departments protected by swipe cards. This is a welcoming, transparent place, where the public is free to roam' (here).

Hurrah for Dublin based architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara. And how absolutely phenomenal: a new building which actually cares about the happiness of the people using it!

Today the new Holocaust gallery opens at the Imperial War Museum and alas we must all go. Jonathan Freedland’s article about it is here.

Sim Fine Art has published another edition of Holding the Line: The Art of the War Years, they are exhibiting at Olympia from November 1-7.

And Bath is holding its annual MozartFest at the Assembly Rooms from November 13th-20th, details here.

Finally The Chair on Netflix. Everyone in the office has heard us harp on about its brilliance. But it is in fact essential viewing. The scene where the charismatic lecturer misguidedly makes a point by doing a Nazi strut and then is accused of being a Nazi is germane to all of us who try to discuss today’s contentious issues without being caught out by people willing or waiting to pounce. We are even loathe to use the phrase domestic feminism any more in case it is suddenly deemed politically incorrect. To take another example, there is a new book by Ann Oakley called Forgotten Wives: How women get written out of history. It 'examines the ways in which the institution and status of marriage has contributed to the active "disremembering" of women’s achievements. Drawing on archives, biographies, autobiographies and historical accounts, Ann Oakley interrogates conventions of history and biography using the case studies of four women married to well-known men – Charlotte Shaw, Mary Booth, Jeannette Tawney and Janet Beveridge.' There is a lot one might  add about this ancient and contentious issue (which is so admirably addressed in Middlemarch) but, again, it would be hard to write honestly about it in a language that everyone would accept – or forgive.

Nicola Beauman

Persephone Books

8 Edgar Buildings

Bath BA1 2EE 


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