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27th May 2022
It’s been a month of short stories. It started with the welcome re-appearance of The Second Persephone Book of Short Stories.
Along with Patience, The Priory and several others, it had been out of print for a few weeks. Goodness, the thirty short stories are wonderful, each and every one of them a jewel. As we say to people, one story a night along with a cup of camomile tea and you will have thirty nights of contented deep sleep. That doesn’t mean to say all the stories are ‘jolly’; but they engage the brain and allow one to turn off the bedside light fulfilled by – well, by everything reading great literature gives one.
Then there was a visit to the shop by a group of American women who had all read ‘The Rose’, ‘The Handbag’ and ‘Saturday Afternoon’ in The Closed Door and Other Stories by Dorothy Whipple.
We agreed that Whipple is quite tough on people – anodyne she is not – and that any comparison with Jane Austen is false since she doesn’t go in for gentle dissection of her characters’ foibles but, on the contrary, goes straight for their worst characteristics, their most obvious pretensions. She is very, very hard on people, and always on the side of the down-trodden and the hard-done-by. Nor is it a men-women thing: in ‘Saturday Afternoon’ the mother and daughter behave appallingly to the poor man who had been turned out of the house every Saturday, and the arrogance and unkindness of the ‘other woman’ in ‘The Handbag’ is superbly captured.
In the shop we also discussed Clare Keegan’s Small Things Like These, since really it’s a short story, not even a novella. (We’ve had lots of argument about the difference! It’s a complex issue.) Lastly, the blog Hopewell's Public Library of Life chose to highlight a marvellous quote from Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes: ‘Time now seemed to have receded, to be an enormous empty room which she must furnish, like any other aimless woman, with celluloid shadows of other people’s happiness, with music that worked one up for nothing.’ Of course Mollie Panter-Downes is such an incredible writer that really you could highlight every sentence she ever wrote.
Sad footnote: Mollie’s daughter Diana Baer died last month; during a stressful time 25 years ago – when we contacted her hoping she would allow us to reprint her mother’s work – she was always helpful and encouraging and we loved her. We have long meant to have a party for the children of ‘our’ writers because we feel it would be fun for them to meet each other. But alas in the last few years we have lost Mollie’s daughter, Elizabeth Jenkins’s nephew, Jocelyn Playfair’s son, and Emma Smith herself. (In case you are wondering: sometimes the copyrights then go on to be controlled by the grandchildren, otherwise they are taken over by an agent that specialises in ‘heritage’ literature eg Curtis Brown.) Final footnote: the table in the first floor piano nobile was Mollie’s kitchen table which Diana gave to us. It has a sticker on it saying that if/when Persephone leaves Edgar Buildings, it is to go back to Mollie’s house, now lived in by a kind and tremendously supportive Persephone reader.
Go to the Bookseller website here to read an article Harriet Evans has written about women over 45 and their love of reading. She does not literally mean over 45, this would rule out half the people who come in to our shop, but we all know what she means (basically, it’s people juggling a thousand things). Her article was inspired by the chair of a women writers event at the Bath Festival last week being a tad patronising; whereas if it had been three ‘prize-winning’ male authors (this male obsession with prizes, with being top dog!) she would have been interested and deferential. We found Harriet’s article fascinating partly because, although we have our very loyal readers (for which we are so hugely grateful) and are loved by some journalists ( eg German Vogue and the New York Times, to name but two), it is almost impossible to get our books noticed by UK book pages or radio programmes. Or indeed television programmes. We can never understand this because one of the great things about our books is that they have stood the test of time, and one of the things about most of the books that are reviewed and ‘noticed’ is that they will be completely forgotten in a decade or two. But try saying this to the Book Programme or Open Book or the editor of the Guardian book pages and a gauze curtain comes down (a cataract one might say, ha ha). If, if, we ever write our book called Domestic Feminism, there will be a whole chapter on this subject. And by the way, if this subject interests you, please try and come to the Persephone event on June 16th when we are discussing why Ulysses is a great novel and They Were Sisters (apparently) isn’t.
In Domestic Feminism there would also be a chapter on – politics. Because, apart from that, how was the play, Mrs Lincoln? Can we sleep at night when we think about what is happening in Ukraine? To the Uyghurs in China? To victims of trigger-happy maniacs in America? To ordinary Brits who behaved well while the government partied (if only funerals were called leaving parties, then friends and relations could have gone to them)? My goodness, we need a good short story to take our mind off things.
However, the news from Australia was heart-warming; we have watched an excellent 2012 film of one of our favourite novels, The Scapegoat, thoroughly recommended; and actually we rather enjoyed the remake of Call My Agent as Ten Per Cent.
It was Ravilious on the Persephone Post this week. The curator of the exhibition that has just closed in Winchester (called Extraordinary Everyday, we love love this phrase for all kinds of Persephone-related reasons) has put the essay he wrote for the catalogue online here. And here is the link if you want to be very ahead of the game and book tickets for the Ravilious documentary that is released in July.
The most crucial recent article (for book readers) was by Oksana Zabuzhko (translated by Uilleam Blacker) in the Times Literary Supplement. The gist of this deeply sobering piece is: ’We are still awaiting a complete study of how the Kremlin systematically, over decades, corrupted the West … [resulting in] the long-term blurring in Western culture of the boundaries of what is acceptable… but it barely needs pointing out that Putin’s offensive on February 24th owed much to Dostoevskyism… We are now first-hand witnesses to how the fate of millions can be decided by our reading choices…’ To think that the condoned (because we are not doing enough to try to stop it) brutality of the Russians towards the Ukrainians is partly a result of the West’s admiration for Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and its acceptance of their values! And we think how different the world would be if everyone read Henry James, alleged to have said to his nephew: 'Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.’ If Russian generals, American gunmen, people who don’t support Compassion in World Farming (to which we have just given £500, inspired by Henry Mance’s article in the Financial Times), the Tories, would be kind, the world would be an extremely different place. We sell a poster in the shop which simply says ‘Be Kind, Be Kind, Be Kind’, it is nicely designed and would look good anywhere (it's a tenner).
It seems a bit crude to list the Victorian Society’s top ten endangered buildings when hundreds of historic buildings are being destroyed in Ukraine, but this is it. The one we would most dearly like to save is Horncliffe House in Lancashire, built in 1869.
There is a delightful and very interesting exhibition at the Royal School of Needlework called Crown to Catwalk, on until September:
The American filmmaker Helen Handelman has made a short film called Olive & Lynn based on the story ‘Thunder Shower’ by Malachi Whitaker.
The film was shown last week at a Zoom fundraiser for US abortion and reproductive rights organisations, and we hope to show the film in the shop one day. On the same riff: In The Atlantic Sophie Gilbert reviewed Daddy’s Gone A Hunting (it’s just been published in America). She thought: ‘Penelope Mortimer’s 64 year-old novel is, through its atmosphere and circumstance, one of the most compelling arguments for freedom or reproductive choice that I’ve ever encountered.’
Zoe Williams wrote a very funny (and astute) piece headed ‘I’m sure rightwingers read books. But you’ll never meet one at a literary festival’ here.
8 Edgar Buildings.
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