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29th June 2022

This Letter is written a few days after the catastrophe in America. (And for those of you who cannot accept that publishing is political and would rather we stuck to 'nice' subjects, please turn away immediately.) Last Friday morning our feelings of elation (because the Tories were defeated in two by-elections) quickly turned to despair when we learnt about the repeal of Roe v Wade. The disaster of the Supreme Court verdict – a disaster because the one certainty is that many lives will be lost, and many more ruined – would have been thought unbelievable by those who fought for Roe v Wade to be enshrined in law. Think about it: when Ruth in Fidelity or Iris in The Expendable Man or Angela in Daddy’s Gone A Hunting or Olive in 'Thunder Shower' in Malachi Whitaker's The Journey Home have abortions, it was still illegal. Then it became legal, with the law accepting that a woman should have the right to choose what happens to her own body. And now… It is almost incredible that America has regressed back to the 1950s, if not the 1930s. 

Meanwhile, from one kind of evil to another: Anne Frank’s diary was first published 75 years ago and Michael Rosen wrote a marvellous sonnet about her that begins: ‘Since you took us into that attic space/No room under the eaves has been the same.' The whole poem can be read here. We of course publish An Interrupted Life: the Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum, PB No. 5.  Here is an excellent piece by Elias Keller comparing Etty and Anne.

'The journal and the diary may be separate works by separate individuals at different stages of corporeal life – but the ink that flows through them is the same. If their external lives were different, their inner lives, especially how they perceived their own acutely sensitive personalities (and their flippant decoys), bear remarkable resemblance.’ 

We were fascinated by Laura Spinney's suggestion here that what we think of as great literature is taken from a tiny pool of work that simply happens to have survived. For example, it is estimated that 'the 543 plays that survive from 1576, when the first public theatres opened in London, to 1642, when the Puritans closed them, represent a fraction of all those produced. Another 744 are known to have been lost, but hundreds more were probably written of which no trace remain... Unfortunately, we can’t console ourselves that the plays that do survive were necessarily the best.’ Here at Persephone Books we have reprinted close on 150 books but there are thousands and thousands of novels, memoirs, cookery books, short stories that we could have reprinted, thousands that might be ‘lost’ in 500 years. 

It seems that Sheffield Hallam University is abandoning its English Literature degree. This is especially sad for us at Persephone Books as we have been looking round for a university to which to donate our collection of books by (mostly) twentieth century women writers – a couple of thousand books. Since Sheffield Hallam has been pioneering in hosting conferences about ‘middlebrow’ fiction (cf. this piece by Erica Brown) we had wondered if they might have space for the Persephone collection. Alas that door has apparently closed.

Do read this very funny but upsetting article by Simon Hattenstone about his tussles with the Inland Revenue, which sent in the debt collectors without telling him why. The best detail in the article is when someone from the IR, whom he eventually manages to talk to on the phone, fobs him off by saying the company threatening him didn’t actually exist  i.e. it was a scam. But this was a lie! Actually the company did exist and had been sent to threaten him. 

Since the last Persephone Letter the UK has celebrated the Queen’s Jubilee. The Financial Times ran a piece about her first Private Secretary, Tommy Lascelles. He wrote in 1960: ‘I never knew the Queen to be even mildly cross or – outwardly at any rate – ruffled by any contretemps or piece of bad news.  Her serenity was constant, her wisdom faultless. On the whole, I consider her the most remarkable woman I have ever met’ (here).

We were very sad that another remarkable woman, the travel writer Dervla Murphy has died, here is her obituary in the Economist (always the source of the best obituaries).

A film about Eric Ravilious opens in cinemas this week, look up the performance dates here. It is based on Long Live Great Bardfield, PB No 119, with Tamsin Grieg as Tirzah’s voice and Freddie Fox as Eric’s. There was an article in the Guardian about the film here and James Russell reviewed it here.

Michael Prodger wrote a wonderful overview of our favourite Algernon Newton, 'the Canaletto of the canals', in the New Statesman.

Finally, if you can bear it, here is an extract from a superb piece by Edward Docx in the TLS. He suggests that we in the UK are living in the Theatre of the Absurd, in the world of Beckett and Ionesco. He sets out the scenario of a five act play:

'On comes Boris Johnson in Act One and tells the audience with great solemnity not to party. He passes through a door upstage into another part of the building, where – Act Two – he presides over a feverish parade of parties: disco, DJs, suitcases of booze, broken swings, tinsel, prosecco, speeches, Abba, bring a bottle and enjoy the sunshine, happy birthday to me. In Act Three he reappears – now in parliament – and is as furious as the audience to discover there were … parties! 

'In Act Four meaning is abandoned and the unities of time and space collapse. What is a party? What is cake?  Our protagonist was not present. You saw him partying in Act Two?  Ah yes he was present – but briefly. And not partying. Briefly all night. But he didn’t drink. He ate. Not cake, though. He was ambushed by cake. Ambushed by his own credo. Such is the hero’s fate. So, yes, he stayed. He had to stay. This is his house. It was a work event. Have some cake. And now Johnson turns to the audience, as if a grotesque from a Grimms’ fairy tale. Oh, how mystifying, he says, the motion of the spheres. Who can say what I saw, or where I was, or what I might think, or who I am? Let us dispute it no further: existence is unfathomable. We need an independent inquiry. Who are we to dare interpret such treacherous reality alone?'


This is great writing.

Nicola Beauman 

8 Edgar Buildings, Bath.



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