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No. 1. William – An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton
This is a book that has a fire in its belly for the everyman and a passion that is completely reflected in its prose – especially in all the parts of the book where we are at the heart of the war. I thought it was a very skilful and unusual look at WWI.
A stunning, harrowing novel…
This is a short novel, but a very powerful one, with an even more powerful message…
An excellent book and an important one.
I loved this book…It has remained with me in a way that very few books do.
No. 2. Mariana by Monica Dickens
It really is a blissful book,making one feel a little teary in the best possible way.
I loved Mariana. It has elements of the real social history of the time and is a proper story of our heroine growing into adulthood. It also has a cast of characters that I am desperate to revisit again and again.
No. 3. Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple
A brilliant novel. I wonder if Forster ever read it. I think he would have welcomed this rejoinder to his ‘only connect’.
This is a special novel; one that you can return to again and again to remind yourself of the truly important things in life – and in literature.
Whipple draws you into post-War rural England with an artist’s hand, taking you into the lives of the North family with deft, compassionate insight…Whipple explores family relationships, human motives and happiness with the kind of compassion and finesse that you don’t see nearly as readily in contemporary fiction…
Whipple has a gift for creating character psychologies that rivals Edith Wharton’s.
It is Dorothy Whipple who recounts this tale with insight, honesty and clarity which combine to create a unique portrayal of a deceived wife and foolish husband.
Louise’s come uppance may turn out to be one of the most satisfying fictional moments of 2012.
A breathtaking read. I loved Ellen's transformation from being happily consumed in the daily tasks f running the house to tan indeoendent woman brave enough to take life by the horns. Hats off to Whipple's masterful writing.
This is a beautiful book, I read it in one breath. It was virtually unputdownable - Whipple's storytelling is superlative.
The central story is a timeless one, focusing as it does on the systematic destruction of a loving marriage – and yet, Whipple captures everything with such insight and attention to detail that it all feels so compelling, pushing the reader forward to discover how the narrative will end. It’s certainly one of the most absorbing novels I’ve read this year. In writing it, Whipple has created a very good novel about the fragile nature of love and the lives we build for ourselves.
No. 4. Fidelity by Susan Glaspell
And so Fidelity bears the question, “To whom are we faithful?” To our spouses? To the protocols of society? To our families? To the lover with whom we’ve aligned? Or, to our own selves?
Glaspell’s novel takes the salacious and crafts out a biting criticism of how people scramble for “crumbs off the table of respectability”, how society can be a policing force that people buy into against all logic.
No. 5. An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-43
No. 6. The Victorian Chaise-longue by Marghanita Laski
The more and more I have thought about this book the more of an understated masterpiece it seems.
Descriptive and engaging, Marghanita Laski’s story is one that showcases this author as a brilliant strategist, one who crafts a powerfully Gothic punch with each unsettling moment.
Laski’s book may have the expected domestic setting and it is definitely clever, but goodness me it’s dark!
The Victorian Chaise Longue is a quiet piece of nightmare fiction, depicting one of the ultimate terrors, all the while presenting us with a stark history lesson: the stifled life of an intelligent working class woman.
A real curio in the history of writing-about-being-a-woman. Is it in fact scary? P.D. James's introduction calls it terrifying; other readers have said the same. I didn't find it scary for a moment. But is it good? I absolutely think so - a great demonstartion of the power of restraint and efficiency in fiction writing.
No. 7. The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Each time I read it, I find more and more in it to admire.
This is a wonderful book that made me laugh, cry, think and rage.
I found ‘The Home-Maker’ a multifaceted read as well as being a wonderful tale of a family lost in society.
The genius of The Home-Maker, aside from being so well and simply told, is how sympathetically all the characters are portrayed.
The very, very best novels leave me struggling for words, quite unable to capture what it is that makes them so extraordinary.
I cared about Stephen the most. To me he is the most interesting, engaging and sympathetic character in the whole novel.
The Home-Maker is an extraordinary novel in that it has a lot to say but does so with a remarkably light touch. Fisher challenges gender roles and assumptions via fully realised characters and a simple but effective plot, so it doesn’t feel preachy but still makes its point.
No. 8. Good Evening, Mrs Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes
Good Evening, Mrs. Craven was one of the most wonderful books I have read in a while…Mollie Panter-Downes’ work stands as a testament to the real heartbreaks of war, so real, so intense, so sublimated.
The stories are tiny gems. Each is no more than a few pages long, and all of them are funny, sharp, and entertaining. The stories progress chronologically through the war years, providing trenchant observations about domestic life, relationships and the increasing hardships faced by those on the home front; they are just as legitimate a form of reportage as any non-fiction article and would make wonderful examples for new writers about how to use language and description with economy and elegance.
Good Evening, Mrs. Craven is a tender, affectionate portrait of people doing their best in difficult times - even if their best isn't the best. Panter-Downes writes with impressive economy. Reading this collection was a pleasure, albeit often of the bittersweet kind. Tinged with sadness and irony, the stories feature many types of people - single, married, mistresses and adulterers, children, the poor and the wealthy and the middle class.
A mix of the comical and the tragic, of the optimistic and the hopeless, these short, sharp stories give us a window into what would have been the condition of hundreds of civilians as the Second World War swept by. Stories like these form an important part of the tradition of passing down history through generations. To understand, empathise and learn, we need to look at our past.
No. 9. Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson
A faithful, honest and detailed record of what it was really like.
The book becomes so absorbing, so realistic and so well told.
http://93bcn.blogspot.com/2009/06/few-eggs-and-no-oranges-de-vere-hodgson.html (originally in Spanish)
I ended by finding the diaries absorbing, and Hodgson’s attempts to keep track of the changing face of London to be extremely moving.
‘I found Few Eggs and No Oranges a really interesting and engrossing read. Not everyone is born to be a diarist, but Vere Hodgson draws us straight in. My reading tip is to spread it out over a longer period of time as you cannot read it like a novel, even if the 600+ pages have a wonderful warmth that some diaries can lack.’
No. 10. Good Things in England by Florence White
A glorious compendium of regional and ancient recipes, and is a pleasure to read regardless of whether you plan to cook from it.
No. 11. Julian Grenfell by Nicholas Mosley
The relationship between parent and child, and attitudes and behaviour in war, are particularly pertinent for the author, son of Oswald Mosley, and himself a decorated war hero whilst his father was in prison as a fascist sympathizer.
A wonderful insight into life in Edwardian times
No. 12. It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty by Judith Viorst
An entertaining collection of poems devoted to the trials and tribulations of trying to be a grown up, inspired particularly by her experiences of marriage and motherhood.
Even though they made me laugh out loud, many of the poems also resonated emotionally
No. 13. Consequences by EM Delafield
Consequences is a bleak, angry statement, and yet written with a sad lyricism. It’s a profoundly affecting book… an angry and absolutely vital feminist statement.
Powerful, and absolutely heartbreaking
EM Delafield manages to convey sympathy without spelling it out, to criticise without literally screaming.
Angst really is the driving force of the book. Everything about it is about deep and unrestrained feeling. I often found myself needing to put it down to recover or to cringe. Alex had my sympathy throughout, and reading of a Victorian heroine like her was refreshing. It's such a shame that novels like Consequences were forgotten or rather, never really allowed to find success because of their content.
No. 14. Farewell Leicester Square by Betty Miller
It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that moved among classes, cultures, genders with such grace.
This is an extremely good examination of middle class English life, ambition and the small almost invisible acts of anti-Semitism that exist there
While the story was set more than half a century ago, much of its themes are still extremely relevant today.
An intriguing novel…Betty Miller’s use of language is exquisite.
No. 15. Tell It to a Stranger by Elizabeth Berridge
These short stories, written during the Second World War and just after, are suprisingly raw and sharp. But they are among the best I have ever read.
There are eleven stories in this collection: my top pick is ‘The Prisoner’, the type of short story you wish could go on for another hundred pages. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in WWII fiction.
No. 16. Saplings by Noel Streatfeild
How Saplings can be at once so comforting and alarmingly sad remains for me its greatest strength.
She is an excellent writer: subtle, perceptive, sensitive, occasionally ironic.
A powerfully drawn story about war and loss.
It is true that this is not a happy book in many ways, the slow destruction of a happy family (although at the beginning you sense that happiness to be fragile) is not a cheerful topic. This however is a beautifully written novel, very readable, with fabulous characters, realistic, often flawed. Noel Streatfeild wrote about children so well.
No. 17. Marjory Fleming by Oriel Malet
Oriel Malet brings her to life so beautifully, with such empathy and understanding.
No. 18. Every Eye by Isobel English
Subtle, persuasive and rich in insight… Every Eye has equally fine observations on place and character.
Every Eye is such a beautifully crafted story and written with real elegance. Tone, description and style all play off each other nicely making this one of my great finds of the year.
English's style is not an easy read for moderns and is, probably, a matter of taste. She is intellectually challenging with heavy emphasis on the psychological [...] I can highly recommend the book.
'"Sometimes, but not often, a novel comes along which makes the rest of what one has to eview seem commonplace. Such a novel is Every Eye,” John Betjeman said in the Daily Telegraph on its first publication. Isobel English makes the point that it really does not matter what age two people are when they fall in love. If there is kindness and caring and tenderness in a relationship then age is irrelevant.’
Sight is a major theme explored in Every Eye both literally and figuratively. In her youth, Hatty struggles with a “lazy eye” which causes it to turn inward. It remains a pain point in her relationship with her mother. And yet, figuratively, it also means that Hatty is unable to fathom the nuances of what she is actually seeing. Overall I thought this was an excellent novel. Isobel English’s prose is subtle and elegant with keen insights and there are some marvellous pieces of travel writing to sink into, all packed into a compact novella of barely 100 pages. I devoured Every Eye within a couple of days.
No. 19. They Knew Mr Knight by Dorothy Whipple
With every new Whipple novel I read I seem to find a new favorite, so compulsively readable are her stories.
The characters are all brilliantly drawn. With the exception of Mr Knight, there is no obviously good or evil character, everyone has their moments.
It’s witty, perceptive, and brilliant in its depiction of people and their complex relationships.
A profundity and beauty in its descriptions of the human soul that I have rarely found elsewhere.
Oh the delight of a Dorothy Whipple novel! As cosy as a rainy Saturday afternoon spent watching a nostalgic film cuddled up in your favourite comfy sweater.
No. 20.A Woman’s Place: 1910-75 by Ruth Adam
Her style is engaging, witty, very dry and almost conspiratorial…Adam’s use of original sources and her interpretation of them is always interesting.
No. 21. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson
A wonderful piece of escapism…This is a delightfully charming, humorous, and exuberant novel about the joys of living, and enjoying yourself. The book is a sweet, Cinderella-tale for grown-ups; a blend of adventure, romance and unadulterated joy.
Wonderful, charming, delightful, enchanting, yet surprisingly poignant.
If I ever happen to meet Twycross-Martin I will probably hug her for rescuing a truly wonderful, uplifting and inspiring story that would otherwise have been lost forever. Now, thanks to her efforts, a whole new generation of readers can experience one of literature’s secret gems. For that is the best way of describing Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day — a gem. I read the book in two sittings, but I wanted to drag it out longer because I couldn’t bear it to end. I’ve never quite read anything like it. Joyous without being cloying, light-hearted and fun without being frothy, are just two ways of summing it up.
The setting is wonderful fun and the dialogue some of the most witty I have read.
I didn't merely read it, I devoured it.
It's a book for when you're feeling a bit down and need a lift, or if you're emerging from something terribly dark or serious and need a breath of heady air.
I’m sorry I did not take the advice of my fellow bloggers AT ONCE and dive into this charming, funny novel by Winifred Watson. It is sweet without being too sickly, an escapist fairytale with a good dose of humour and wisecracks to keep it grounded.
No. 22. Consider the Years by Virginia Graham
Graham has a great eye for the beauty and joys of everyday life.
No. 23. Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy
This is a beautifully crafted little novel. The language is faultless, pared down to only that which is needed, yet at the same time painting an unforgettable picture of Anglo-Jewish life at the end of the 19th century.
Every gesture and expression and word of her characters stand in service to her disciplined telling of the story, with the result that her main characters seem to us totally real.
No. 24. Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton
I loved this book.
It’a great novel and I highly recommend it.
Compassionate, insightful and most of all, very amusing.
My only disappointment with this novel was coming to the end and knowing there was no more.
‘Family Roundabout is a well written, critical observation of domestic drama and complex familial relationships. Each of the characters and their relationships are described with remarkable clarity.They are all remarkably human and awaken the sympathy of the reader.’
No. 25. The Montana Stories by Katherine Mansfield
Her prose absolutely sparkled, and I found myself desperate for more after each fragment.
No. 26. Brook Evans by Susan Glaspell
Susan Glaspell has a way of ripping people open and exposing them to their very cores that makes you feel stunned and uncomfortable yet hopelessly transfixed by them and their fate. Their souls become tangible and the rawness and honesty and pain is wonderful.
A wonderful narrative – so full of human understanding.
Brook Evans is a wonderful story about passionate love, for a lover & for a child.
No. 27. The Children who lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham
For me, what really brings the story to life is the challenges the children face and the manner in which they overcome each one. Eleanor Graham gives us the details in abundance and to me they are all fascinating.
Graham provides great insight into family dynamics, the importance of self-sufficiency, and finding strength in adversity.
No. 28. Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski
Extraordinarily gripping: it has the page-turning compulsion of a thriller while at the same time being written with perfect clarity and precision.
A beautifully written and poignant story that becomes an inspiring tale of love, loss and the risking of one’s own self-interest to honour another.
In Little Boy Lost Marghanita Laski combines sharply observant eye with penetrating psychological understanding. She writes like a dream. Nothing can be bettered in this excellent novel.
I thought Laski’s writing was wonderful, emotive, atmospheric you name it she could probably write it and I definitely want to read much more of her work. I thought it was an amazing book though and most definitely a classic novel that should never be forgotten or lost.
Little Boy Lost is a masterpiece. A writer today who writes about that period is only working from history books and second hand accounts of people who lived then. Laski was there. It will be a hard-hearted reader who isn't swept away by this emotional and wonderful novel.
Little Boy Lost was a book that made me smile, get very teary-eyed and have to blink a lot and then, finally, shout at the book until my boyfriend told me to pipe down. It runs a full emotional gamut yet despite a premise that could seem predictable – a parent searching for his missing child – this is a novel which is anything but.
No. 29. The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett
There is no other way to describe my reaction to this book – I was completely enchanted and charmed by the whole thing!
No. 30. Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll
Her writing is timeless in its humour, compassion, wit and, almost incidentally, good recipes.
Kitchen Essays is a lovely book combining both recipes and social history.
No. 31. A House in the Country by Jocelyn Playfair
In essence A House in the Country is an insightful, intelligent novel that grapples with the bigger questions of war.
A deep, moving, and surprisingly controversial novel.
No. 32. The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme
This is a fascinating and highly readable book about life for a prominent Victorian couple.
A peek into everyday life in a Victorian home.
The Carlyles At Home is an account of the years that Thomas and Jane Carlyle lived at 5 (now 24) Cheyne Row, London. The book is short, but it covers a lot of ground, from the animals the couple kept (the story of their dog, Nero, is especially touching), to the clothing they wore both inside and outside the house, to the various repairs and restorations the Carlyles made to the house, to the wacky, noisy neighbors at number 6, to their Servant Problem (34 maids-of-all-work in 32 years). I enjoyed this glimpse into the lives of two intelligent, interesting people, written by an actress who lived in the Carlyles house nearly a hundred years after Jane’s death.
No. 33. The Far Cry by Emma Smith
An absolutely stunning book…some of the best descriptions of India written by a Westerner that I’ve ever read.
This is truly a remarkable novel…above all the characters and their interactions are quite brilliantly captured.
Emma Smith has crafted her writing beautifully, and her turns of phrase are lovely. She writes descriptions with such clarity, and her ardent appreciation for nature is clear from the very start.
These are stories that ought to be savoured. I don’t think I’ve ever come across more perfect short story writing.
Panter-Downes turns a keen and perceptive eye once again towards British middle-class life.
No. 35. Greenery Street by Denis Mackail
I can’t remember the last time I took so much real delight in reading a book as I did this one.
Greenery Street manages to be the most charming, wonderful and engrossing book I’ve read in a long time. It restored my faith in love and hope and the small pleasures in life.
I’ve been meaning to get around to reading Greenery Street for years and years as everyone seems to love it – and so did I. It is very much an autobiographical book which tells of the first year of marriage of a young couple. Greenery Street was actually 23 Walpole Street, London which despite apparently being too small to accommodate a growing family has now been split up into flats. PG Wodehouse also lived in this house at an earlier date. This is a lovely read, it’s funny and will remind a lot of people of what it was like to be setting up their first home.
No. 36. Lettice Delmer by Susan Miles
The characterisation is lovely and the psychological insight is acute…it is both moving and compelling.
No. 37. The Runaway by Elizabeth Anna Hart
Both text and illustrations are quite, quite wonderful.
You can read of some wonderful escapades and enjoy characters simply but beautifully drawn.
There are many joys in this book. The plot plays out beautifully, through many lovely scenes. Many of then were wonderfully dramatic but I think that my favourite was a quiet scene, with Clarice trying to ask her father for advice without giving away her secret. A dramatization could be wonderful; as would reading aloud.
No. 38. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey
it kept me completely enthralled and interested…I cannot recommend it enough.
It is a beautifully written little book and an interesting snapshot of the era.
Black humor at its finest.
No. 39. Manja by Anna Gmeyner
She has an interesting and engaging writing style, creatively employing tenses and script-style passages of dialogue (often unspoken) to convey her story. Very readable and very enjoyable, this is my favourite Persephone to date.
Manja really goes for broke.
No. 40. The Priory by Dorothy Whipple
A book where you are dying to see what happens next but at the same time you don’t want it to end.
The best thing about this book is the characters. Whipple develops them so skillfully, and I loved how she did it by showing the reader through their words, thoughts, and actions, not just telling us.
I liked it. It was fun. It was good company. That said, a corner of my soul was a bit disappointed.
The Priory is a stylish domestic novel that completely consumed my attention.
The Priory was an amazingly good read. Its 528 pages joyfully flew by. A book where you are dying to see what happens next but at the same time you don’t want it to end. The plot revolves around the decaying Saunby Priory somewhere in the British Midlands and the decaying lives of the cash poor family who inhabit it. The plot is fascinating and compelling. And like most good novels, the characters have dimension and never fall strictly into hero or villain categories. This is a fantastic book.
The way that characters change and develop throughout the narrative is one of the most engaging aspects of the book. As the novel draws to a close, the threat of WW2 looms on the horizon. While the ultimate ending might feel too neat and tidy for some readers’ tastes, I was happy to go with it. This is good old-fashioned storytelling at its most enjoyable.
No. 41. Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge
I liked the relationship between William and Catherine, it seemed marvellously realistic, and their affections are not over blown or flowery but true…Early twentieth century Oxfordshire countryside and gardens bloom again in Elizabeth Cambridge’s affectionate descriptions.
Hostages to Fortune is a thoughtful novel full of well drawn characters and relationships, presented with admirable simplicity. I was so taken with it that I’d say it is now probably one of my favourite Persephones.
No. 42. The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s book is one of the best crime fiction novels I’ve read in a long time.
I picked it up and could barely be parted from it. A truly entertaining, and also rather endearing, suspense novel from an author who deserves to be much more widely read.
Perhaps delightful and crime don’t sound like two adjectives that belong in the same book, and I was surprised too, to find myself sometimes smiling at the same time as I was page-turning to find out what would happen next.
A strong psychological thriller, with a fine dose of mystery.
This is one of Persephone’s best re-releases and comes highly recommended if you want a well written, complex, exciting and intelligent psychological thriller.
I read The Blank Wall in its entirety on a plane journey. It is certainly a page-turner - maybe even a thriller, though there is nothing particularly terrifying here.
No. 43. The Wise Virgins by Leonard Woolf
I recently read The Wise Virgins by Leonard Woolf, ordering it primarily (I am chagrined to say) because I had never heard of this novel by Virginia Woolf’s husband. The Wise Virgins was an unfortunate casualty of both WW1 and Virginia’s more overwhelming literary success, but it has found a happy home with Persephone. By the end of Woolf’s book I was shocked, stunned in fact, by the turn of events and yet I realise in retrospect that I should have expected it all along. I have just grown so unaccustomed to this style of writing, to the type of books where very quiet things happen in very dramatic ways to perfectly normal people without anyone thinking twice about it. Woolf reminded me yet again why I love this publisher so much. At Persephone they know that drama is found most often in the little moments every day, you just have to sit still and read long enough to notice it.
Leonard Woolf’s writing is so insightful with plenty of dry humour that I really appreciated. He paints a vivid picture of his characters and settings and reminded me that even though this was written nearly 100 years ago, there are still some choices to be made in life that haven’t changed.
It’s a very interesting book which looks at wider societal changes and the fates of those who push against convention in whatever way, for however long.
No. 44. Tea with Mr Rochester by Frances Towers
What would be an insular, sterile purgatory as rendered by a lesser writer is redeemed by Towers’s prose, by characterizations that cut to the quick without being cute and a suffusion of imagery so deft and precise that choice phrases linger with the reader like an aftertaste or impressions from a dream.
So lovely that I read many of them more than once; that I was reluctant to read the last story, to never again be able to come to one anew.
I was pleasantly surprised by Frances Towers’ writing style: delicate but ironic, poetic but not sentimental. It was a very distinctive voice.
No. 45. Good Food on the Aga by Ambrose Heath
Cooking with this book is a bit of an adventure.
No. 46. Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd
This is a charming book even if it is a morality tale and very readable. The narrative is strong, the humour never far away.
This book has the perfect blend of humour and poignancy and gives us an opportunity to explore World War II from a unique perspective.
The story is heartwrenching, humorous, and inspiring all at once. The relationships Miss Ranskill forms with people in the book are written quite beautifully and you can appreciate why she becomes attached to these people, without Todd spelling it out.
Miss Ranskill, you are the very best kind of English lady!
There is humor in this tale of a woman who does not understand the status quo; along with this comes embarrassment and confusion. I spent the first part of the novel feeling so badly for Miss Ranskill. This is the tale of a great and abiding friendship that transcends sex, class and even life, of a woman who must find a way in this new world this she does not quite understand and how she does it with strength and grace and love. A remarkable book.
Miss Nona Ranskill is returning to England after four years on a desert island. If that sounds far-fetched, then run with it anyway - it is really just a way of having Miss Ranskill turn up at home in the middle of the Second World War without any idea that it is going on. For this is the main gist of the novel: how surreal and foreign the war seems to one not in the know. Miss Ranskill doesn't understanding rationing or black-out curtains; 'prohibited area' air raid sirens. This was a very brave book to publish in 1946, in its unusual persepective on a very recent war.
Miss Ranskill is a wonderful, feisty, beautifully-drawn character, and I loved spending time with her. I found myself rooting for her and so happy for her at the end.
No. 47. The New House by Lettice Cooper
The New House is another of those perceptive Persephone reads that captures the world on the cusp of change.
No. 48. The Casino by Margaret Bonham
Bonham draws the portraits of her characters with fine economy, well-chosen words and with a refreshing lack of sentimentality. Every one of these 15 stories elicited a smile from me.
No. 49. Bricks and Mortar by Helen Ashton
Ashton is able to portray the family’s disintegration with dignity and subtlety, without blame pushed onto either side. It is a quiet book, but very readable, and Ashton is a true find.
It does add a very different text back to the conversation about inter-war novels and changing gender roles.
The architecture bits were particularly fascinating to me because they chronicle the seep of modern design into architecture in pre-WWII England from a first hand perspective of 1932.
No. 50. The World that was Ours by Hilda Bernstein
The World That Was Ours shows the power of books, writing, journalism and memoir… It is just the sort of book that everyone should read. I will be re-reading this again for definite.
This has been a powerful read both emotionally and intellectually – I finally know something about Apartheid South Africa.
For much of the book I felt I was reading a thriller of a page-turner because the moments of tension are frequent as are the moments when Hilda’s fear and frustration just seep off the page and create that sense of sympathetic anxiety in the reader.
No. 51. Operation Heartbreak by Duff Cooper
I won’t give anything away, but the ending was so moving I was glad that no one else was in the room when I finished it because I couldn’t help crying. What a great book.
Gloriously written, it is quietly and unforgettably poignant, its title very apt indeed, as I finished with a little lump in my throat.
Duff Cooper's prose is as spare as his protagonist's life. There is no fuss and no fireworks here. No clever tricks with narrator, time, tense, gender, or author-reader relationship. No ostentation, just neat words like a well brushed uniform, and a carefully planned plot. It is not a book I would have leaped to buy, but one I was very glad to read.
This is a book charged with increasing emotion and the final pages just turn those screws steadily as they quietly increase the poignancy of Willie's life.
No. 52. The Village by Marghanita Laski
I hope more readers will pick it up, because I think it is both a heartwarming love story and an insightful social commentary.
The Village is a powerful book which exposes the class divisions and snobbery that survived the War, but which were being challenged every day. There are some harsh words spoken, some sadness revealed, but there is also amusement to be found in an account of a community which is still divided between them and us.
This is the third book I’ve read by Marghanita Laski, who is one of Persephone’s most beloved authors. I liked them all but I think The Village was my favourite of her books so far.
By the end I was convinced I was living in the village, amongst these people at the end of the war.
‘The Village is not so much a character study as a very acute and overtly political piece of writing, which lays bare the more ludicrous elements of the British class system as it stood at a crossroads moment. Laski tells an engrossing story.’
No. 53. Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson
This is a much deeper and darker novel than it at first appears, and is both inspiring and profoundly moving.
It really is a little royal diadem of a read.
Lady Rose was far too human for the harshness that her social position demanded of her. Her story, which becomes increasingly dark as it progresses, is an illustration of what those who dared break Victorian convention had to face.
The story although a sweet fairytale on the surface, speaks of many deep-rooted societal issues, class snobbery being one of them. It also raises the question whether it is worthwhile shunning home and hearth, life and one’s family for the sake of true love. As with all good books, Ruby Ferguson leaves this point as an open-ended question for the reader to ponder over. A love-letter to Scotland.
No. 54. They Can’t Ration These by Vicomte de Mauduit
I was particularly struck by instructions for a violet-perfumed face powder (derived from iris roots), kernel butter (pound up small pine or fir kernels with butter – I’d substitute avocado), ink-making from oak-apples (also known as oak galls) and jewellery-making with barberries, hawthorn and blackthorn berries.
The Vicomte was quite a guy….He ignores nothing that we might need to know in those (and these) sparse times.
No. 55. Flush by Virginia Woolf
A beautifully imagined and told tale of a dog and his mistress, a moving story that actually made me a bit teary at the end.
No. 56. They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple
Dorothy Whipple is a twentieth century Jane Austen whose dramas in the drawing room are ugly, as opposed to romantic.
They Were Sisters is easily one of Whipple’s most readable books. The plot takes a back seat to the writing and the character descriptions, which are first rate. This is definitely a book worth thinking about, and one I enjoyed immensely.
What seems in description to be a simple story on the surface is anything but.
Utterly compelling with more bite than Eastenders on a VERY good day, with rogues, a truly evil villain, sweet souls, despair, studies of fecklessness and empty vanities.
The title of this novel implies something unsaid: They Were Sisters … but they were so different, … they never knew, … you wouldn’t know it. Dorothy Whipple’s novel takes the first idea, they were so different, but also emphasises the family connections between them, their contrasting marriages and the influence of the sisters on each other’s lives.
They Were Sisters is a domestic emotional drama centring on middle-class life in the 1930s. Undramatic, unsensational, and yet Dorothy Whipple so clearly evokes, and engenders, acute emotional turbulence.
No. 57. The Hopkins Manuscript by RC Sherriff
If you want a tense, dramatic and extremely compelling read, then even if science fiction isn’t your poison of choice, then I would strongly recommend this novel.
I was riveted from start to finish. The Hopkins Manuscript is a brilliant study of people under duress. It could still arguably be read as a metaphor for any action that might have serious consequences for the planet and seems relevant and prescient today as it must have done in 1939 when it was first published; the book was very well-received and must have had an impact in the run up to the outbreak of war.
Sherriff, with Hopkins as his shrill and rather testy mouthpiece, shows how society falls apart. People are selfish and hasty; but they can also be unexpectedly good – sometimes.
No. 58. Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson
This is a “small” story of ordinary dramas, but it illustrates a big truth that is easy to forget in a world that prizes the independent spirit.
Every character is perfectly formed; every scene is set out seemingly effortlessly and with wonderful clarity.
The landscape in Hetty Dorval is a vitally important part of this novel, but obviously it’s the narrator’s relationship with Hetty which is the focus. Spanning the years from Frankie’s childhood to young womanhood, the story is told deliberately with an eye to the way in which her relationship with Hetty evolves and the narrative does not swerve from this purpose except as long as it takes to develop the relationships that are impacted by this unusual woman’s presence in Frankie’s life.
No. 59. There Were No Windows by Norah Hoult
This tour de force novel, written by Norah Hoult during WWll, is a wrenching study of a woman with memory loss. The genius of the book is the way that Hoult shows Claire trying to cope with her disappearing existence. It is a reading experience I will never forget.
No. 60. Doreen by Barbara Noble
The book showed me a little of the attitudes toward class distinctions at the time — surprisingly strict, I thought — and it probed the psychological effects of the disruptions of war and evacuation very effectively.
Doreen is honest and real. It is heartbreaking, yet sympathetic to all involved in a program that wreaked havoc in countless lives.
There is much detail about life in Britain during the war, both in the Blitz in London and in the quiet countryside; the contrast is striking. A wonderful story and much food for thought – this definitely a book that will stay with me.
No. 61. A London Child of the 1870s by Molly Hughes
The book ends sadly, as Molly said it would on the first page. But there’s something indomitable about Molly, and it’s impossible to pity her.
While reading this, Molly’s childhood becomes our childhood and her parents – warm, jolly and wise – become ours, and we too can find warm pleasure and comfort from it.
A bittersweet book in which readers are treated to a glimpse of real, day-to-day life in Victorian London from the persepctive of a young girl. A touching and memorable book.
No. 62. How To Run Your Home Without Help by Kay Smallshaw
Kay Smallshaw covers just about everything anyone could possibly want to know about keeping house – planning, cleaning, spring-cleaning, equipment, food, shopping, washing, mending, doing the accounts, and what to do when Baby comes. I loved this book…But it did confirm my view that progress is a wonderful thing when it comes to housework!
No. 63. Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan
A searing examination of family life, motherhood and coming to terms with children becoming adults.
This is an excellent book but an uncomfortable read. First published in 1938, it looks at what happens when expectations and reality do not match, and it explores identity, specifically how a woman's identity may be given away (willingly) for love and then subsumed under the layers of life as a wife and mother. It is a story full of compromise and disaffection, charting a mother's selflessness and what she is left with when her children are grown and have to live with their own ill-advised choices. It could be about every woman, and none, but it's a stark story, carefully and poignantly told.
No. 64. The Woman Novelist and Other Stories by Diana Gardner
Sharp without being bitter, these short stories have an edge that makes it difficult to stop at just one.
No. 65. Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson
For anyone with an interest in feminism and the differing roles of men and women in society, I can’t recommend Alas, Poor Lady highly enough.
It is beautfully written, with compassion and great cynicism, and more blatantly feminist andsophisticated than Ferguson’s her earlier novell. Ferguson’s writing style falls somehwere between Virginia Woolf’s and Dorothy Whipple’s.
This is not the happiest of stories – but rather a fascinating one. In this 1937 novel Rachel Ferguson examines the fate of Victorian gentlewomen who failed to marry, and whose families failed to leave them adequetly provided for.
No. 66. Gardener’s Nightcap by Muriel Stuart
What sets it apart from many similar books is the quality of the writing; that the author was a poet is clearly evident.
No. 67. The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff
It is true that The Fortnight in September is not plot driven, but the chronicle of the Stevens family’s two-week holiday is wonderfully wrought, with lots of humor and poignancy.
Without attempting to be profound in a consistently understated tone he speaks of the universal: love between father and son.
A really lovely read. It follows the Stevens family from the day before they leave to their journey home a fortnight later and while it may sound mundane, truly it is never boring. Sherriff writes with a simplicity that is never "simple".
The sense of excitement a holiday brings, the counting of days when there, the regret that time seems to pass at an inordinate speed are all encapsulated in this delightful novel. A charming, warm, encompassing read, it has become one of my new favourite Persephone books.
Sherriff is brilliant at tiny touches, so very English in their subtle evocation of class and character, lighting on details which enrich our understanding of the whole. And he simply allows his characters to be. He doesn’t hurry them along on the way to be something or somewhere else. He just gives each and every one of them their moment, gently and serenely, letting these modest people – who wouldn’t dream of imposing on you – share the hopes and dreams that they keep precious and secret even from each other.
‘Set between the wars, The Fortnight in September is about a suburban family as they go on their annual holiday to Bognor. As the title suggests it is THE fortnight in September, and they have been many times before. Not much out of the ordinary happens. Much of their pleasure in the holiday comes from everything being the same as all the previous years. It is a hymn to nostalgia. But it is also an account of change, its inevitability and the opportunities it brings.’
No. 68. The Expendable Man by Dorothy B Hughes
Persephone Books have done an excellent job in resurrecting this classic novel which appeals on many levels and holds an emotional tone which is bracing, moving and instructive about the creative struggle for goodness, legality, fairness and truth.
I highly recommend reading The Expendable Man. I was completely gripped from beginning to end and couldn’t bear to put the book down until I knew what was going to happen to Hugh. There’s an element of mystery-solving to the novel, but it’s much more than a straightforward crime story. A few chapters into the book, there’s a twist – or maybe revelation is a better word to use – that changed the way I felt about what I had read so far and showed me that I had made an unfair assumption without even being aware that I had made it. It was so cleverly done.
No. 69. Journal of Katherine Mansfield
I had only wanted to read a little bit every now and then as it is the perfect sort of book to pick up and put down and not feel you are neglecting it (it is in diary format). I am finding, however, that I want to pick it up every day and I want to keep reading it.
No. 70. Plats du Jour by Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd
There’s a lot of information in Plats Du Jour and all of it is good.
No. 71. The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett
This novel really does have everything and you cannot help yourself from turning all the 600 pages in almost one sitting, I was almost unable to put the book down. Plus anyone who can name a character Ughtred is naturally going to be someone I treasure. This is unquestionably one of my very favourite books of the year, it has everything and a slight sensational feel so how could it not be, and may be one of my favourite reads of all time. If you want a book that has with mystery, adventure (in the form of a collision at sea which starts a possible romance), comedy, darkness, romance and some wonderful, wonderful characters then this is most definitely for you.
Burnett introduced me to a fascinating piece of social history I never knew about, and conjured the feeling of the time vividly. There was an exploration of the relationships of husbands and wives at the time, which seemed to me to be quite bold in its criticism.
Burnett’s writing is easy to read, the dialogue witty, the scenes lively, and the descriptions of both people and places are beautiful and illustrative.
This is another book that I loved enormously for its admirable heroine and its equally admirable intent – weak, twisted men are trounced by lionhearted women, the sickly inbred power of the British aristocracy is trumped by the fresh moneyed energies of America, and the history and buildings of two nation’s ancestors are restored by the vigorous dollar. It’s true that America comes off much better than England does, but then it’s a new world that Hodgson Burnett is interested in, and one in which vitality ought by rights to belong to those who know how best to use it, regardless of tradition.
No. 72. House-Bound by Winfred Peck
A subtle, thoughtful, and heartfelt story about the importance of being true to yourself, and about daring to take risks in order to develop meaningful, rich relationships with those we love. At times it is hilariously funny, but at others it is almost unbearably sad.
its greatest virtue must come from its willingness to confront what Peck certainly viewed as her society’s damagingly antisocial conventions of human behaviour, the isolation of the self that leaves so many people to struggle alone just when they need the warmth of human understanding most.
This is one of those novels you could read over and over again, looking at different aspects.
Read this book to see a side of the war that doesn’t get quite so much attention – the mundane struggles on the Home Front.
No. 73. The Young Pretenders by Edith Henrietta Fowler
It’s intriguing because it works beautifully as a story for children, it sees the world from a child’s place in the world. And it does something else too. It speaks profoundly to the grown-up reader about how magical childhood is and how that magic can be bent out of shape by adults who fail to understand.
Edith Henrietta Fowler had a privileged childhood but she was still very much aware of the innocence and vulnerability of children. The wonderful thing about The Young Pretenders for an adult reader is how it turns the didacticism of Victorian children's books on its head. Fowler's purpose seems less to train her child readers in good behavior than to encourage her adult readers to understand children and their unique needs and perspectives.
No. 74. The Closed Door and Other Stories by Dorothy Whipple
Somehow Whipple manages these little gems quite brilliantly that I’m left satisfied. Though some of them are very short they’re still perfectly crafted. It’s also interesting how Whipple has led me to read other short stories by other writers. I’m now appreciating this genre so much more than I did before.
No. 75. On the Other Side: Letters to My Children from Germany 1940-46 by Mathilde Wolff-Monckeberg
Domestic life is a common thread amongs many of the Persephone series and this book is no exception. We read about Tilli queuing for frozen vegetables and her joy at coming away with three packets of apple sauce…
The first thing I noticed was that so many of the things that Tilli wrote about could have been written about life in an English city at the same time. Bombings, shelters, community, damage, shortages, queuing…What was clearly different though was the sense of purpose, that a necessary war was being fought. Tilli and her contemporaries found many things that happened – the Russians becoming enemies rather than allies, for example – incomprehensible.
The part I found most fascinating concerned Mathilde’s experiences after the war was over; it was, again, something I had never read about from a German’s perspective.
No. 76. The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby
I found this a profoundly feminist novel, although it contains little obvious polemic.
I thought it was a lovely book.
No. 77. Daddy’s Gone-A Hunting by Penelope Mortimer
It’s not an uplifting book but it’s absolutely fantastic: raw, insightful and immediately engrossing.
A terrifically readable book.
No. 78. A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-39 by Nicola Beauman
This is the kind of book that complements perfectly the other books on the Persephone list… I was interested in what Beauman has to say specifically about the books themselves; but equally interesting is what she has to say about women’s lives in general during this time period.
A wonderful connection with all sorts of women, real and imagined, who weren’t afraid to explore the details and depths of ordinary lives.
No. 79. Round about a Pound a Week by Maud Pember Reeves
Maude Pember Reeves’ account of the study is a fascinating education on the industry, thrift, and dedication that the impoverished lower class workers, and especially the home-bound housewives, possess.
No. 81. Miss Buncle’s Book by D E Stevenson
It is a charming and gentle read, satirical and very tongue-in-cheek. Periodically, particularly in the beginning, I was reminded of Elizabeth Gaskell’s gentle Cranford.
The dialogue sparkles, the atmosphere is wonderfully cosy.
I loved this…quick, lighthearted read.
It is a MUST read, especially for those who have read and enjoyed Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day or The Making of a Marchioness.
With gentle humour, perfect characterisation, and an overall feeling of loveliness, this book about a book within a book quickly managed to enchant me. I simply did not want it to end.
I thought this book was a lot of fun and very endearing. Miss Buncle, though considered an idiot by her neighbors is in truth a smart and kind woman who also finds love in the novel. A charming, whimsical and easy read perfect for a holiday or a rainy day. Many people have compared it to to Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day but I actually enjoyed this one so much more.
In some ways it’s similar to Miss Pettigrew, both feature older women who have to earn their living somehow. And it’s adorable, it has fresh country air about it.
No. 83. Making Conversation by Christine Longford
Making Conversation is an excellent portrait of a character not often depicted sympathetically in the early twentieth century – the female academic… another welcome inclusion in the Persephone canon, and with invaluable, and quietly amusing, insights into another aspect of a disappeared world.
I found the details of university life for women students just after the First World War the most interesting part of the book. A combination of absolutely recognisable situations, or more accurately, conversations (especially regarding joining societies), and an insight into a world that was so desperately prescriptive for women that wearing the wrong hat could ruin your reputation and to be seen talking to male students in public could lead to being sent down in disgrace.
Making Conversation is, for me, one of those Persephone books, like Miss Pettigrew and Miss Buncle, that are readily recommendable. And, just as these books do have more serious ideas beneath their surface, they can also be read with a light-heart, and they sometimes provoke outright giggles or, at least, audible smirks.
No. 84. A New System of Domestic Cookery by Mrs Rundell
Maria Rundell (1745-1828) was the original domestic goddess… As well as more than a thousand ‘receipts’ (recipes), The New System of Domestic Cookery contains numerous tips and wrinkles for nineteenth century domestic challenges and household management, such as how ‘To cement broken China’, ‘To take stains of any kind out of Linen’ or ‘To prevent the creaking of a Door’.
No. 85. High Wages by Dorothy Whipple
The life of a shop assistant at the time is very much a part of this book, but it is not what makes this book so very charming. One of the reasons is that Whipple’s style is one that manages to make the world she creates seem utterly realistic, without having to use an awful lot of words.
I was enthralled throughout, and not only by Jane’s story, but also by the story of the fast changing fashion and retail industries, and the changes in opportunities for women during the early years of the twentieth century.
Jane is a captivating character for whom one roots from the very beginning. But alongside the very charming story is a fascinating social history of shops, shop girls and small town business in the 1920s and 1930s.
I’ve never started a Dorothy Whipple & been able to put it down. That’s why she is one of my favourite authors & my favourite Persephone author. She makes me care so much about her characters that I can’t go to bed until I know what’s going to happen to them.
The narrative style of High Wages is classic Dorothy Whipple: seemingly light and frothy from the beginning, while gradually drawing the reader in through incisive social observation, humour and wit, and brilliantly rendered characters. And as a bonus, the story is an absolute cracker!
No. 86. To Bed with Grand Music by Marghanita Laski
This is an absolutely fascinating, brilliantly written portrayal of a completely different side of wartime life, and Marghanita Laski proves herself once again to be an absolutely phenomenal story teller. Why her books fell out of print, I cannot understand. This has become one of my favourite Persephones; complex, thought provoking, subversive and fascinating, I couldn’t put it down.
It’s a fascinating look at a side of the Home Front we don’t often see in books or movies about WWII. Deborah is a total contrast to the noble Cressida in Jocelyn Playfair’s A House in the Country (Persephone). This is certainly not Vere Hodgson’s spirit of the Blitz but all the more interesting for that.
What fascinated me about To Bed With Grand Music is the way it highlights how moral values have shifted – that and the double standard between how men and women are judged.
One of the most interesting things that the author does in To Bed with Grand Music is challenge the dominant and enduring narrative of what people were like during WW2, especially Londoners during The Blitz... a surprising and thought-provoking read. The author tackles a subject, marital fidelity during wartime, and does so in interesting ways.
'Persephone Books has arranged these stories in chronological order of publication from 1934 to 1941 with an informative afterword placing each story in the context of Némirovsky’s life. The first stories are about the French bourgeoisie. Published between 1934 and 1937, they were part of the author’s attempt to reach a wider French audience by diverging from the Jewish and Russian characters around which her stories revolved early in her career. The later stories reflect an increasing consciousness of her abridged rights as a Jew living in Vichy France and her growing fearfulness of her ultimate fate.'
No. 88. Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon
Reads like a thriller… a huge achievement.
Not an easy read but a compulsive one. This is one of the most memorable books in the Persephone list.
As I wondered how much longer the terrible but utterly non-sentimental emotions could we wrung out of the page the plot gathers essential pace and additional tension.
The Beth Gutcheon story is one of those rare books that you go round recommending to people. My oldest daughter devoured it, as did my wife and the other day I marched a friend into the offices of Persephone Books and insisted he bought a copy. A week later he was thanking me.
I would highly recommend Still Missing to any crime fiction fans who are looking for a different novel and do not mind it is quite dated. Because this is one of those novels where there are no DNA, no mobile phones, and no computers. Old school crime fiction at its best.
No. 89. The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow by Mrs Oliphant
This book fits beautifully into the Persephone tradition of confounding my expectations – for every happy, cosy, read there seems to be something a little darker
Both stories cover high-drama scenarios in a way any contemporary fan of ‘penny shockers’ (as sensation novels were sometimes dismissed by critics) would have recognised but both leave the reader with questions and thoughts about political issues and the rights of women.
No. 90. The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens
Monica Dickens writes such lovely prose and she is a fine storyteller. Characters, settings, and scenarios are all utterly believable. And she picks up exactly the right details to bring the story to life, to make it utterly real… A book to engage both emotions and social consciences…The world may have changed since the fifties, but this is still a book with a lot to say about relationships and social conventions.
It just isn’t a finely-drawn, perceptive novel – it’s light and broad and completely, wonderfully entertaining.
Continuing my love affair with Persephone Books with The Winds of Heaven – a book so charming and tender and just a smidge heartbreaking, a book so disarming, a book I never wanted to end because that would mean saying goodbye to the heroine. I loved this book.
No. 91. Miss Buncle Married by DE Stevenson
A lovely, domestic book with lots of humour and acute observation.
No. 92. Midsummer Night in the Workhouse by Diana Athill
This is usual Athill terrain: liberated women, artistes, witty men, country homes, nostalgia, sex… There’s a lot of that, and a lot of thinking about it. Most of the time, quite successfully, too: many of these stories—particularly “Desdemona” are genuinely sexy. We’re definitely in Athill territory there.
Find your way to these stories. You will be charmed.
Her work is the kind you can read over and over again without feeling you’ve heard it all before.
Diana Athill’s writing is fluid, simple, perceptive and sometimes funny.
No. 93. The Sack of Bath by Adam Fergusson
The Sack of Bath was an attempt to bring the attention of the public (and indeed the world) to the fact that the authorities in Bath were undertaking a large-scale, wide-ranging demolition programme, bringing down buildings that although not Grade I listed, had immense historical significance. This is a short and fascinating read, capturing a moment in time when a call to action was made. It makes you think deeply about the bureaucracy and red tape in the country and the people we put in charge of making decisions and plans on our behalf.
The book is short in length and in its message: stop demolishing original architecture and replacing it with hideous buildings. Thank goodness Fergusson wrote this book, helping stem the tide of wanton destruction – and, now, it’s a really engaging cultural document.
No. 94. No Surrender by Constance Maud
Utterly compelling, not to mention enjoyable to read.
Thought provoking and intriguing look at the arguments surrounding the women’s suffrage movement.
A sensitively written and accurate account of the suffrage campaign.
This book made me feel a more personal bond to the movement than I ever did.
No Surrender should be required reading.
‘An absolute page-turner written at the height of the women’s suffrage movement in 1911. I would recommend it to anyone wishing to get a sense of the characters and events of the struggle for female suffrage. The closing scene with the women marching down Piccadilly is glorious.’
No. 95. Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple
There’s always a point in a Dorothy Whipple novel where I put the book down, stare into the middle distance for a while and murmur, ‘This woman is a genius’.
With High Wages, this is the Whipple I’ve enjoyed the most, for its episodic style and its gentle interest in the lives of women throughout this fascinating historical period.
It was easy to get caught up with the Ashton family, with their joys and sorrows. I was a little sad to turn the last page.
A wonderful and beautiful story and rather heartbreaking too for what once was.
This is writing at its finest and most touching.
Reading this gripping, well-crafted and satisfying novel has made me into an instant Dorothy Whipple fan.
Humanity captured perfectly.
Dorothy Whipple shows that in a conventional middle-class family of the time normality meant male selfishness, brutality, bullying, authoritarianism.
No. 97. Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins
Elizabeth Jenkins has found the perfect words to convey the terror and the horror of it.
This is an incredibly disturbing and gripping tale…It’s become one of my absolute favourite Persephones.
It is a remarkable novel… Elizabeth Jenkins writes beautifully.
Harriet is perhaps one of the most masterful explorations of the darker side of humanity that I have ever read; though the truth of the situation renders it horrible already, Jenkins manages to wring that into something so much worse by illustrating the plausibility of it all. She also never loses sight of Harriet at the heart of the tale, a woman victimised not only by those people around her her who are supposed to care for her, but a social system that renders her powerless and refuses to understand her.
Taking the idea of the yet-to-be-named subgenre of “domestic suspense” to its extreme Jenkins includes several excellent set pieces that highlight a Victorian household turned topsy-turvy when a family member with erratic, unpredictable behaviour upsets their comfortable routines. Harriet won the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse for the novel that best presents life in England to a French language audience. The award should actually be for Jenkins’ masterful invention of a new genre, the true crime novel.
Rarely do I read a book that gets under my skin in the way that Elizabeth Jenkins’s Harriet did. The building sense of claustrophobia, the way the reader is unwittingly, and all too easily, drawn into the world of the protagonists, the sudden shock of its worst revelations…
No. 98. A Writer's Diary by Virginia Woolf
A wonderful reading experience. Virginia Woolf seems to have been incapable of writing a poor sentence.
No. 99. Patience by John Coates
Sheer delight from start to finish, witty, amusing, touching and sad, I read it straight through in one sitting.
Written with charm, wit and insight into life, Patience, is a gorgeous book.
In terms of language and tone, there are echoes of Noel Coward in the book’s utter Englishness, combined with the light-hearted humour of Hollywood sex comedies of the era.
No. 100. The Persephone Book of Short Stories
I’ve yet to read one I haven’t liked, and while this is a large book chock full of stories my interest hasn’t waned in the least … they’re a treat–like choosing a truffle out of a box of chocolates, so often exquisite and nearly always satisfying.
My stately progress through The Persephone Book of Short Stories continues, and with a degree of lasting short-story-reading pleasure that I can’t recall experiencing for a very long time.
The balance of longer and shorter stories works incredibly well… Each story is like a small but perfectly formed work of art and the book is sure to delight a wealth of readers.
No. 101. Heat Lightning by Helen Hull
This is such a wonderful novel. I don’t know how Persephone keep discovering books that are so essentially Persephone books…This is a completely absorbing family saga.
I can only be thankful that Persephone Books decided to bring Helen Hull back into the limelight; judging by the beauty and impact of Heat Lightning, the limelight is exactly where she deserves to be.
Helen Hull’s writing is exquisite, evocative, ripe for the picking; every line is beautifully crafted, every character teeming with life.
It’s a rewarding book as well as a really enjoyable one, it’s also a book to go back to and one that I whole heartedly recommend.
This book is beautifully written, drawing you through the plot, and causing the reader to identify strongly with Amy and (some of) her family.
I am so glad I read this great novel and look forward to discovering more of Helen Hull in the future.
No. 102. The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal
Those of us deeply moved by authors such as Henry James, Oscar Wilde, and especially Marcel Proust, have grown sensitive to nuances of understatement that so beautifully complement winding, evocative prose. Such readers will enjoy de Waal’s propensity to centralize the flow of “invisible currents of emotion” between the characters, as well as the interplay of glances, read and misread by the initiated parties.
While the plot is engaging, The Exiles Return is most rewarding when understood as a meditation on exile and return, and an exploration of post-war Vienna.
I really enjoyed the book… what a privilege that we now have the opportunity to read Elisabeth de Waal’s work and that she is finally receiving the recognition she so deserves as a writer.
The novel homes in with pinpoint accuracy on the loss of homeland and identity, the pain of departure and in many ways the greater pain of return, examining every aspect of what it means to lose, to remember, to ‘belong’, and to ‘re-belong’.
Persephone have a talent for finding thought provoking books and this one is no exception, I’d even go as far as to say that it’s almost the quintessential ‘Persephone’.
The Exiles Return is an ideal Persephone book. It introduces a female voice (and perspective) that has been left absent from history, while quietly portraying individuals navigating deeper political currents in search of a sustaining happiness through a writing style made up of compassion, wit and grace.
This is clearly a very important book, and it’s essential that we learn as much as we can about what is still very recent history.
The Exiles Return mixes a delicate understanding of a society seeking a balance between its past and its future with beautiful prose, by giving us the stories of a number of very different characters.
This is a strangely powerful way to portray that feeling of exile that Elisabeth De Waal herself experienced.
De Waal’s writing is crisp and engaging, and the novel is an enjoyable read. The Exiles Return is an evocative analysis of a fascinating place and time, and the star of the novel, really, is Vienna itself.
This is an unusual and interesting female perspective on just what it is like to live through the aftermath of war. In some ways it reminded me a little of Christopher Isherwood’s 1930s style and it offers a curious comparison to those equally chaotic, pre-war Berlin tales.
No. 103. The Squire by Enid Bagnold
It is certainly one of the most deeply moving books I've read on the subject of pregnancy, birth and motherhood.
There is much within the pages of this novel to enjoy and contemplate upon. I mainly enjoyed the novel for its gorgeous, lyrical style and for its beautifully expressed, insightful thoughts on the many ways in which women interact with themselves, each other and their children. It’s certainly not a novel you can only appreciate and enjoy if you’re already a mother; there is something in here for women at all stages of life.
Enid Bagnold challenges the idea that the marriage is a woman’s destiny, the high point of her life, and towards which her youthful efforts should be expended.
No. 104. The Two Mrs Abbotts by DE Stevenson
First published in 1943, this is a comedy of manners with moments of melodrama and farce, and much genial observation.
No. 105. Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield
Included in this new Persephone edition are some lovely original 1930s illustrations by Arthur Watts, which I think are a brilliant addition to what is already a beautiful product. I suspect that this Persephone book is likely to be one of those books that is often bought as a gift, a lovely thing to receive for anyone.
It’s a charming book, perfect to throw in your bag for a lazy afternoon in the hammock or a lounge on the beach—equally delightful to read whilst snuggled up to a roaring fire.
There is much more here than humour. A certain generation, a certain class, and a way of life that would very soon be gone, is captured beautifully. It is dated, especially in its attitude to money and to domestic staff, but I accepted that it came from a different ages, and there were more than enough good things for me to let go of that.
I highly recommend The Diary of a Provincial Lady as another humorous and entertaining read from Persephone Books.
The Diary of a Provincial Lady is a well–known book, even a classic, and deserving praise for many aspects of its subtle comedy, insight into a woman’s life and relentless good humour in the face of trying events. The unnamed narrator is always caught in the midst of activity; this is not the artistic musing of an idle writer shut away from life, but the almost-notes of a busy woman, continually caught up in the family and domestic crisis which strikes a familiar note even in the 21st century.
No. 106. Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg
Eugenia Ginzburg’s story is an incredible example of human stamina and perseverance, and as well as detailing the cruel and unspeakable political regime of the time, her account will challenge you – it offers a new outlook on life.
This astonishing memoir is a brilliant addition to the Persephone list, I was rather amazed in fact at how much I enjoyed it.
Eugenia Ginzburg’s retelling of her experiences deeply affected me, and left me determined to find out more about this period of history. Don’t let this one pass you by; it’s truly compelling reading.
No. 107. Wilfred and Eileen by Jonathan Smith
This really was an excellent choice for republication in the centenary year of WW1, and a refreshing take on the conflict for those wanting something other than the blood and gore of the trenches. Highly recommended.
It is absorbing, and very well-written. But it does highlight an issue that is relevant to all war fiction, and indeed to all fiction based loosely on fact. This is a good story, but it is not the only possible story. A different author, making a different selection from the Willetts’ lives, shaping the text differently and stopping the story in a different place, could maybe have written a novel equally valid and equally valuable, but expressing something else entirely.
Wilfred and Eileen is a lovely novel with the added interest of being based on truth.
A compelling and nerve-wracking story of love in a miserable climate.
No. 108. The Happy Tree by Rosalind Murray
An evocative, sensitively written and powerfully moving novel that was a pure pleasure to read. I raced through it in two sittings, and even found myself having a little cry at the end, which is always a sign of a good book.
The Happy Tree is a marvellous novel, filled with fluid characters, beautiful writing, and such consideration for every scene.
The Happy Tree, despite its name, is not exactly an uplifting read, but it’s certainly a thought provoking, searingly honest portrayal of a woman’s life, and I loved every minute.
The writing in this book is so honest and so insightful that Helen’s feelings and experiences were palpable, and though there were times when I felt so sad for her that it was difficult to read, I couldn’t look away. Her story speaks profoundly for the generation of women who lived through the Great War, and it does more besides.
No. 109. The Country Life Cookery Book by Ambrose Heath
Traditionally I’ve steered away from Persophone’s non-fiction books on cooking or homekeeping, but this one spoke to me because of the way it features recipes broken down according to season, very much on-trend even though it was written in the 30s. And as a bonus, each chapter is illustrated with drawings by Eric Ravilious, an artist whose work I’m always interested in seeing.
The real charm of this book is Heath himself. He's delightful to read; chatty and informative but always concise, full of enthusiasms, and with a delightful turn of phrase this really is a book to be enjoyed at leisure.
No. 110. Because of the Lockwoods by Dorothy Whipple
This is another masterpiece from the pen of Dorothy Whipple, and I urge you all to read it; it is a wide and dramatic canvas that provides a stark warning to those who value status and material things over all else, and cannot see beyond a person’s circumstances to the value of the heart within. Because of the Lockwoods is absolutely fantastic.'
Because of the Lockwoods is a compelling read, filled as it is with beautiful writing and wonderfully drawn characters. Whipple is an intelligent and rather fascinating author, whose plot stays with the reader long after the final page has been absorbed.
Once again, Whipple's characters are brilliantly drawn.
Because of the Lockwoods should not be a page-turner, and yet it is. It folded me up in its arms and wouldn’t let me go, and I put this down to Whipple’s skills as a storyteller.
No. 111. London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes
The minutiae of everyday life - and London's response to the incremental developments of war - are related with the anthropologist's detail […] And nobody could have judged the balance of these columns better than Panter-Downes. The extraordinary writing she demonstrates in her fiction (her perfect novel One Fine Day, for instance) is equally on show here. She offers facts and relates the comments of others, but she also calmly speaks of heroism and bravado, looks at humour and flippancy with an amused eye, and can be brought to moving heights of admiration. The column she writes in response to D Day is astonishing.
Her phrases and personality are what make the letters so compelling and vivid, even to a reader almost 100 years after the events.
It is a fascinating book of reportage which we can read with the benefit of hindsight, but which represents a mission which Mollie was engaged upon; it was vital that the Americans provided the resources to pursue the war and engage in hostilities themselves on the side of the Allies. Thus Mollie had to pursue a careful line of truth, humour and propaganda in order to influence her readers on the other side of the Atlantic.
Robert Harris called Mollie Panter-Downes ‘the Jane Austen of the Home Front’, and it is easy to see why. London War Notes is a wonderful and all-encompassing read.
No. 112. Vain Shadow by Jane Hervey
It’s hard to explain why a novel such as Vain Shadow about the sombre subject of death should be so invigorating.
She is an incredibly perceptive writer; drawing each character, and each relationship, clearly, distinctively and believably.
Vain Shadow is so engaging. Rather than just an overseer, it feels as though the reader is an intrinsic being within the family.
‘A perfect, brilliant novel about crumbling boundaries between classes, sexes, generations and traditions which is a complete pleasure to read. Vain Shadow is relentlessly feminist and also powerfully socialist.’
No. 113. Greengates by RC Sherriff
In delightfully well-crafted sentences and highly original imagery, Sherriff explores his themes of retirement, the need for a purpose in life and home ownership – as a burden or an adventure.
RC Sherriff writes with such wonderful eloquence. He has fantastic turns of phrases that are at once very neat and precise, while also being beautifully descriptive and evocative.
Greengates enchanted me. I love Sherriff ’s writing style, too: “A high wind one night unraveled Mr. Baldwin’s leaf heap and restacked it against the kitchen door.”
The early chapters are shrouded in this delicate, profound melancholy, and you sense that a very real threat of tragedy hangs in the balance: this isn’t just a grim retirement, it is life itself fighting for survival.
It's the sort of thing to curl up with on a cold winter's evening and I can see it becoming a perennial favourite.
No. 115. Maman, What Are We Called Now? by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar
Maman, What are we Called Now?, first published in French in 1957, was re-issued by Persephone in 2015. In July 1944 in Paris, when Jacqueline began her diary, the allies had landed in June – there was the feeling the nightmare could end. Then, her beloved André disappeared. She began her diary to record her hopes and fears as well as her memories. After the diary we have several pages of photographs from the American photographer Thérèse Bonney, taken in Paris in 1943. They are powerful images. The second part of the book contains a series of short essays and reminiscences by Jacqueline written in 1945-6. In these she asks some fairly difficult, but understandable, questions. Time and again she comes back to children and what they really knew or understood and what the impact upon them might have been. Both parts of this book are beautifully written, powerfully poignant and endlessly quotable.’
No. 116. A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves
This is a fascinating story: we follow a middle-aged and privileged wife who, when her youngest daughter announces her engagement, is given a gentle job in the family's thriving tea-shop business to occupy her time.
An invigorating combination of proto-feminist socialism and Edwardian concern for properly steeped tea, A Lady and Her Husband returns to print tastefully embroideres with satire and with just the right amount of lace about its bloomers. The novel speaks to current global concerns regarding the realtionship between pverty and feminism.
Amber Reeves is very clever at pointing out the way things function in the world. Notice how the title says 'A Lady and Her Husband' and not the other way around: the heroine realises that there are two different worlds, that of a man and that of a woman.
No. 117. The Godwits Fly by Robin Hyde
The Godwits Fly is intense, and seriously compelling. It's about loneliness, isolation and ever-burgeoning life. The title refers to bird migration, and to the social and cultural expectations of the time that all young New Zealanders of education and ambition would naturally expect to sail to England which was 'home'. There is so much frustration and needless unhappiness, leavened by fleeting unforgettable beauty.
This is unlike any other [Persephone Book] I have read so far. Reading The Godwits Fly I felt as though I were in the midst of a dream with lots of sounds and imaginings, some vivid and some out-of-focus. A must-read for those who like poetry.
The prose is glorious, poetic and continually a delight to read.
Every book I read over the next eleven months will be judged against Long Live Great Bardfield. Each pages comes alive with the minutiae of Tirzah Garwood's relationships and England's art scene during the thirties. To anyone interested in a long list of topics such as the interwar period, artists, social history, women's rights, village life, domestic history, World War II, England etc, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Her lively, vibrant voice and passionate interest in art and creativity sing out from this marvellous book, that chronicles not only the life of an artist and her friends, but that of an ordinary woman struggling to carve out a life for herself amidst the everyday drudgery of childcare and housework. For as much as the Ravilious’ life was glamorous and bohemian, surrounded as they were by illustrious friends and well-connected relatives, it was also beset by the banal concerns of all of our lives, from eccentric landladies to frozen pipes, broken heating to unwelcome guests. It is these observations of the ordinary that make this book so special; not the accounts of what such and such a famous person said or looked like, but how Tirzah coped with the many and various challenges her life threw at her, while still managing to maintain a sense of joy, wonder and impressive acceptance of the world she lived in.
No. 120. Madame Solario by Gladys Huntington
This is the story of a woman who becomes the obsession of more than six men: the European setting of the early twentieth century before the Russian Revolution or WWI help to amplify the proceedings. I would highly recommend this story to readers of Vladimir Nabakov, Leo Tolstoy, Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood.
No. 121. Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane
There is a strong commentary of the social standing of women during the time period. When Effi’s affair comes to light, her parents are more concerned about their place in society than to receive the daughter back into the house.
The timeless genius of Effi Briest was being an utterly contemporary and generous response to the gutless, clueless, fearful members of an utterly perverted society. Fontane masterfully delivered to those who deserved nothing better than a pointless novel like this. Yet, not only did he forgive his readers, he also, obviously aware of what he was doing, forgave himself for doing it.
No. 122. Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham
This will almost certainly be on my books of the year list – a book I couldn’t stop reading but didn’t want to finish. It’s hard to convey in a review just how lovely this book is, you may just need to read it. There is something about Gwethalyn Graham’s story-telling, the way in which she creates relationships, the emotional and upsetting nature of the divisions that she portrays which makes this novel so compelling.
A claustrophobic and tense novel that neatly sums up the agonies of love that is dampened by bigoted families.
No. 123. Emmeline by Judith Rossner
This is an unforgettable story. Emmeline is a wonderful novel – Rossner recreates the suffocating world of the cotton mills and the spiteful, gossipy boarding houses filled with adolescent girls brilliantly. It is both Emmeline the lonely, vulnerable girl and Emmeline the older woman, alone and ostracised that I will remember for a long time.
No. 124. The Journey Home and Other Stories by Malachi Whitaker
Malachi Whitaker crafts her stories with precision, not a word is wasted, yet the stories are fully satisfying. I got the impression of a down to earth, no-nonsense Yorkshire woman who understood perfectly the communities among whom she lived.
No. 125. Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton
I found this to be a convincing and disturbing novel about the dangers that lurk in families.
Guard Your Daughters is full of the small details of a life restricted by a strong-willed parent, aided and abetted by a loving father. This book succeeds because it feels so real.
No. 127. Young Anne by Dorothy Whipple
Young Anne conveys the immaturity of youth, especially of those growing up in a constrained, repressed society, and the beauty and purity of first love: Anne’s early romance is sweet, heady and intoxicating. Whipple is brilliant at conveying the magic of life – the feeling of security and complacency that comes with a protected childhood, or a single unnerving incident.
Whipple’s magic lies in her simple writing about life taut with the emotional complexities of her characters.
There are flashes of humour throughout, with some standout lines of prose that hint at the strength of work that could still be expected after this debut novel. Some of the text is so brilliant in its simplicity of manner that it requires an immediate re-reading to take in the insight and wit at work, and which resonate still today.
No. 128. Tory Heaven by Marghanita Laski
Persephone have brought back a lively satire set in a crucial period of our history. It is not just an important novel but as with all Persephone Books it is also a beautifully produced one.
The parallels readers can make between the Britain of 1948 that Laski writes about and the Britain of 2018 that we inhabit today are, sadly, plentiful. And remain shameful.
Tory Heaven is an excellent read. Both sombre and fun, this is a story that will stay with you and provoke no small amount of thought about the many ways people are still being “graded” today.
No. 129. The Call by Edith Ayrton Zangwill
The mixture of human drama and social history is perfect.
The descriptions of suffrage life are hectic and consuming but the sections about Ursula’s prison experiences, especially the vivid and scalding descriptions of being on hunger strikes, are truly shocking. As they should be. This is a thoroughly compelling book.
Zangwill has cleverly created a memorable character in Ursula who is already living an irregular life when she comes into contact with suffragettes, and it is that element of the book which fascinated me most. It’s written by a confident and able writer who chooses her material well, smoothly moving from disaster to triumph, challenge to success, but also from effort to failure and frustration.
The Call is an extraordinary story that sweeps the entirety of this very interesting but trying time in the history of men and women and their relative status in society. It is about militancy and pacifism and in the course of the novel we witness how the lines between these opposing ideals can get blurred to a certain extent. Do read The Call if you get a chance. It is a story about an incredible group of women, who went to extraordinary ends to achieve women’s suffrage.
No. 131. Milton Place by Elisabeth de Waal
I was surprised to love Milton Place so much. It is a book that you look forward to picking up again in the evening, you root for the characters and at times I found myself skimming paragraphs ahead anxious about what I feared might happen and just unable to wait another minute or two to see if I was right. It is astonishing that Milton Place was never published in Elisabeth's lifetime and that it has only seen the light of publication now thanks to her son passing the manuscript to Persephone. It would make a wonderful film. I would go so far as to suggest that Milton Place is as close as you can get to reading a Dorothy Whipple (sigh, Dorothy Whipple) without actually reading a Dorothy Whipple itself. Put simply, please read Milton Place. It is a joy of a book and you will be captivated from the first page.
On the surface, there is an absorbing story that recounts the complex tangle of relations and relationships between a group of individuals who either live in or visit Milton Place. But peeling back the layers of the story, Milton Place is an ode to the old English country house, the old aristocratic way of living and thinking that perished in the face of two earth shattering world wars. It is the story of the dissolution of a way of life and the attempts of the English landed gentry to hold on to the old life, and Elisabeth de Waal renders this picture, quite perfectly.
Some stories in The Second Persephone Book of Short Stories have been featured in Persephone’s own twice-yearly magazine, others have been more difficult to access. As always the distinctive grey cover of this book distinguishes it as one of an excellent series; a well produced and attractive book which would be a wonderful gift. Some stories are tragic, but others are inspiring and even humorous. Many are clever, and have much to say about women’s lives at the time when they were written. The essence of this book is to give a short insight into a life, either over a long period or a very brief glimpse of an incident. Short stories can be an acquired taste, but they have the advantage of offering something for everyone’s taste in a book like this of diverse authors. This is the second book of short stories that Persephone has published, and either one is to be recommended as offering an impressive selection of tasters of women authors who had something to say in the twentieth century, or to demonstrate the power of fiction in lives affected by change and challenges.
No. 133. Expiation by Elizabeth Von Arnim
Expiation is a thoroughly enjoyable study of the social mores of the late 1920s. It's a delightful look at the small-minded Brits who live in fear of the servants finding out who they really are. It's the sort of novel that hooks you in from the very first page and keeps you turning until, 362 pages later, you have breathlessly reached the end and barely paused to think.
No. 135. One Woman's Year by Stella Martin Currey
Stella Martin Currey is a wonderful writer, one who is happy to laugh gently at herself but who is also able to dish out advice with a marvellous post-war firmness. Recipes are practical and unfussy. References to the family’s war-time experiences crop up occasionally and it’s clear that life is to be appreciated, even the “Most Disliked Job” of each month. She talks directly to her reader with a warmly self-assured manner, which verges on the tone adopted by self-help tomes. And she does it in a way that you enjoy.
No. 136. The Oppermanns by Lion Feuchtwanger
The Oppermanns is a remarkable book and it’s also remarkable that you chose to republish it, especially at this time. What’s chilling is the breathtaking rapidity with which these changes, these defilements and degradations of history and society take place. The book is at its best when there are the greatest number of voices in it: smug, scared, satiric, angry, resigned – the whole range of differing opinions and responses to ‘the Leader’ and his mission. And perhaps what is most fascinating about this novel is that it was published in 1933. So much daring prescience. That is really impressive. And frightening.
LE and TM, Edinburgh
No. 137. English Climate: Wartime Stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner
There isn’t a dud story in this collection, and what was particularly fascinating was the different angles STW took. Some of the stories are less directly war-related, simply exploring the psychology of people in extreme and unusual situations (so, of course, somewhat relevant to how 2020 has been for many of us…). She’s an acute observer of the subtleties of the relationships between men and women; and her commentary on the foibles of everyday life is sharp and often very funny. She was such a marvellous writer, and these stories capture so well the changing emotions and times of the War period. I can’t recommend the collection highly enough.