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A Very Great Profession

by Nicola Beauman
Persephone book no:

77 78 79

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A Well Full of Leaves
Regular price £14.00
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ISBN 9781903155684

Written by Nicola Beauman, the founder of Persephone Books, and first published in 1983, we hope that readers will enjoy a book about the kind of books that Persephone reprints. A Very Great Profession analyses the work of a number of women writers to present a portrait, though their fiction, of middle-class Englishwomen in the period between the wars, along the way illuminating themes such as domestic life, romantic love, sex, psychoanalysis, the Great War and ‘surplus’ women.

'A Very Great Profession was conceived when I first saw the film of Brief Encounter on television' (the book begins). 'In it the heroine, Laura Jesson, goes into the local town every week to do a bit of shopping, have a cafe lunch, go to the cinema and change her library book. This is the highlight of her week. It was the glimpse of her newly-borrowed Kate O'Brien in her shopping basket that made me want to find out about the other novels the doctor's wife had been reading... I wanted, also, to learn something about Laura [who] lived uneventful days and was, like Katherine in Virginia Woolf's Night and Day (1919), "a member of a very great profession which has, as yet, no title and very little recognition... She lived at home."'

Praised on first publication by A S Byatt as 'excellent... a loving historical sociological portrait' and later by Elizabeth Young as 'one of the most compelling and perceptive books of informal literary criticism ever produced,’ A Very Great Profession was both ground-breaking and radical, far ahead of its time in the way it takes the work of these women writers as seriously as their male counterparts. A large number of Persephone authors feature, including Dorothy Whipple, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Cicely Hamilton, F M Mayor, E M Delafield, Winifred Holtby, Lettice Cooper, Rachel Ferguson, Mollie Panter-Downes, and more. If you like Persephone Books, we are confident you will love A Very Great Profession. It's where it all began.

Picture Caption

The cover for the 1983 edition of A Very Great Profession


Read What Readers Say


‘A Very Great Profession’ is such a terrific introduction to women’s writing of the inter-war period. Organised into subject headings such as ‘War’, ‘Surplus Women’, ‘Feminism’, and ‘Domesticity’ and making clear distinctions between ‘Romance’, ‘Love’ and ‘Sex’, the book introduces dozens of writers and clearly places them in historical and literary contexts. I have discovered so many great and enjoyable books from this critical study and from Persephone Books which I collect.

Heaven Ali (blogger)

I read the first paragraphs of ‘A Very Great Profession’ and was surprisingly hooked. It is described as a book of literary criticism, which perhaps makes it sound a little drier than it is. Subtitled “The Woman’s Novel 1914-39” it really is right up my alley. I found it completely absorbing, a real celebration of many of the kinds of books I love – written by the founder of Persephone books and originally published by Virago in 1983. In this book Nicola Beauman looks at women like Katherine in Virginia Woolf’s ‘Night and Day’ and Laura in the film ‘Brief Encounter’. These were women who borrowed books from the circulating libraries, and whose lives were so often recorded in the very fiction that they read. Following her introduction – in which Beauman explains how the book was conceived and written – each of the eight chapters takes a different theme: war, domesticity, sex, psychoanalysis etc. Drawing on numerous novels from this period between the two wars Beauman explores the lives that were being led by the middle-class women who would have read them. These novels often reflected the changing lives of women – and what the middle-class concerns of many at this period were. Throughout this book I loved reading the extracts from the novels I had previously enjoyed as well as encountering many I had never heard of. Each chapter is just wonderfully immersive for the lover of novels from this period – largely those written by women though one or two by male writers are included. This book was an easy five star read for me; I knew that when I had only read a third of it – I was so thoroughly absorbed I gulped it down quickly. It is surely a must for any lover of the kinds of novels published by Virago and Persephone. Nicola Beauman is an able literary critic: she fully understands these novels and the women who read them and how inextricably linked the readers and the novels were – and I dare say still are. This book is now my favourite book about books I have read for some time.

Categories: History

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