Nicola Beauman makes a living from re-printing the forgotten works of female writers. She talks to Cazz Blase about chick lit, the ‘surplus’ women of the inter-war years and the book trade
Persephone Books is a small, London-based publishing house and bookshop. Selling books mainly by mail-order, Persephone publishes “mainly neglected fiction and non-fiction by women, for women and about women” and focuses on 20th century ‘middlebrow’ texts, making it unusual in a market that continues to focus on earlier or more literary texts. “The titles are chosen to appeal to busy women who rarely have time to spend in ever-larger bookshops and who would like to have access to a list of books designed to be neither too literary nor too commercial,” says the website. Among the authors they have published are Monica Dickens, Dorothy Whipple, Frances Hodgson Burnett and Winifred Watson who wrote Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day.
Nicola Beauman, who founded and still runs the company, comes from a writing and publishing background. She was motivated to found Persephone after her first book, A Very Great Profession: The Women’s Novel 1914-39, was published by Virago in 1983. “I realised that there were lots and lots of books that no one else wanted to re-print,” she says. She was particularly inspired by the works of the author Dorothy Whipple, “whom the mainstream feminist presses didn’t like”, a state of affairs which proved fortuitous for Persephone “because she’s been our best-selling writer”. So successful was Someone At A Distance, the first Persephone book, that Beauman has since published three other Whipple novels: They Knew Mr Knight, The Priory, and They Were Sisters.
While Whipple remains the company’s best-selling author, its most sought-after book is Winifred Watson’s “funny and quirky” Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, which has been championed by India Knight in her book The Shops, and Maureen Lipman, who read the book for Radio 4. The novel tells the story of Miss Pettigrew, “a governess sent by an employment agency to the wrong address, where she encounters a glamorous night-club singer, Miss LaFosse”.
When asked why she chose to focus on women writers of the first world war and inter-war years, Beauman says: “I think it’s a fantastic era for women’s writing, when they were particularly overlooked.” There is a noticeable lack of critical work on those women who were writing between 1914 and 1950, as Nicola Humble has also pointed out, in her book The Feminine Middlebrow Novel 1920’s to 1950’s: Class, Domesticity and Bohemianism, which was published in 2001. “There has been very little written about them,” says Beauman, “critics stick with the same little group.” She is referring to authors like Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, Rosamund Lehrmann, Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby. “I’m longing for someone to do a PhD on Dorothy Whipple, who’s a phenomenally good writer. No-one has ever written a word about her.”
The infamously large number of “surplus women” , to use Billie Melman’s phrase, who emerged from the first world war, accounts, in Beauman’s view, for the large number of women writing in the inter-war period. Melman has estimated that there were 1,920,000 ‘surplus’ or unmarried women in Britain following the end of world war one and, as Beauman points out, writing was “a perfectly respectable job for a woman, whereas they couldn’t go and run a company. So there were lots of writers, and many of them were very, very good.” She adds that she has been able to get quite a few of these writers into the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, a database that includes “many feminists and suffragettes”.
While some writers have sought to draw a comparison between neglected feminine middlebrow authors of the inter-war period and chick lit authors of the ’90s, Beauman is dismissive of the purported link. “The kind of novels I’m interested in got quite serious critical attention at the time,” she says – but it is unlikely that Persephone would consider re-issuing any chick lit novels in years to come because “they’re not well written, it’s all to do with style. I mean, I am passionate about, quite honestly, the good sentence, and style, and whether things are well written.”
Of the 75 books Persephone has published, Beauman says she loves “them all”, and the list is not limited to any obvious genre, including novels, cook books, children’s books, science fiction, romance and much else besides. As to the typical Persephone reader, Beauman admits that this varies, but that she would “have once thought it was middle England, middle class, middle income” when in reality “our readers are all ages and all types, and 20% men.”
When it comes to re-publishing books, there appears to be little opposition from the agents representing the authors in question. In “about half of the cases” Persephone track down the families of the author to arrange re-publishing, and “they are always very helpful”.
Are there are any books on the Virago Modern Classics list that Beauman would have liked to publish? “Yes, one or two I would loved to have done, particularly Molly Panter-Downes’ One Fine Day, which I love.”
When asked if there are advantages to not having to deal with authors when publishing books, Beauman laughs, but does admit that there are “slight advantages”. “You have to be quite extrovert – lunches, and whatever – with authors, whereas I’m always more interested in text. We do have a few living authors: we’ve got Judith Viorst, Nicholas Mosley, Elizabeth Berridge and Oriel Malet who wrote Marjory Fleming and… then we have quite a lot of the authors daughters, who have become friends.”
Along with having its own shop and monthly book group, the Persephone books have very distinct covers and packaging. Each title has a simple grey cover, marked with the Persephone logo and a unique end paper, which is reproduced on the bookmark accompanying each copy. This simple design came about “because I very much admire those early Penguins and I admire French paperbacks, which are white and red. I thought it was quite a good – I know it’s a terrible word – ‘brand’. But [that is] quite important, because people buy your books if they recognise them. If you have a recognisable look people say ‘oh, a Persephone book’. The other thing is, of course, we’re incredibly poor, we don’t make much money, in fact hardly any money at all, and so we save on a designer because we have the same look for each book.”
In addition to this uniform design, many of the books also include prefaces, but Beauman is modest when it comes to describing how the preface writers are recruited. “Oh, just luck really. I try to think of someone, or I slightly know them, sometimes I can’t find someone, anyone, so we don’t always have a preface.” At the other end of the scale, Jacqueline Wilson prefaced the re-print of Eleanor Graham’s 1938 novel The Children Who Lived In A Barn. Asking Wilson was “tremendous luck. Somebody told me, I can’t remember who, it was one of her favourite books, so I wrote to her and she said she would write about it.”
Wilson, of course, is one of the country’s best known, and best selling, children’s authors and, according to recent library statistics, her books are the most borrowed from British libraries. A number of the authors published by Persephone, including Frances Hodgson Burnett, Richmal Crompton, Noel Streatfield and Monica Dickens tend to be known almost entirely for their children’s novels, but Beauman hopes that by publishing their adult novels Persephone is helping to change the critical and public perception of these, and other, writers, and she believes that such writers would be pleased by this shift in literary focus. “Certainly Richmal Crompton,” whose Family Roundabout has been published by Persephone, “would rather have been known for her adult novels. Well, all of these writers were equally proud of their adult novels.”
In 2008, Persephone plans to re-print some of its best-selling books in a different format, with pictures on the front, rather than the grey, in bookshops, at a slightly cheaper price of £9 – compared to the standard price of £10 each plus £2 postage, or three for £33, including postage.
To get them to a wider audience? “Yes, I feel, you know, 8,000 people have bought our first Dorothy Whipple, there must be another 8,000 who would love it as well.”
Persephone Books can be found at 59 Lamb’s Conduit Street, London, WC1N 3NB. For more information, or to receive a free biannually magazine and catalogue, visit: www.persephonebooks.co.uk or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Floating book photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash