Francesca Beauman

Persephone Books publisher discusses forgotten gems written by women and the imprint’s 150th book
Francesca Beauman

In A Room of One’s Own (1929), Virginia Woolf nailed the way male interests of the twentieth century were given more weight than equivalent female interests. “Football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial’,” she wrote, “and these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.”

For 25 years now, the independent publisher Persephone Books has been throwing open those drawing room doors – giving the neglected thoughts and feelings of early twentieth century women their due. They’ve republished the sidelined books of Dorothy Whipple, Mollie Panter-Downes and Winifred Watson, whose 1938 novel Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was turned into a film starring Frances McDormand in 2008.

The company was founded in 1999 by author and biographer Nicola Beauman, whose daughter Francesca Beauman (TV presenter, author and world authority on the pineapple) is now taking the reins. When I call her on Zoom, she seems to materialise a millisecond behind a vivid scarlet lipstick that’s as bold and brisk as her demeanour.

“Mum set up the company just after her fifth child, my younger brother [novelist Ned Beauman] left home,” says Francesca. “She was 55 at the time and a great inspiration for anybody looking to start a new career at that age. Through the ’60s and ’70s she’d been mostly at home, looking after all of us, writing and reading. She loves books with strong plots, strong characters, a strong sense of real life – she’s not interested in writing that’s unnecessarily ‘difficult’.” Francesca tells me that during her childhood she witnessed her mother scouring second-hand shops for out of print gems: “she famously found a copy of One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes in a black bin bag in Wigton.”

In 1983, Nicola Beauman published A Very Great Profession, which her daughter describes as “the first book of literary criticism to take the female authors of the early twentieth century seriously, to analyse them in context – it was really radical.” Praised on first publication by A S Byatt as “excellent… a loving historical sociological portrait”, Francesca explains it was conceived when her mother was watching Brief Encounter on television. The film’s 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. “It was the glimpse of that newly-borrowed Kate O’Brien in Laura’s shopping basket that made mum want to find out about the other novels the doctor’s wife had been reading. She also wanted to learn something about Laura [who] lived uneventful days and was, like Katherine Hilbery 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.”’

“Mum set up the company just after her fifth child, my younger brother, left home”

Nicola Beauman tried encouraging other publishers – including Carmen Callil at Virago, who published A Very Great Profession – to republish the authors she’d discovered, but Francesca tells me “nobody was having it, the books were deemed too ‘middlebrow’. Mum set up Persephone – named after a goddess who brought things from the darkness into the light – in a basement in Clerkenwell. I had just left university and was waitressing up the road so I’d come in and help stuff envelopes, cash cheques.”

The first book Persephone published was William – An Englishman (1919) by Cicely Hamilton, an actress and suffragette who worked at the Scottish Women’s Hospital at Royaumont, France, during the Great War and organised Concerts at the Front. Francesca Beauman – who read history at Cambridge – tells me the novel was “written in 1918, in a tent in Northern France with the sound of gunfire and shelling all around. It’s a howl of rage against the war. So vivid, immediate, personal and really quite odd in its anger. It’s so interesting for people who are more used to reading historical novels written after the war – it’s a reminder that when you’re in the thick of events you don’t have the bigger picture, you don’t have hindsight.” She laughs. “Reading books like this has made it increasingly hard for me to read modern historical novels because I find myself noticing the authors have spent too much time on Wikipedia.” Although William – An Englishman won the first Prix Femina–Vie Heureuse Anglais prize in 1920, it lay forgotten for decades until Persephone republished it, with one of the plain, dove-grey covers that would become a hallmark of the brand.

“Mum didn’t want people to judge books by their covers,” says Francesca. “I love the grey because it allows the reader to come to the book without any preconceptions and make up their own minds.” On the company website Nicola explains she “had a vision of a woman who comes home tired from work, and there is a book waiting for her, and it doesn’t matter what it looks like because she knows she will enjoy it. Our books look beautiful because we believe that, whether they are on an office desk or hanging in a bag over the handles of a pram, it is important to take pleasure from how they look and feel.” Inside each book, readers find the stunning flash of an endpaper designed in the same year the novel was published, or when its action takes place.

William – An Englishman has an Omega Workshop linen, dating from 1913 when the novel begins. The abstract shapes outlined in black are curved to evoke the Belgian hills in green and purple to recall suffragette colours. “We love the endpapers almost as much as the books,” says Francesca. “We’re reminding readers of neglected female artists and fabric designers. I really love the Collier Campbell Liberty design we’ve use for Sian James’ 1975 love story, One Afternoon – so many of us had it for bedroom curtains or cushions in the ’70s! And Farewell Leicester Square by Betty Miller (1935) has a gorgeous EQ Nicholson design and I’ve had a dress made out of it and some curtains… look! Isn’t it bee-auuu-tiful?!” She hoiks up a bolt of pale blue fabric on which black geese arc coolly through rows of stylised white clouds.

Miller’s fourth novel addresses antisemitism in Britain between the wars, so feels sadly topical. “Her publisher Victor Gollancz turned the book down flat. The New York Review of Books’ Neal Ascherson explained: ‘It seems most likely that he saw it as terrifyingly provocative, not only an attack on the solid English assimilation of his own family but a tactless outburst against the English at precisely the moment, two years after Hitler’s assumption of power, when their tolerance and hospitality were most needed.’”

Today Beauman is keen to point out that although some people are drawn to the “charming, cosy” style of Persephone books, they’re often surprisingly subversive behind their demure packaging.

“Although the books are united by themes of the home and domestic life, the women in them can still be politicians, scientists, journalists, passionate lovers.” She adds that the books often address subjects not often discussed openly during the period in which they were written. “They addressed issues like abortion, miscarriage, anorexia. The main character in Sian James’ One Afternoon has a miscarriage on a weekend away in Paris. There can’t have been many other accounts of miscarriage before 1975. In Daddy’s Gone A Hunting by Penelope Mortimer a character has an abortion. High Wages by Dorothy Whipple is about a woman setting up a dress shop in a northern town and it gives so much insight into what it was like to establish a business, what it was like to go to the bank manager and ask for a loan. You feel that was the first time social change had been depicted.”

Then there’s sex. To Bed with Grand Music by Marghanita Laski, for example, opens in a conventional 1940s English village where the married heroine knits and bakes. “But within a few chapters,” says Beauman, “it becomes more and more racy. You’re like: what!?” Beauman cracks up laughing. “I sound so shocked, listen to me! But even the delightful, comic Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day [the novel which became Persephone’s first bestseller, allowing them to open a bookshop which recently relocated from Bloomsbury to Bath] is about a governess who knocks on the wrong door. She ends up meeting a glamorous nightclub singer who’s always hopping in and out of bed with various men, with barely a change of clothes.”

Although Persephone books are united by themes of the home and domestic life, the women in them can still be politicians, scientists, journalists, passionate lovers

The Third Persephone Book of Short Stories – published this month – is the company’s 150th book and contains its fair share of sexual adventures. “There’s a Siân James story about a character who goes to a dinner party with her newborn and then this man gives them a lift home,” says Beauman. “She asks him in and they make love on the spot. I thought: it that what it was like in the ’70s? Is that what people did? A revelatory insight into… maybe not what was normal but stuff that did happen.” The collection covers the whole span of the twentieth century – opening with an arresting tale of adultery and unexpected female solidarity by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and closing with a sly doozy of a story – also about infidelity – by Carol Shields.

“I love short stories,” says Beauman. “The best of them are often about the end of a world – the end of a marriage, a career, a friendship. Or the end of a worldview.” Many of the featured authors will be new to most readers and Beauman says the joy of her job is “allowing people into a secret club. Our readers love to feel they’ve ‘discovered’ these great writers.” She notes the reason authors fall out of print is “so random. The reasons can be to do with sexism or fashion or just the fact that some of them have silly names. Like Dorothy Whipple. I do suspect that if she’d had a more sensible sounding name then people would have taken her more seriously!”

Persephone does also publish books by men. “About fifteen per cent of our authors are men. Because some of them do get neglected too. Not so often as women, but it happens and we’re happy to help restore the reputations of all neglected authors.” She notes that “the best kind of men” are also among Persephone’s most devoted readers. “It takes a special kind of bravery for a man to come along to a book group at our shop in Bath, but they do come! We also get a lot of young English literature students in floral tea dresses.

They look around in wonder at the shelves then ask me, rather crossly, why on earth they’ve never heard of the authors before!”

Beauman winds up by telling me that one of the “greatest joys” of running Persephone has lain in informing authors their books were being republished. “Winifred Watson was still alive when we republished Miss Pettigrew. We had to go through the Newcastle phone book to find her. On the third go I remember mum asking, “Is this Winifred Watson who wrote Miss Pettigrew lives for a Day?” There was a pause then: “This is she.” That was excellent. Not only had we found her but she still had a very good grasp of grammar! She died shortly afterwards but she knew her book hadn’t been forgotten. Now all our authors are dead. But even for the families it’s such lovely recognition. Siân James’ book has been selling really well and we’re thrilled to keep sending royalty cheques to her son William.

Does she worry about running out of authors? “Noooo!” she howls. “No, there are so many neglected writers. We’re often to be found shrieking in the office: I can’t believe this book went out of print!” Now Francesca has taken the front seat at Persephone, she hopes her mother – now 79 – gets a third wind and “uses the time to write more books. She’s got SO MANY great ideas.”

Helen Brown is an arts journalist writing regularly for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Daily Mail

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