Nicola Beauman from Persephone Books at SW11 Literary Festival

21st Sep 2010

Persephone Books

Last week, as part of the SW11 Literary Festival, fellow For Books’ Sake contributor Kaite Welsh and I ventured into the deep dark heart of Clapham for one of three weeks’ worth of events at Waterstones on St. Johns Road; a talk by Nicola Beauman, the founder of Persephone Books.

Following the publication of her own book, A Very Great Profession: The Women’s Novel 1914-39 by Virago, in 1983, Nicola believed there was a place in the publishing industry for reprints of books by female authors who might have otherwise have been written out of history.

With the feminist and mainstream presses at the time concentrating  mainly on academic and literary texts, Persephone was unique in its focus on women authors from the inter-war period; forgotten classics that had once been popular but fell from grace following the social and cultural impact of the war.

One of the authors Nicola was most inspired by was Dorothy Whipple, who wrote about the everyday trials and tribulations in women’s lives. Although popular during the 1930s, the post-war taste for escapist fiction soon led to a sharp decline in her popularity.

According to one anecdote from Nicola on the night, in Virago editorial meetings, manuscripts believed to be too concerned with domesticity and day-to-day routines would be deemed ‘below the Whipple line’ and would not be published.

But Nicola’s decision to reprint her 1953 novel, Someone At a Distance, as one of the first ever Persephone books, proved to be astute. Today, Dorothy Whipple is their bestselling author, and Nicola believes one of the reasons the Persephone Books shop is so popular is because “readers know when they come in they can have a good natter with us about how wonderful Dorothy Whipple is.”

Although they now have their own shop and offices in the publishers’ paradise of Bloomsbury, when Nicola first founded Persephone in 1999, they were based in a basement, armed only with a small amount of money Nicola had inherited and an assortment of how-to books bought from Foyles. Initially only three books were selected, with five thousand copies each printed of the aforementioned Whipple novel, Mariana by Monica Dickens and William: An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton.

Over a decade later, although the Persephone publishing arm has kept its small scale, publishing three new titles each quarter, they’ve developed a strong reputation and influence. The success of their 2001 reprint of Winifred Watson‘s 1935 novel, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, led in part to the 2008 film adaptation. And it probably helps that with the patterned endpapers used inside the books and the contrasting iconic grey covers, Persephone titles prompt instant recognition in their loyal readers across the UK.

It was all inspirational indeed, and it was obvious from her eloquent answers to our questions just how passionate Nicola is about resurrecting neglected women authors and restoring their lost legacies. However, for me at least, the evening  was slightly marred by Nicola’s apologetic tone when the subject of feminism inevitably came up.

To the young woman who posed a question about whether she’d class herself as a feminist, Nicola replied: “I am a feminist, but not maybe not in the same way that you would understand it.” Although I’m sure it wasn’t intended that way, to me this came across as patronising. She explained: “We’re a feminist publishers, but not the kind that hates men. That might sound glib, but when you’re married with children, it’s hard to run a publishing house that doesn’t include any male authors. We don’t publish books which empower women; we publish books which explain the human condition. Domestic fiction is about the ordinary and the everyday, and domesticity isn’t always compatible with feminism.”

Maybe it says more about my own naiveté than Nicola’s stance on women’s issues, but I’d always assumed that a publishing house like Persephone, which has for the last ten years been seen as synonymous with promoting women’s writing, would have more of a clear and passionate position on on this topic. To instead have an apologetic tone, clichés about feminists being men-haters, and the insinuation that feminism isn’t compatible with having a husband and family was a disappointment.

But there were further revelations ahoy. After a question from yours truly about the future of the publishing industry in general and specifically Persephone, Nicola announced to the audience that she intends to stop publishing Persephone books once the grand total of titles reaches 100-125. Since their back catalogue currently stands at 88 books, that means we could be bidding goodbye to Persephone Books as early as the end of next year. Sad news no matter whichever side of the feminism fence you’re on.

The SW11 Literary Festival is continuing until the end of the month, so investigate the website for full details of all the events. We’re going to a talk tonight by Isabel Losada, so make sure you check back here soon for our review.

Post by Jane Bradley

(Photo by Pedro Figueiredo, via his Flickr photostream)

Comments

  • Alex Herod says:

    I discovered the Persephone book shop site when i’d been trawling the internet to find somewhere, ANYWHERE, I could buy some Susan Glaspell texts. It will indeed be sad to see Persephone go when the number of texts reaches 100-125. There are so many female writers out there who deserve to be rediscovered and republished… *sigh*

  • Kate says:

    Gosh, what a fascinating write-up. Thank you for reporting it in such detail. As you say, what a very strange answer on feminism. The idea that feminism is about hating men, or is conceptually incompatible with domesticity, seems more rooted in the stuff of 1970s sitcoms (or contemporary Daily Mail journalism).

    That disappointment aside, I shall be tremendously sorry to see the back of Persephone when they decide to call a halt to things; they’ve introduced me to dozens of wonderful books I would otherwise never have known about, and they look gorgeous on my shelves.

    Alex, although their remit is slightly different (and their jacket designs much less attractive) I’ve also been enjoying the reprints issued by The Bloomsbury Group, which are drawing on largely forgotten novels from the first half of the twentieth century. A number of their efforts would, I think, have been very happily published by Persephone and hopefully they will keep soldiering on!

    http://www.bloomsbury.com/thebloomsburygroup/

    • Jane Bradley says:

      Thanks for the comment, Kate, and for the tip-off about Bloomsbury Group too! You’re right that the feminism comment did seem rather retro, and was a definite disappointment. But I will be sad to seem them go.

  • BookElfLeeds says:

    “I am a feminist but not in the same way you understand it”. -Wha?
    Last time I checked I didn’t have detailed analysis of my political standpoints imprinted accross my forehead, and neither did anyone else. How dare someone assume that their ‘understanding’ of a complex and multi-facited liberation movement that has been going for 150 is any better/worse/similar/different to anyone else’s? If your a feminist, be proud to say so! Its the constant dissing of the movement that holds it back and keep people away from exploring it.
    Great article, Jane. Sad to see this publisher go.

    • Jane Bradley says:

      Thanks Jess, couldn’t agree more – apologising for feminism (especially in an audience when you’re almost guranteed to be preaching to the converted on that front) just causes more antagonism and stigma around it, and that’s not good news for women.

  • Cathy Bussey says:

    Interesting, informative post. However: is there a kind of feminism that hates men? Isn’t that just straightforward discrimination?

    Agree with comments, sick of people apologising for being feminists or qualifying it with ‘I’m a feminist BUT….’

    Also feel anyone who still really thinks feminism = hating men should go and work for the Daily Mail where they belong.

    • Jane Bradley says:

      Thanks for the comment Cathy, it was confusing, especially because as I say I had always assumed a publisher which has worked so hard to promote and celebrate women’s writings would be supportive and outspoken about feminism. Maybe that was presumptuous on my part, but it doesn’t look like I’m the only one to have made that mistake!

  • Michael McCluskey says:

    Did you contact Nicola Beauman after your disappointing encounter and discuss her conception of feminism in more detail than her admittedly ‘glib’ response provides? Was it, perhaps, late in the day and she went home mulling over the hasty responses you take as her firm position? It seems as though this brief incident has been forced to fit into the framework of one particular Beauman-hater. Daily Mail, indeed.

    • Jane Bradley says:

      Hi Michael, thanks for your comment. I’m not a Beauman-hater at all, in fact I have a lot of respect and admiration for what she has achieved with Persephone in the last decade, which is why I went along to the talk. And I haven’t taken her comments at that event as a firm stance, all I’ve done is quoted what she said on the night, and explain how I was disappointed in them. They may have been made in haste, they may not have been representative of her views, but they were her words and I was disappointed in them. I don’t think that makes me a hater (although maybe we’ll disagree on that).

      Persephone Books have been in touch with me since this article was published, and at no point have they asked for any of the quotes to be revised, or given a response or explanation to it. To me, that indicates an acknowledgement on their behalf that I’ve reported Nicola fairly and accurately, but if she or any other spokesperson from Persephone do come back to with anything else to add, I will of course update this article to include it.

      • Michael McCluskey says:

        Many thanks for this, Jane. And, no, I do not consider you a hater, though I did feel that some of the respondents to your original post were heading in that direction, and that, perhaps, a slightly provocative intervention was needed. Equating a woman who publishes the work of neglected women writers with the staff of the Daily Mail seemed a bit strong and unfair. I’m sure Daily Mail readers would agree. A very thought-provoking post and discussion as always.

  • Luci says:

    I don’t see any Beauman hating here – most of the posts are from regular readers/customers of Persephone Books who are feminists, and who are concerned that someone whose business comes out of literary feminism should implicitly dismiss others, including so many of her business’s customers/fans.

  • MadamJMo says:

    Coming late to the party, but I only found this thread yesterday after someone recommended it in a Persephone related Tweet (sorry, not a regular visitor to FBS… though that will change now I know you exist!). A really interesting article, and considered comments, too. Very much hope Persephone doesn’t fold in the next few years – I have loved their books for many, many years and have been introduced to so many wonderful writers through them. Long live Persephone.