Nicola Beauman from Persephone Books at SW11 Literary Festival
21st Sep 2010
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to be too concerned with domesticity and day-to-day routines would be deemed ‘below the Whipple line’ and would not be published.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