“Women and fiction remain, so far as I am concerned, unsolved problems,” wrote Virginia Woolf in her essay, A Room of One’s Own, continuing with the oft-quoted proclamation: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”.
There is a small shop in London’s Lamb’s Conduit Street – an evocative, nostalgic, curiously British road name – that one imagines Woolf might have considered to be the stuff emancipated women’s dreams were made of: Persephone Books.
“We print neglected fiction and non-fiction by women, for women and about women,” explains founder Nicola Beauman. Persephone Books is a haven of inspiration with books by lesser-known authors. But better-known writers are also published, often exploring other genres of fiction than that for which they are best known. Take Richmal Crompton, for example, of Just William fame, the book that sold over 8m copies during her lifetime, but which, it was believed, she felt compromised her recognition as an author. And Monica Dickens – from whom I learnt at an impressionable age that comic writing was artistically valid and should be taken very seriously. She soon had me scribbling away.
Presently, there are 104 Persephone books in print, the latest being The Squire by Enid Bagnold (£12) – Samantha Cameron’s great-grandmother – and The Exiles Return by Elizabeth de Waal (£12). “Currently we have a bestselling author, Dorothy Whipple,” says Beauman. “Someone at a Distance, written in 1953, is about a man leaving his wife, and encapsulates much of what we are trying to do.”
The books are elegantly bound in silvery-grey paperback and lined with the most beautiful of patterned papers, each taken from fabric designs from the period that the book was written. They are perfect to slip into a handbag, more stylish than a Kindle and much easier to read. On my list for Christmas is a 12-month book subscription (from £120), which amounts to a natty little collection over the course of the year.
A small printing house such as this might have rumbled along, were it not for the success of its reprint of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson (£12), which was made into a 2008 film staring Frances McDormand and Amy Adams. “While we don’t have a favourite at Persephone – it would indeed be like having a favourite child – Miss P is special because she turned our fortunes around in 2001, long before it was a film,” Beauman explains. “We initially printed only 2,000, but somehow we never looked back and it has sold and continues to sell steadily ever since. It is a fantastic book, of course, as are all our books. And who knows what will be a bestseller?”
For those planning to make a pilgrimage to the shop before Christmas, Thursday December 12, from 10am to 8pm, will be an open day. There will be mulled wine and mince pies and books can be gift-wrapped at no extra charge.