The morning after our arrival in London, Natalie awakens at four a.m. and cannot go back to sleep. Instead she reads and studies the map of London and gets all excited about visiting Persephone Books. Natalie has been studying Persephone’s website — http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk — for weeks before our trip and has identified the books she wants to find and place in her suitcase. (Note: Some will have to be mailed due to her small suitcase being unable to accommodate the weight and volume.)
To set the stage, here are few introductory notes from their website: “Persephone Books began in a room above a pub in the spring of 1998. Founder Nicola Beauman’s original concept was to publish a handful of ‘lost’ or out-of-print books every year, most of them interwar novels by women. The name Persephone was chosen as a symbol of female creativity, as well as of new beginnings (the daughter of Zeus is associated with spring). Persephone books are all grey because – well – we really like grey. We also 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, by the Aga [Pamela’s note: this is a stove], or hanging in a bag over the handles of a pram, it is important to take pleasure from how they look and feel. The founder of Persephone Books, Nicola Beauman (née Mann), was born in 1944, brought up in London, and read English at Newnham College, Cambridge. She is the author of A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-39 (1983), Cynthia Asquith (1987), Morgan: a biography of E.M. Forster (1993) and The Other Elizabeth Taylor (2009). She is married with five children and lives in London. She likes brogues, daffodils, mattress ticking and madeira.”
You can see Nicola Beauman in this photo I took while we were in the bookshop. It is a busy work area. Orders are being filled. Event details are being sorted. The next book is being prepared for publication. A sewing machine is used to make hand-sewn covers for pillows, in fabrics that echo the endpaper designs that are selected for each book.
In the meantime, we are looking and reading and sighing and smiling… And I end up in front of the first book Persephone published: William – An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton, with an endpaper named ‘Pamela’ designed by the Omega Workshop. I think it is quite remarkable that the book title is “William” and the endpaper is “Pamela.” I decide I am meant to read this book!
And so… here I am three weeks later back in Los Angeles. Although I had planned to write a post about Persephone Books, I have not simply written this post to tell you about a remarkable bookshop, but to tell you that I have just finished reading William — An Englishman. I read it in two days. I stayed up past midnight and awakened before six to keep reading. Tears rolled down my cheeks when I reached the last page. My William walked in from showering and noticed the closed book in my hands: “Did you finish?” he asked. Then he noticed my tears, and gently asked: “Are those tears?”
In a shaky voice, I said, “This is the perfect novel.” (I’m pretty sure when I say it that I have never said that.)
Later, I hear Bill tell Natalie that in the 30 years he has known me, he has never heard me say this. I hear Natalie agree that she has never heard me say those words.
Here’s a short portion of the book’s description on Persephone’s website, where there is so much more to read about the novel and the author Cicely Hamilton: “Persephone book No. 1 was ‘written in a rage in 1918; this extraordinary novel… is a passionate assertion of the futility of war’ (the Spectator). Its author had been an actress and suffragette; after 1914 she worked at the Scottish Women’s Hospital at Royaumont and organised Concerts at the Front. William – an Englishman was written in a tent within sound of guns and shells.”
The book can be downloaded as an e-book (for free) on Persephone’s website. But, if you are a tactile reader (as we are in our house), you might love ordering the book and having it sent to you via Royal Mail: All of Persephones’ books cost £12 in the UK (approximately $20). Shipping is about $7. I might add: the books are printed on such nice paper and the binding is so thoughtfully designed, i.e. the book’s pages stay open as you read it in such a reader-friendly way.