Inspiration

my favourite persephone books

persephone-books-and-pansy-jug

I've had a bit of a love affair with Persephone Books since I arrived in London. Their charming shop in Bloomsbury's Lamb Conduit Street is one of my favourite places to go when I feel like a treat. 

Persephone reprints "neglected fiction and non-fiction" by 20th century writers, mainly women, and the shop itself is an absolute haven for writers and book lovers. Not only are the books beautiful but there's always fresh handpicked flowers dotted about, vintage posters, bookmarks and other enchanting paraphernalia to get your imagination going. I never fail to feel inspired after visiting.

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And, needless to say, I also never fail to leave the shop without a few books!

One of my favourite podcasts, Tea and Tattle, devoted an entire episode to discussing their favourite Persephone reads last year so I'd highly recommend you check out that episode if you're new to Persephone books and are wondering where to start, because it's quite an impressive catalogue. Many of Miranda and Sophie's recommendations are my favourites too, but they also mention some that I hadn’t thought to check out before - and as they both have great taste in books I’ll certainly be doing so.

The books themselves are also beautiful - as you can see in my main photograph, they are the most elegant shade of grey and look really lovely arranged together. Each book has its own individual endpaper and bookmark, usually a pattern related to the content of the book or the time of publication. Everything has been thought about with Persephone books, and it really shows. 

So I thought I'd share the Persephone books I've most enjoyed since I discovered them - and since my love affair was revived after listening to the Tea and Tattle episode! - but this is a mere drop in the ocean as I am nowhere near through the range. I have many more Persephones than the ones I’ve mentioned below, but I’ve enjoyed every book from them that I’ve read and we’ll be here all day if I list them all! So these are the ones that I think are great ones to start with, in my opinion. If you want some absorbing, well-written books to curl up with on a rainy day with a warm mug of something delicious, you can't go wrong with any of these.

Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski (Persephone no. 28)

This was the first book of Marghanita Laski's I've read and it's made me want to read everything she's ever written. I read it in one weekend and it was absolutely breathtaking. It was desperately sad at times, even depressing, as it follows a father's journey to try and find his missing five-year-old- son after the Second World War, but all in all, it is a stunning novel about loss and hope. I'd even go so far as to say it's a masterpiece. I would also highly recommend To Bed With Grand Music and Tory Heaven: or Thunder on the Right, also by Laski and published by Persephone, and they’re both brilliant. The latter feels particularly pertinent in a post-EU referendum Britain!

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple (Persephone no. 3)

This is probably my most favourite Persephone book (so far). Described as "a fairly ordinary tale about the destruction of a happy marriage", I was quite unprepared for how compelling and absorbing this tale would be. It's a novel all about relationships, how they form and also how they fall apart. Sometimes all it can take is 'someone at a distance' for that to happen. The novel follows what happens to this family when the husband/father is unfaithful, and the emotional devastation that has on everyone - there’s no great twist, per se, but the book’s genius and charm lies in how it explores the emotional lives of the characters, and how compassionately Whipple manages to do this. And I think Louise (the other woman) is by far the most repugnant character I’ve ever come across in literature, and that is saying something! I absolutely loved this book and have all of Dorothy Whipple’s other books on my Persephone wish list!

Mariana by Monica Dickens (Persephone no. 2)

This book is a real delight - Persephone refer to it as a “hot water bottle novel” and that’s exactly what it is. A book you can curl up with on the sofa and escape into. Mostly set in England between the world wars, it’s the coming-of-age story of Mary, whom we follow from childhood right through to the early years of the second world war where she is desperately waiting to hear whether her husband has survived the bombing of his ship. We see Mary’s idyllic childhood summers at her grandparents’ country home, her school days and life at home in a London flat with her widowed bohemian dressmaker mother and actor uncle, her hilarious adventures at drama school and eventually travels to Paris, and all the misguided decisions, in love and all else, she makes along the way. It is a very funny and heartwarming book all at once, for Mary realises, looking back at her younger years, that perhaps they weren’t as perfect as they seemed, and that the grownups did a good job of hiding harsher aspects of reality from her. For most of the book, Mary is less concerned about making her own way in the world and more about filling in time before she meets Mr Right (who will of course be able to provide her with everything, hence not really needing skills or a career of her own as such). And yet by the time the book is nearly over, Mary has realised something else - that her husband is potentially now dead and she will have to carry on, independently. That she will only ever really have herself, and that she doesn’t need anyone else to complete her. Quite a revolutionary thought for 1940! '‘When you were born, you were given a trust of individuality that you were bound to preserve. It was precious. The things that happened in your life, however closely connected with other people, developed and strengthened that individuality. You became a person. Nothing that ever happens in life can take away the fact that I am me. So I have to go on being me.”

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson (Persephone no. 21)

I read somewhere that this book is the closest thing to a Fred Astaire film in print, and I think that’s very accurate. Every time you think it can’t get any crazier, it does. It’s a rollicking romp of a book that is so much fun to read. On an ordinary day, the nearly destitute governess Miss Pettigrew, who has never really known a day of fun in her whole life, is sent by an employment agency to interview for a post….to the wrong address. She somehow gets drawn in to the highly dramatic, hilarious and scandalous antics of her would-be employer, Miss La Fosse, and finds herself doing, saying and experiencing things she never thought she would. There’s cocaine, nightclubs, a woman with a few men on the go…racy stuff! The dialogue is so witty and well-written, I read a lot of it out loud to myself (at home!) and plan to ask my grandmother if she’d like me to read it aloud to her when I’m next at home, because I think she’ll love it. Another ‘hot water bottle’ novel, for sure. It’s just fantastic, and proof that just one day is all you need for your life to completely change!

Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E Stevenson (Persephone no. 81)

I loved this one too! A bit like Miss Pettigrew, without the financial security of marriage, Miss Buncle finds herself needing to supplement her already meagre income. She does what many people think will bring certain fame and fortune - write and publish a book! She writes a novel based on her village and all the people who live in it, thinking that changing names and writing it under a pseudonym will be sufficient to hide their true identities. To her huge surprise, her book (or John Smith’s book!) is a huge bestseller and her publisher wants a sequel, but lo and behold, all the villagers have read it, recognise themselves and their village immediately (which says it all, as some of it isn’t flattering!), are outraged and determined to find out who ‘John Smith’ is and make ‘him’ pay. No one suspects the dowdy and quiet Miss Buncle for a second, which is where all the hilarity ensues - but also makes an interesting observation that people often do have hidden lives and assumptions we make about others can so very often be wrong. It’s absorbing, intelligent and very charming.

Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll (Persephone no.30)

If you love cookbooks and social history, you will love this. I was quite surprised to learn that ingredients like camembert and parmesan were available in England in 1921 - I guess one needed to know where to go! I don’t know what it is about food writing, but the best of it recalls a time and place just perfectly. And this book does this beautifully, every essay and recipe evokes a bygone era of gracious living where, if you could afford to (most of the recipes assume the reader has a cook and hired help of some kind!), every meal could be quite indulgent. And Jekyll’s turn of phrase is quite exquisite - instructions for baking biscuits, for example, "they should be of a deep cream colour, merging along their edges into the delicate brown of faded magnolias" had me in raptures. 

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So I hope these suggestions might inspire you to give Persephone Books a try, if you haven’t already. I must say when it comes to fiction these days, I am finding myself drawn more and more to the past, to women writers of the nineteenth and early to mid twentieth century. It might be a reflection of where my head is at in terms of writing my own novel (set in 1948) or perhaps because I find them comforting and a much-needed escape. Reading about the world I currently inhabit (modern day London) isn’t all that relaxing! There’s another blog post in that, for sure….

 The Persephone Bookshop in Lamb’s Conduit Street, London.

The Persephone Bookshop in Lamb’s Conduit Street, London.

But back to the topic at hand, I have to say I have never been disappointed with a Persephone book. Hand on heart, I have enjoyed every single one I have read. I’m sure if you’re tempted to check out the catalogue, there’ll be something there for you!

On my next visit, I plan to add The Fortnight in September, The Home-Maker and High Wages to my collection. What about you?

Are you a fan of Persephone Books too? What are your favourites?

 

at first i was afraid, i was petrified

 The great Gloria Gaynor ( image source )

The great Gloria Gaynor (image source)

It was November 2015, and The Latte Years had just gone to print. Contrary to what I had expected, that moment and the days and weeks that followed it, leading up to publication, were not full of excitement - though, naturally, I was excited too - but they were also full of dread, dread that seeped into my bones.

My anxiety went into overdrive and it was exhausting. I had permanent nausea for a month, so much so I bought a pregnancy test to make sure it wasn't for some other reason! I spent a lot of time in the bathroom. I felt so frightened and exposed. The book had gone to print. I couldn't change my mind now. I had kept my shield up for so many years and finally, it had been put down. The moment I'd been waiting for, to have my say, at last, was here and I felt too frightened and too weak to see it through. 

In the midst of this, Tom took me to see Jason Donovan in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert the musical in Wimbledon.

They sing Gloria Gaynor's disco classic ‘I Will Survive’ quite a few times during the show.

About five months after my first husband and I broke up, I went to a seventies disco party where there was a karaoke machine. This felt like the perfect song choice for me at the time, and I meant every word of it as I sang it. Because Glenn really did think I was the one who had missed out - that I would indeed crumble without him. And I knew that was not the case at all. 

Sitting in that theatre in Wimbledon nearly ten years later, Tom's hand in mine, feeling homesick, terrified and proud all at once, hearing "I Will Survive" again reminded me of who I was in 2006, a 25-year-old who was discovering her own strength but still so afraid of the man who had hurt her, who felt she had to stay silent and not tell him the truth or stand up for herself because she was so deeply afraid he would destroy her and never set her free if she did.

I wrote The Latte Years for that 25-year-old girl. And for every woman who has had to wait until she felt safe before she could tell the truth.

what kind of heart does it take - an evening with alison jean lester

 She read. She sang (beautifully). She told us how her latest novel came to be. It was wonderful.

She read. She sang (beautifully). She told us how her latest novel came to be. It was wonderful.

On Thursday night at Daunt Books in Hampstead, I attended an author event by my friend Alison Jean Lester. We were greeted with shots of sake and Japanese rice crackers, and then the evening began, with an intimate and enthusiastic group of us gathered on a dark night in a gorgeous little bookshop. Alison is not only a very fine, observant and witty writer, she also used to work as a corporate communications coach so she knows how to work a room. I knew I was in for a fun evening!

sake-rice-crackers

Alison read an excerpt from her first novel Lillian on Life (one of my favourite reads of 2015) and then she sang us a Japanese folk song which she used to sing to her children, who were born in Japan. It was like a little meditation, the perfect bridge to the discussion of her latest novel, Yuki Means Happiness

A line from the song Alison sang was "what kind of heart does it take?" and she posed that as a question that fiction writers should ask themselves when starting the story they want to tell. What kind of heart does it take to endure/pursue what the story is asking? How will that heart be changed? Broken? Mended?

We talked a bit about the process of putting your real-life experiences into your fiction - something I am very familiar with (and didn't quite manage to pull off, hence why my book was a memoir in the end!). "The great thing about fiction is that you have control in a way you don't have in life," Alison said. "If someone fell under a train in real life, in fiction you can change that, you can save them. Or, you can let someone go under a train and save yourself!"

Alison also said she finds the whole "how autobiographical is this novel?" question that is often asked of women writers quite flattering - "because it means they think it really happened. It's a compliment to your writing." 

Ultimately, Alison advised us to "write about what haunts you". To ask questions of our characters that we might have asked of ourselves, once upon a time. To have a character take a path you did not. 

 Me and Alison, with her two brilliant novels. 

Me and Alison, with her two brilliant novels. 

I thought deeply about this on my train home. The character in my novel is in a very similar situation to the one I found myself in 12 years ago and what she is doing to save the marriage is something I never, not for a split second, entertained - trying to have a child in the hope that it will heal the rift between them. I have been struggling with the novel lately, fearful that everything is a bit two-dimensional. I have done so much reading, so much research, and I know what I want to say and who these people are - I just haven't found the right way in yet. I have the key but it hasn't fit in any of the locks I've tried. Is this a way into the story, I wonder, to imagine an alternative future for myself, a path I might well have taken had a few things been different?

It was such an inspiring and wonderful evening, and it pumped me up in a way I hadn't realised I needed. I must make an effort to go to things like this more often because when I do, I feel like I'm among peers, among friends. I feel seen, heard and understood, even when I say very little and just listen. Writers are my people. And you can't help but feel uplifted when you're with your people. 

I'm currently reading Yuki Means Happiness and it's marvellous (as I thought it would be!). If you enjoy thoughtful and funny writing that makes you think about life, I highly recommend seeking out Alison's books!

deeds not words

 Image originally found via  Old London (@GreatestCapital) on Twitter .

Image originally found via Old London (@GreatestCapital) on Twitter.

This photo is of one of my favourite suffragettes - if one is allowed to have favourites - Emmeline Pethick Lawrence on her release from Holloway Prison in 1908.

Emmeline did amazing work for underprivileged women, founding a dressmaking cooperative that paid women a minimum wage and holiday pay. When she and her husband Frederick were married, they double-barrelled their surnames and had separate bank accounts. Frederick was also a huge supporter of women’s suffrage, helping Emmeline start a publication “Votes for Women” in 1907 and he even went to prison too for conspiracy/taking part in demonstrations. They favoured “militancy without violence” which led to huge disagreements with the Pankhursts and eventually Emmeline and Frederick were thrown out of the Women’s Social and Political Union. But they didn’t give up the fight and spent the rest of their lives campaigning for social justice.

Today on International Women's Day I am proud to acknowledge the passion, sacrifice and courage of Emmeline and so many women like her who fought so hard for equality (and she deserves just as much acknowledgement as the more famous Emmeline in my opinion!). We still have a long way to go but there is so much to thank these brave radical women for. Keep fighting, keep reaching. Today and every day.

white heart: my stella spark

white heart

A Stella Spark is the book by an Australian woman that struck a spark for you, igniting ideas, creativity and a passion for great writing.

That book for me is the novel White Heart by Heather Rose.

A year ago, whenever I mentioned Heather Rose as one of my favourite writers, I'd get a blank or curious look in return. Now, thanks to her most recent (and brilliant) novel winning last year's Stella Prize, her work has been getting some long overdue and much-deserved attention in Australia. I'm thrilled to hear it. I've been a Heather devotee since White Heart, her first novel.

It came out in 1999 and I read it in 2000, when I was 19. I have re-read every year since. I believe it's sadly no longer in print, which makes it all the more precious to me.

It’s a novel about a woman named Farley who grows up in Tasmania and who, in the face of a devastating loss (though we don’t realise exactly what this loss was until near the end), goes searching elsewhere - overseas and mainland Australia - for meaning, wholeness and love. 
It was one of the most beautifully written books I’d ever read and it still is. It was quiet in its beauty though, if that makes sense. It contained a wildness and a fiery spirit, yet was so gentle.

It sounds trite to say ‘it changed my life’ but it did. Before White Heart, the only glimpses of Tasmania I'd really seen in the literature I'd read was of a gothic, wild and quite oppressive place, but this novel had snapshots of the Tasmania that I actually knew and could relate to, as well as capturing its darker side. It made me realise that I could write about the Tasmania I knew as well.

It was also thanks to discovering White Heart that I started noticing other amazing Tasmanian women writers who had been somewhat unknown to me up to that point, and it opened up a completely new world for me. 

But in terms of actually changing my life…well, *I* had to do that. I was 19 when I first read White Heart and if you’ve read my own book, you’ll know that at that age, I really lost my way. It took a while for me to find my path. But it did spark something. 

And remembering that has reminded me, like Farley in White Heart, I too had to go on a soul-searching journey to heal and find my true self.

I love everything Heather Rose has ever written but I always, always come back to this one. If you ever see a copy, get it! You won’t regret it.

What's your Stella Spark?