Last word for the lady oracles

Long before the Atwood era, women novelists explored hidden lives. Nicola Beauman is reviving them
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The Independent Culture

Compared with the glass and steel palaces in which you find most publishers these days, the Clerkenwell premises of Persephone Books seem reassuringly old-fashioned. Nicola Beauman and her one member of staff, Jamilah Ahmed, work in a former sweatshop, which is comfortably appointed but not exactly designer-styled. The office furniture is mostly second-hand and includes an old mangle ("our feminist statement") and a kitchen table bequeathed by Mollie Panter-Downes, whose volume of wartime New Yorker stories, Good Evening, Mrs Craven has become one of Persephone's most successful books. Cardboard boxes full of Persephone titles are stacked on the floor and every surface is covered with books, proofs, press cuttings and wrapping paper.

Compared with the glass and steel palaces in which you find most publishers these days, the Clerkenwell premises of Persephone Books seem reassuringly old-fashioned. Nicola Beauman and her one member of staff, Jamilah Ahmed, work in a former sweatshop, which is comfortably appointed but not exactly designer-styled. The office furniture is mostly second-hand and includes an old mangle ("our feminist statement") and a kitchen table bequeathed by Mollie Panter-Downes, whose volume of wartime New Yorker stories, Good Evening, Mrs Craven has become one of Persephone's most successful books. Cardboard boxes full of Persephone titles are stacked on the floor and every surface is covered with books, proofs, press cuttings and wrapping paper.

Founding a reprint publisher which operates largely as a book club at a time when supermarket shelves are piled high with "Chick Lit" and keyboards across the land are rattling off orders to Amazon.com may strike some people as eccentric. Beauman is in fact very level-headed, and her mission to rescue writers she admires from undeserved oblivion is beginning to pay off.

She set up Persephone principally for women readers, "without being too overtly 'feminist'". She knows all about what she calls "realistic feminism", having pursued a successful career as a critic and biographer while bringing up five children. As well as running the company, she is also working on a biography of Elizabeth Taylor, one of the very best writers (male or female) of the last century, and one who was persistently undervalued by (mostly male) critics simply because her principal subject matter was the lives of middle-class women.

Persephone grew out of A Very Great Profession (1983), Beauman's absorbing account of "The Woman's Novel 1914-39". This book convincingly argued that novels of "ordinary" middle-class life were not only much more interesting than people supposed but also provided a fascinating social history. It was published by Virago, and although their Modern Classics list included several of the novelists about whom she had written, Beauman could not persuade them to reissue anything by Dorothy Whipple (1893-1966), once dubbed "a North-Country Jane Austen" but subsequently forgotten.

Whipple was a firm favourite with the Book Society, which ran from 1929 until 1946 and has provided Beauman with a model for her own company. Persephone publishes two or three titles every quarter. They can be ordered direct from the publisher and are despatched on the day the order is received. Readers are sent, free, the Persephone Quarterly, a beautifully produced newsletter with articles and short stories as well as details of forthcoming titles and profiles of authors. They are also invited to attend lunches and teas, where talks are given and books are discussed.

"We must be the most hands-on publisher in the business," says Beauman cheerfully, surveying her office. "For instance, we don't need to stock-take because we know precisely how many titles each of these boxes contains, and we pack up and send off each order ourselves. We also know exactly what our readers think about the books we publish because they write us notes, ring us up, or post things on our website. I see us as the small corner shop rather than a supermarket."

It is, nevertheless, a classy business. "I'm afraid I'm one of those people who is very conscious of how things look," Beauman confesses - and it shows. Persephone's uniform silver dustjackets have a cream title "label" printed on them, and the endpapers and bookmarks reproduce fabrics appropriate to each book. Marghanita Laski's terrifying time-slip novel, The Victorian Chaise-Longue (1953), even has two different endpapers, one from the 1950s and one from the 1860s, and this is characteristic of Beauman's attention to detail.

The list itself is wonderfully eclectic and along with novels and short stories includes diaries, biography, social history, poetry and a 1932 English cookery book, all of them republished with new prefaces or postscripts. Beauman had her own private wish-list of books she longed to see back in print, and three became her first titles in March 1999: Cicely Hamilton's William - An Englishman (1919), Monica Dickens's Mariana (1940), and Dorothy Whipple's Someone at a Distance (1953).

This month Persephone publishes its 21st and 22nd titles: Winifred Watson's Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (1938), a comic novel about a governess sent in error to work for a louche actress, and Consider the Years (1946), a collection of witty and touching poetry by Virginia Graham, a friend of Joyce Grenfell.

The core of the business remains fiction. Beauman rather unfashionably believes in the concept of "the woman's novel". Such books, she says, "generally have little action and less histrionics - they are about the 'drama of the undramatic', the steadfast dailiness of a life that brings its own rewards, the intensity of the emotions and, above all, the importance of human relationships". Many women will pooh-pooh this notion, but the first issue of the Persephone Quarterly reprinted an article by the feminist journalist Nicci Gerard, in which she was obliged to concede, almost against her better instincts, that "men and women read differently": in essence, men for information, women for narrative.

Whether this is true hardly matters, since Beauman is more interested in good writing than ideology. She will shortly publish her second title by a man, Greenery Street (1925) by Denis Mackail, whom she describes briskly as "Angela Thirkell's brother - and a much better writer". She reckons that men make up around 15 per cent of her readership and this seems likely to increase, as it did for Virago, although there are still obstacles to overcome. Beauman instances Noel Streatfeild's Saplings (1945), a harrowing novel about the disintegration of a family in war. She has republished it with an admiring afterword by a male psychiatrist, but believes it will be difficult to get men to read the book because Streatfeild's name is always associated with Ballet Shoes, the children's classic that all their little sisters read.

Beauman's target is to double her current customer base of around 3,000. "Frankly, I think it's a miracle if one sells any books at all," she says. "The more choice people have, the less they know what to read, and so they end up reading best-sellers simply because they've heard of them." Her principal difficulty is letting readers know about her books, since as reprints they tend not to get reviewed. "I cannot understand why a book that has stood the test of time is regarded as less newsworthy than something just published for the first time that will be forgotten in six months," she says wearily.

The Quarterly is vital as a means of reaching potential customers and keeping them informed. "I borrowed money to start the company," Beauman says, "and I'm determined to make it profitable." Her definition of profitability is the moment she can afford to pay herself a salary. The publication next week of Persephone's first catalogue should make those who have not heard of this enterprising publishing house aware of what they have been missing, and should bring that moment closer.

Persephone Books is at 28 Great Sutton Street, London EC1V 0DS. Tel: 020 7253 5454; Fax: 020 7253 5656; www.persephonebooks.co.uk

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