In 2009, after about three years of blogging, I discovered a whole world of (mainly British) book bloggers. As I poked around on those blogs and linked to other blogs that they recommended, I kept coming across posts about Persephone Books. I was intrigued by the almost universal, gushing praise they received as well as the publisher’s unique and largely uniform style. Regardless of content, these seemed like books I needed to possess. I soon began to understand why people loved them so much. Not only are they beautiful to look at, but I was delighted by the books they published: mainly middle brow, domestic fiction written by female British authors in the first half of the 20th century. There are exceptions to each of these characteristics, but I don’t think I’m too far off the mark in my generalization.
SHELF TWENTY: 34 books, 21 read, 13 unread, 62% completed
Bonham, Margaret – The Casino
Wasn’t a big fan of these stories.
Burnett, Frances Hodgson – The Shuttle (completed)
Who doesn’t love Hodgson’s The Secret Garden? And I certainly loved an old copy of T. Tembarom I found and of course the Persephone edition of The Making of a Marchioness, but something about The Shuttle made me like it a lot less than those other two FHB novels. Basically, The Shuttle is a fictional account of the rich American heiress marrying a penniless British aristocrat. And of course he is a spendthrift asshole. It was fun enough to read a bit shallow and not all that compelling.
Cambridge, Elizabeth – Hostages to Fortune
Cannon, Joanna – Princes in the Land (completed)
We follow Patricia Lindsay as she gets a lesson in marrying beneath her. She sacrifices much for her insecure husband and her ungrateful children. In a town and gown story as old as the academy itself, Patricia’s eldest gets the newsagent’s daughter preggers and marries her, much to his mother’s horror. The second son falls in love with his friend Peter–I mean with his friend Peter’s love of the Oxford Movement. This makes his high church, only on Sundays mother openly hostile. And then the daughter…what does she do that is so wrong…I don’t remember. Was it that she loved cars more than horses?
Cooper, Lettice – The New House (completed)
The whole action of the book takes place over the course of just one day as thirty-something Rhoda Powell and her widowed mother who are moving to a more modest house to conserve their limited financial resources. Although the surface action is all about the move, we learn so much more about all the characters through both their current thoughts and their memories of the past. Our heroine Rhoda is in a bit of a rut, one that threatens to last the rest of her life. Having not yet married or gone into any career, everyone, including Rhoda herself, assumes that she will continue to live quietly and take care of her mother. But things start to rattle around in Rhoda’s mind and we begin to see a glimmer of hope that Rhoda may rebel against her fate. More here.
Delafield, E.M. – Consequences
English, Isobel – Every Eye
Ferguson, Rachel – Alas, Poor Lady
Ferguson, Ruby – Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary (completed)
The Queen Mum was said to have been a great admirer of this novel. I did wonder as I read Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary if the QM suffered from a little cognitive dissonance when it comes to marrying for love. In Ferguson’s 1937 novel, the heroine marries for love and ends up old and impoverished. Now, the Queen Mum is said to have been a great admirer of this book. So why did she love this book? Was she clueless to the fact that her life-long grudge against the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson was similar to the class-induced opprobrium Lady Rose faced? Or, more sinisterly, did she relish the comeuppance Lady Rose got for marrying below her? If either of these is true I tend to think it is more the former than the latter. Or was she so caught up in this romantic paean to Scottish life that she couldn’t think clearly?
Fisher, Dorothy Canfield – The Home-maker (completed)
Really loved this book. Challenges traditional gender roles at a time when no one challenged them. More here.
Hart, Elizabeth Anna – The Runaway (completed)
This is a bit of children’s book and I must say I found it kind of boring, but I know others have found it charming. I hesitate getting rid of it because it has wonderful illustrations by Gwen Raverat.
Holme, Thea – The Carlyles at Home (completed)
There is lots of domestic minutiae for those of us that like that sort of thing. The Carlyles at Home is a primer on daily life in the mid-19th century. Almost a behind the scenes look at all those costume dramas we love to read and watch. Food (limited selection, always leading to indigestion), gardening (Jane liked flowers, Carlyle like fruits), home improvement (seemed to be constantly making changes to their home), finances (misers with unsteady but overall decent income), and servants (always hard to find and keep). More here.
Hughes, Mollie – A London Child of the 1870s
Laski, Marghanita – Little Boy Lost (completed)
Laski, Marghanita – To Bed with Grand Music
Laski, Marghanita – The Victorian Chaise-longue (completed)
I must say I find Laski a little overrated. I enjoyed reading Little Boy Lost, but didn’t think it was any great shakes. I had this to say about it in 2010: “I also found myself screaming (silently) at Hilary “For god sake man give the kid a sandwich–he can’t live on Raspberry soda thingies alone.” ”
I think need to re-read The Victorian Chaise-longue. It seems to get universal praise and is seen as a bit of a feminist classic. But I disagreed on both fronts in 2011. I wonder what I would think of it now.
Noble, Barbara – Doreen
Oliphant, Mrs. – The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow (completed)
Two enjoyable stories by an insanely prolific novelist.
Panter-Downes, Mollie – Minnie’s Room
Peck, Winifred – House-Bound (completed)
I had mixed feelings about this novel about a woman trying to keep her house going during WWII. More here.
Playfair, Jocelyn – A House in the Country (completed)
Based on my thoughts from 2011, I might think about getting rid of this one. “Parts of it were enjoyable, but overall I was bored and a little annoyed. I didn’t really care for the structure of the narrative and I had a hard time caring about any of the characters.”
Sherriff, R.C. – A Fortnight in September (completed)
Sherriff, R.C. – The Hopkins Manuscript (completed)
Two of my favorite Persephones and, in fact two of my favorite books of all time. The first is a gentle, insightful family drama, the second is cozy, apocalyptic, speculative fiction.
Todd, Barbara Euphan – Miss Ranskill Comes Home (completed)
I sound like a broken record this week, but I loved this book. Miss Ranskill is lost at sea in 1939 and winds up on a deserted island being cared for by a working class carpenter who is also stranded. The book begins four years into Miss Ranskill’s ordeal and we find her digging a grave for the recently departed carpenter. Not long after this opening scene she is rescued by a British convoy headed back to England. While convalescing on a destroyer Miss Ranskill learns that England has been at war for four years but nothing she learns on board prepares her for what she will encounter when she gets back to England. More here.
Towers, Frances – Tea with Mr. Rochester
Whipple, Dorothy – The Closed Door and Other Stories (completed)
Whipple, Dorothy – The Priory (completed)
Whipple, Dorothy – High Wages (completed)
Whipple, Dorothy – They Knew Mr. Knight (completed)
Whipple, Dorothy – They Were Sisters (completed)
Dorothy Whipple is the queen of the middlebrow. I love all of these in varying degrees. The only one I haven’t really loved was Someone at a Distance which I talked about last time. I might love The Closed Door and Other Stories the most. Our of the novels, They Were Sisters and The Priory are top faves.
Woolf, Leonard – The Wise Virgins
Woolf, Virginia – Flush: A Biography
NEXT TIME: O’Grady to Roberts