“A 1907 page-turner about American heiresses marrying impoverished, effete English aristocrats,” reads the description affixed to the shelf below The Shuttle. Obviously, I want to read it. And obviously, this is the work of Persephone Books.
You don’t need to go to their shop in London to read Persephone, of course. Their Web site lists all their titles, and many can be found at bookstores around the English-speaking world. Their catalog makes for good reading, too—and it’s lovely to look at, with the same attention to color and pattern that enlivens the flyleaves of the entire gray-jacketed Persephone library.
The company’s a testament to the wisdom of doing one thing well: in this case, publishing twentieth-century books, mostly by women, and many of them, in the company’s words, “neglected.” Often, they are superb hot water-bottle reading—but it would be a mistake to assume everything they do is cozy. Nicola Beauman founded Persephone in 1999, and in the years since, they have put out 117 books. As the Web site puts it,
Our books are also linked by the idea of “home,” though that doesn’t preclude their characters having a career or flying an aeroplane. Mostly, though, a grey Persephone cover is a guarantee of a good read. In fact, by far the most important criteria is that we only publish books that we completely, utterly love.
So, no, you certainly won’t need to visit Lamb’s Conduit Street to read Julia Strachey’s sharp, funny Cheerful Weather for the Wedding (originally championed by Virginia Woolf) or Agnes Jekyll’s exuberant Kitchen Essays or Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. But if you are in London, why wouldn’t you? Like the books themselves, the shop is pretty but unfussy—spare, and decorated with touches of Omega Workshop–style textile. It’s comfortable but not precious. Every book feels carefully chosen and if you are the right (or wrong, depending on how you think about it) sort of person, you will want to read everything.
Note, though, that you shouldn’t go between four and five. The following comes from the Persephone FAQ:
Do you really all stop for tea and cake every day at 4 o’clock?
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.