My good friend Rachel shared an article about Persephone Books some time ago, and I was captivated by the notion of a publishing house dedicated to reviving forgotten modern classics by women. I asked Bookish Dark’s London correspondent, the redoubtable Bearby, if he could send me a sampling of their works. Good soul that he is, he promptly set out with my wish list of titles, located the charming little shop, and got a package en route almost immediately.
Persephone’s mission statement:
Persephone prints mainly neglected fiction and non-fiction by women, for women and about women. The titles are chosen to appeal to busy women who rarely have time to spend in ever-larger bookshops and who would like to have access to a list of books designed to be neither too literary nor too commercial. The books are guaranteed to be readable, thought-provoking and impossible to forget.
On the “Why Persephone” page of their website, they say they chose the name Persephone because “it has a timeless quality; sounds beautiful; is very obviously feminine; and symbolises new beginnings (and fertility) as well as female creativity.” I think they’re overlooking another potent bit of symbolism: each of the books they publish, like Persephone herself, has been raised up from oblivion and returned to the light of public awareness and appreciation.
I must say, there are few things that delight me more than a parcel of books from London (shades of 84 Charing Cross Road!) I first dove into Vere Hodgson’s marvelous (and massive) Few Eggs and No Oranges, a compilation of her wartime journals. These were not private diaries, but dispatches she circulated among her far-flung family during the war years. I have a deep fascination with WWII-era Britain, particularly with London during the Blitz, and this book satisfied it in a way no work of reminiscence or fiction could. The entries have an incomparable immediacy, as Vere sat down at the end of her work day before heading home (assuming an air raid wasn’t in progress, making travel impossible; she spent many a night on the couch at her office) and tapped out a few paragraphs to her family. The pages passed through six or seven hands before arriving at their final destination, a cousin in Rhodesia. As the title indicates, the concerns of daily life play a much larger role in the story than would be the case in a memoir written decades after the event. This is history written as it occurred, reflecting not the actions of the few and the great, but the concerns of everyday citizens caught up in world events. It’s a priceless piece of reporting, and the jewel of my Anglophilia collection; I’m endlessly grateful for the chain of events that brought it to my attention.
I have recently finished another Persephone title, one that illuminates another life that could have so easily been lost in the mists of time, if not for the power of the written word. (And here is Penelope Lively again, to remind us of the immortality-conferring powers of language!) I put Oriel Malet’s biography of Marjory Fleming on my Persephone Books request list for an obvious reason: I’m always looking for material to add to the Biographical Dictionary of Prominent Flemings that I keep in my head. There are just so many distinguished members of the extended Fleming clan: writers, artists, actors, athletes, scientists, even a Time Lord; perhaps I shall have to actually write the thing some day? (Note: I am unaware of any actual connection between my family and any of these illustrious folk. But that’s hardly a reason not to claim them!)
I had never heard of little Marjory, though, until I perused the Persephone Catalog—one more reason to be grateful for their dedication to overlooked classics! She was born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, in 1803, and would die there, of meningitis, less than nine years later; in between those events, she would manage leave her mark on Scottish literature.
From Marjory’s journals and letters between various family members, Oriel Malet constructed a fanciful and evocative portrait of a brilliant mind trapped in the body of a small child. Marjory’s intellectual maturity far outstripped her physical and emotional development, and this caused her quite a bit of difficulty when she was very small (the book opens with an imagined scene of Marjory at three years old, already running a bit wild and feeling intensely her place in the world.) When Marjory was five, the family hosted her cousin Isabel Keith for a lengthy stay; Isa, just seventeen herself, was enchanted with her bright little cousin and begged her aunt and uncle to let her take Marjory back to Edinburgh with her when she went home. She argued that Edinburgh had much more to offer a talented child than did rural Kirkcaldy: greater cultural and social opportunities, and Isa herself as a dedicated tutor to her small cousin. The Flemings agreed, and Marjory embarked on the adventure of her life (sadly, literally: the Edinburgh trip that should have been merely the first in a long life of adventures would be Marjory’s one great excursion into the wider world.)
Marjory lived with the Keiths, a wealthy and well-connected branch of the family, for 18 months, and she blossomed under her cousin’s tutelage. Morning lessons were leavened with afternoon visits to parks, museums, and shops; Isa’s circle of friends adopted Marjory as something of a pet, addressing her as an adult and including her on their social rounds. Marjory loved history and poetry, hated math, and above all, despised copy-book exercises. Isa, in a stroke of brilliance, offered Marjory a plain notebook and said she could write whatever was in her head to practice penmanship, rather than copy out the dull writing exercises, and thus was an author born. Marjory’s exercise notebooks quickly became her journal, and her legacy.
Malet’s book contains several excerpts of Marjory’s writing, including the entirety of her 205-line biographical poem on Mary, Queen of Scots.
She flew to England for protection
For Elisbeth was her connection
Elisbeth was quite cross & sour
She wished poor Mary in her power
Elisbeth said she would her keep
And in her kingdon she might sleep
But to a prison she was sent
Elisbeths hart did not relent
And this at six or seven years old! We are left to imagine the poems and novels we were denied by Marjory’s untimely, and all too common, death. It makes me wonder how much else we have lost, as bright minds flared into being and out again, without the chance to create the piece of art, literature, or history hidden within them. And it makes me all the gladder for the work Persephone Books is doing, reclaiming the works we do have from oblivion.