The Georgian houses and university buildings of London’s Bloomsbury are renowned amongst book lovers for their literary heritage.
In the early 1900s publishing houses rushed to open premises there, and the local pubs and lecture halls soon became known for their artist salons and lively student debates. Today, the streets are still lined with the likes of Faber & Faber and Thames & Hudson, whose offices sit alongside historic libraries and independent stores like Bookmarks: London’s most successful socialist bookshop and a favourite amongst local UCL students. And lest we forget the famous modernist circle The Bloomsbury Set, which boasted E.M Forster and Virginia Woolf as members. The group’s acclaimed ‘Thursday Evenings’ and ‘Friday Club’ gave WC1 a literary identity that has lasted over a hundred years.
It is fitting then, that in the heart of Bloomsbury resides a bookstore and publishing house that dedicates itself to reprinting neglected twentieth century female authors and texts. True to their geographical and intellectual heritage, Persephone Books recently published a selection of Virginia Woolf’s journal entries in A Writer’s Diary. Lyndall Gordon’s astute preface to the edition describes the selection as ‘the unseen drama of making, with its struggles and breakthroughs.’ And indeed, struggles and breakthroughs characterize the editorial choices of Persephone’s publishers. From the detailed contemporary fiction of Monica Dickens (granddaughter of Charles), to a series of wise and witty poems by Virginia Graham, every one of their hand picked authors were overlooked in their time or have been forgotten by ours.
“Every one of their hand picked authors were overlooked in their time or have been forgotten by ours.”
Persephone was founded in a room above a London pub in 1998 by Cambridge graduate Nicola Beauman, with the ambition of publishing a ‘handful of lost or out of print books every year.’ After the success of their 21st publication Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day—which became a Hollywood feature film—the team moved from their Clerkenwell basement to the Bloomsbury site and opened their very own bookshop amongst the boutiques and cafes of Lamb’s Conduit Street. Since then they’ve added another 99 books to their catalog, with more in the pipeline for 2017, including the magnificently named Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven.
With their growing popularity came a formidable list of preface writers like A.S Byatt, Diana Athill and Jacqueline Wilson. New formats emerged in the shape of ebooks and audiobooks, as well as discussion forums, reviews and a sell-out book club. Check out Nicola Beauman’s Editor’s letter for a shrewd feminist analysis on current affairs, as well as excellent book, play and event recommendations and reviews.
With the mainstream publishing industry bowing to market demands for so-called vlogger autobiographies and gift books about behaviourally-challenged cats, Persephone’s commitment to quality prose and a seriously good story should not be taken for granted.