Somehow, despite going to an all women’s college, the first time I heard of Persephone Books was at a talk at St Edmunds. Currently situated in Lamb’s Conduit Street, London, the publishing house was founded by Nicola Beauman, as she realised that the narrow – and male-heavy – reading lists she had had while reading English at Newnham simply did not represent the true breadth of English literature. 22 years and 139 titles later, it would be difficult to say that she was proved wrong. I spoke to Beauman over the phone a few days after the event, and we discussed the importance of a company like Persephone in the current climate, where hashtags like #publishingpaidme and #workinpublishing are revealing the biases – and opportunities – in the world of book production.

“Alas, while things have improved from Beauman’s time at university... there remains a sad lack of people looking to do their PhD on Dorothy Whipple.”

Persephone Books has a very specific focus – not just writing by women, but books focused on the world of women, particularly at the beginning of the 20th century; for Beauman, whether it was a growing access to education, or the experience of returning to the home after being so vital in the war effort, the interwar years were an “extraordinary period for women’s writing.” She has even written a book about it, available alongside the writers she admires so much at Persephone Books. Yet while some might expect this specificity to be constricting, for Beauman it provides a whole world of opportunity. They even publish a few books by men, so long as they are still writing on the experience of the domestic, in a way that is relevant to the experience of being a woman. E.M. Forster is Beauman’s favourite writer: as she says “We are not obsessed with women [exclusively], but we are obsessed with the domestic, with what you might call women’s issues, and in that way writers like Forster write about them very much.”

And it isn’t a “cozy little reading group” either. Although she would describe her books as carefully “middle-brow”, she refutes the idea that this means the shop is anything like the “cozy, teatime, holding my tea cup with my little finger crooked” sort of femininity. To Beauman, a focus on the domestic does not preclude the possibility of adventure for the protagonists, nor that that their readers are exclusively stay-at-home mothers: as she says, the grey cover is simply a promise to each reader that the book within will be a quality read, however that reading may fit into your schedule.

For Persephone Books, though bringing people entertainment through the words of ‘forgotten’ writers is their main aim, lifting these writers out of their undeserved obscurity is also vitally important. Beauman expresses her belief that “everything starts from academics”. In the world of literature, they are the ones who chose the canon, and if they could get themselves out of the “rut” they have been in for years, people might change their opinion towards female writers on a meaningful level. Alas, while things have improved from Beauman’s time at university, when you were not even allowed to study Virginia Woolf, there remains a sad lack of people looking to do their PhD on Dorothy Whipple. At the University of Cambridge, reading lists remain male-dominated; as a medievalist, I somehow have more women on my reading lists than many of my friends studying the 20th century, something which Beauman finds fascinating.


Mountain View

The Spirit of Shakespeare & Company

Beauman makes no bones about how physically demanding running a bookshop can be. As she says “people think we sit around discussing which endpaper to choose or which book we’re going to do in 2 years time, that we have editorial meetings discussing this, that and the other. The truth is most of the time we are discussing how to fix the franking machine and which type of padded envelope to use.” Of course, in lockdown, the issue of envelopes has only become more important for the company which started as a mail-order business. When we spoke, Persephone had received 100 new orders in a day, quite a lot for a shop with two members of staff present at any one time. Despite the extra distance, Persephone Books seem to have built a very strong group of readers around them, and not just because of their incredibly Instagram-able shopfront. As Beauman says, although it had never really been intentional, they have built a good community thanks to the way people identified with their writers and the values that they held – for “the books are really about values”. She uses the example of Dorothy Whipple, who “is not political in the way we normally mean, but she says so much about values, and the importance of goodness and kindness,” that people feel drawn in in a truly pleasant way.

Though she does say a few times that they feel they ought to be doing more online content in these innovative days (she mentions the shop Instagram and Twitter, as well as the power of podcasting several times), the shop’s online presence, with daily posts and regular letters, feels very comforting in these tumultuous times. Indeed, the interview ends because the new puppy, whose arrival you can keep up with in the shop’s monthly letter, needs a bath; despite the lockdown, you can tell that there is still plenty happening at Persephone Books to keep everyone entertained.