By October 29, 2008 1 Comments Read More →

Persephone Books: Dovegray Reprints


As soon as the book was handed to me by a bookseller, I was in love. It had a luscious painting on the cover, and was otherwise gray. I found myself holding a beautifully constructed paperback, with wallpaper from the era of the original printing of the book on endpages. It was just what I was looking for.

It was a copy of Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance, originally published in 1953, reprinted by Persephone Books in London.

I am relatively late in discovering Persephone, as is evidenced by a couple of Bookslut posts here and here. And this Stuck in a Book blog post.

Now I feel as if I have stumbled upon a huge treat, and I can’t wait to get my hands on more of Persephone’s dovegray reprints. Persephone Books is dedicated to reprinting “forgotten twentieth century novels, short stories, cookery books and memoirs by (mostly) women writers.” Persephone Books’ reprints are for “the discerning reader who prefers books that are neither too literary nor too commerical, and are guaranteed to be readable, thought-provoking and impossible to forget.”

That, my dears, is quite the mission statement. Persephone Books is the brainchild of publisher Nicola Beauman. Her book, A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-39, originally published by Virago Press, explores the writings of many of the authors Persephone Books now republishes.

What makes me so smitten? These are authors who deserve to be rediscovered, celebrated and discussed.

Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance blew me away. Its simple premise, the dissolution of a marriage, is drawn in a subtle, skillful way. Whipple draws you into post-War rural England with an artist’s hand, taking you into the lives of the North family with deft, compassionate insight.

The principal characters are Avery and Ellen North. Avery works in London at a publishing house, and his wife, Ellen, a woman happily consumed with the daily tasks of keeping house. Ellen has little interest in entertaining or attending the literary events at Avery’s work. Even though it might be her duty as a publisher’s wife, she soon realized that “she didn’t look important and nobody wondered who she was,” and decided she was not missed.

Avery and Ellen and their two children lead an idyllic life. It is to all eyes a charmed family. But everything changes when Old Mrs. North, Avery’s demanding mother, hires a French girl, Louise, as a companion and language coach. Louise is a fine piece of work, a girl smarting from an affair to a man in a higher social class in her hometown, who is hellbent on exacting her revenge–success. One Louise sets her sights on Avery, things get complicated.

Whipple explores family relationships, human motives and happiness with the kind of compassion and finesse that you don’t see nearly as readily in contemporary fiction.

I should mention that Persephone Books may not be easy to find. Some of them are available in America, but others you will have to order. If your book group is looking for some forgotten classics, it is well worth the hunt.

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About the Author:

Misha Stone is a readers' advisory librarian with The Seattle Public Library. Follow her on Twitter at @ahsimlibrarian.

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