Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Hats Off to Nicola Beauman and Persephone Books

I think of Nicola Beauman, the founder and owner of Persephone Books, as a treasure seeker who has struck it rich. Her own appraisal of women's literature in the first half of the 20th century A Very Great Profession tells the story of her immersion in the works of women novelists, mostly for women and mostly by British women, which, without her intervention in republishing them through her Persephone Books company, would be completely forgotten.

The fascinating question arose to Ms. Beauman: What were the housewifely ladies, such as the heroine of Noel Coward's Brief Encounter, reading when they were riding on the train to town for shopping? She surveys many of the books that they may have been reading--many of them bestsellers in their day--and how they shed light on the questions that were occupying women in the period of say, 1910 through to 1950. Reading these books is thus a fascinating study of our mothers and our grandmothers.

Not many of the authors whose writings are now again in print thanks to Persephone Books have books that are available in my (very good) local library. I have had to hunt them down in various used books sites online. But when I heard that Nicola Beauman, after several years in the business, was just beginning to think about paying a salary to herself, I have tried to patronize the more expensive option of buying Persephone Books.

The fact is that despite feminist efforts, often the books of women authors--unless they stick to masculine concerns, as most feminists do--are not appreciated in the longer term. Books that deal with family from the standpoint of the woman who tries to hold it together (We Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, for example) do not seem to hold their own to become classics.

These women won the Pulitzer Prize for the American novel in the years 1918 to 1947:
1921: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
1923: One of Ours by Willa Cather
1924: The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson
1925: So Big by Edna Ferber
1929: Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin
1931: Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes
1932: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
1934: Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller
1935: Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson
1937: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
1939: The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
1942: In This Our Life by Ellen Glasgow

Of these authors, I know only Edith Wharton, Willa Cather (but not this book), Edna Ferber, Pearl Buck, Margaret Mitchell, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Otherwise, I have no idea who these ladies are or what they wrote.

Then there is Susan Glaspell, author of the wonderful short story "Jury of Her Peers," who wrote plays that were considered on a par with those of Eugene O'Neill, plus eight novels, whose name is not found in the catalogue of my local library. Persephone Books is playing a role in resurrecting the work of this very astute American.

Therefore, as you are willing and able, I urge you to support Persephone Books. Ms. Beauman's fascinating catalogue is worth a read in itself to know about the stories we never would hear about otherwise. You can read more about Persephone books here and here. Happy reading to you!

P.S. I learned about Persephone Books from Jane Brocket, whose literary adventures I enjoy reading about.


ldeg said...

To be fair, only slightly more men won in those same years, and no more of them are household names (among readers at least) today -

1947 All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren (Harcourt)
1945 A Bell for Adano by John Hersey (Knopf)
1944 Journey in the Dark by Martin Flavin (Harper)
1943 Dragon's Teeth by Upton Sinclair (Viking)
1940 The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (Viking)
1938 The Late George Apley by John Phillips Marquand (Little)
1936 Honey in the Horn by Harold L. Davis (Harper)
1933 The Store by T. S. Stribling (Doubleday)
1930 Laughing Boy by Oliver Lafarge (Houghton)
1928 The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder (Boni)
1927 Early Autumn by Louis Bromfield (Stokes)
1926 Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis (Harcourt)
1922 Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington (Doubleday)
1919 The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington (Doubleday)
1918 His Family by Ernest Poole (Macmillan)

Pentimento said...

Wonderful! I stumbled upon her shop in Lamb's Conduit Road while in London a few years ago.

Linda said...

Dear Ideg,
Thanks for your comment. I think you have a point, although I do not mean to set up competition with men on this score. It is shocking to me though that someone like Susan Glaspell is unheard of and that her name is not in our county library. I checked on the male authors that you note; only 3 are not in our library. Of course, it is possible that books written in this era are considered dated and have been discarded by the library in the past. To me they hold a lot of interest in learning about the past and also reading good stories.