We all like a book list don’t we – and so I have another one for you, a list of perfect Persephone reads.
My Libraything catalogue tells me I have 89 Persephone books, a mixture of fiction, non-fiction and short stories, 6 of them I still have to read. It never ceases to amaze me how Persephone books almost always hit the spot. Quality books, inside and out, they are always a treat to read.
Before I get to my top ten, special mention must go to: Miss Pettigrew who Lived for a Day, my first Persephone book and one of only two that I have read twice. I should also mention Dorothy Whipple and Marghanita Laski, two of my favourite Persephone writers though I have left their books off my list – I would still highly recommend all their works.
10. The Persephone book of short stories – A pleasingly thick book of short stories. The thirty stories in this wonderful collection were all written between 1909 and 1986 by a range of extraordinary writers – the list of which, would read like a who’s who of twentieth century women writers, Dorothy Whipple, Edith Wharton, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Shirley Jackson, Diana Athill, Penelope Fitzgerald and more.
9. Operation Heartbreak (1950) – Duff Cooper. A novel which surprised me – I hadn’t expected to be so moved. Willie Maryngton is a man with the heart and soul of a soldier. Born in 1900, he is just too young to fight in WW1 – having eventually received his commission, he is ready to go to France just as the armistice is signed – and too old for WW2.
8. Into the Whirlwind (1967) Eugenia Ginzburg – Tells the true story of the terror unleashed by Stalin during the 1930s, and it naturally doesn’t always make for comfortable reading, but it is a powerful and quite extraordinary book. in the 1930’s Ginzburg was a loyal communist party member, a university teacher and journalist. A wife and mother, living a life surrounded by people who thought as she did, Eugenia (Jenny) found herself caught up in Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937, accused on trumped up charges when her colleague Elvov at the university was charged with leading a counter-revolutionary group – a group that was totally fictitious. From 1934 when prominent party member kirov was assassinated Jenny suddenly found herself, suspected, watched and frequently questioned
7. Dimanche and other Stories (2000) – Irène Némirovsky. This collection was my introduction to Irène Némirovsky – and it was a wonderful experience, it is an exceptional little collection. Irène Némirovsky offers us glimpses of French bourgeois life in the years just before and during World War Two. They concern relationships, family life and the individual’s sense of themselves in the world around them.
6. Flush: a biography (1933) Virginia Woolf – Flush, is a complete joy, it is – for those who don’t know – is a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog, a cocker spaniel that was her constant companion, both before and after her marriage to Robert Browning. The book is a combination of fiction and non-fiction, through which we meet the two nineteenth century poets, revealing something of the early years of their marriage.
Although it appears so much lighter in tone than many of her other works, Flush does in fact consider social inequalities and the way that society treated and classified its women.
5. A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf (1953) Ed. Leonard Woolf. A Writer’s Diary really is a wonderful reading experience, Virginia Woolf seems to have been incapable of writing a poor sentence, though she was horribly hard on herself. From the first entry in this diary dated 1918 to the final entry – 1941 just three weeks before her death, we see something of her private inner world, from the books she was reading, the words she was herself writing to the people she encountered.
4. Vain Shadow – (1963) Jane Hervey Vain Shadow is a very autobiographical novel – certain characters so recognisable as themselves by members of her own family that Jane Hervey found herself on very bad terms with them after its publication. The story in Vain Shadow is simple enough – a wealthy family gather at their country estate in Derbyshire following the death of the patriarch. Over a period of four days they mourn him, arrange his funeral and read his will. It is a work of quiet brilliance.
3 The Happy Tree (1926) Rosalind Murray The Happy Tree opens with the death of a young man, and told in retrospect by a woman who is slightly astonished to find she is now forty. Our narrator, Helen Woodruffe remembers her childhood with her adored cousins Guy and Hugo in the years before the First World War. We then witness the emotional toll the war takes on Helen, as it necessarily takes or changes the people she loves.
2 Princes in the Land (1938) – Joanna Cannan A book I had overlooked for a long time, for years passing it by in favour of others. Sometimes, perfection is found in unexpected places. The novel is about family life and motherhood; Patricia Lindsay is a woman who in middle age as her children begin to make lives for themselves is left wondering what her life has been for. Patricia made sacrifices for her children, adapted her expectations of life, but what in the end, was it all for. It is an exquisite examination of family life that shows with brilliant honesty and some poignancy that parents can’t live their children’s lives for them, and however much it may distress them they must allow them to go their own way in the end.
1 Manja (1938) – Anna Gmeyner This really had to be at the top of my list. It is a book which has stayed with me, which surprised and moved me. Manja was inspired by a one paragraph newspaper report about the fate of a twelve-year-old girl in a German town.
The novel with its somewhat controversial beginning was well received at the time it first appeared written under a pseudonym. However, I think that reading it now – knowing what we do about what happened in Europe in the years after Anna Gmeyner was writing lends it a greater poignancy.
What about you, what are your perfect Persephone reads?