Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A "Possibly Persephone" of My Own, or, 20 Novels that Should Be in Print but Aren't

One of the things that's rather extraordinary about what Persephone Books has achieved is that so many people seem to fantasize about the titles they should publish. People (myself certainly included!) are always saying that Persephone should reprint this or that—so much so that they've hosted "Possibly Persephone" events, where folks can suggest and discuss titles they think Persephone might want to reprint.  It seems rather unique for a publisher to inspire that sort of interest, to have developed such a unique and cohesive publishing agenda that we start to apply Persephone's selection criteria to other books we read.  I mean, I really can't imagine, for example, someone saying, "Wow, this would really be a perfect title for Penguin!" or "This book has HarperCollins written all over it!" Can you?

So that's my little heartfelt ode to Persephone, because the idea for this post came quite a while back when I was reviewing a list of titles suggested at a Possibly Persephone event (two of the titles below were even included on the list).

All the same, though, the title of this post could be "Possibly Virago."  Or "Possibly Greyladies."  Or "Possibly Bloomsbury." Etc.  It could even be "Possibly HarperCollins," as far as I'm concerned.  "Possibly someone," is the main point here.

The post could also be called "Fantasy Publishing" because, in addition to fantasizing about what books Persephone should reprint, I do occasionally engage in a pleasurable reverie about bypassing the whole issue by launching my own publishing houseFurrowed Middlebrow Books, perhaps?  Hmmm.  

If only it weren't for all of the pesky work and expense that would be requiredand how that would cut into my reading and blogging time… 

[In fact, I might as well confess here that, before my obsession with unknown writers settled on mid-twentieth century British writers, I even took my fantasy publishing so far as to create a print-on-demand book of public domain short stories by American women writers.  It has even sold a handful of copies, though it was mostly for the fun of setting it all up—choosing the fonts and the layout and design, editing it, etc.  I like how it turned out, but whew! What a lot of work!  I certainly had newfound respect for small independent publishers after that experience.]

At any rate, following are the first titles I would choose if I could make my publishing fantasies a reality without any significant effort or investment.  The list contains only titles that I've read and really loved or found striking and worthwhile.  Only books I think other readers would enjoy too.  And of course, only titles that are currently (inexplicably, criminally, tragically, etc.) out-of-print. 

I haven't reviewed most of these here yet, but I've linked to those I have done.  And I should note that, with the exception of the first novel, which is my current obsession and therefore seems most criminally overlooked to me, the titles are in no particular order.

And on the topic of the first author mentioned below, Kristi from the DES discussion list just made the most amazing find on Ebay after my query of the group whether anyone knew about Ursula Orange: an actual photo of her and a fascinating, if short, tale about her rise to public attention (see text on photo below).  The photo comes from the archives of the Baltimore Sun newspaper (and it's still available here, or you can spend many hours browsing many, many more such pictures by visiting the Tribune Photo Archives store at Ebay here—I found a whole slew of other author photos, including several more impossibly obscure writers I never thought I'd find photos of).  It's lovely to be able to put a face with the name and the wonderful writing!


Hope you find some new titles on this list, and perhaps some old favorites too.  Please do feel free to add your own suggestions ("Possibly Furrowed Middlebrow"???) via comments or email.
  


1
URSULA ORANGE


This would be my very first selection of a book to reprint.  It's unfathomable that no one has reprinted it already.  Like a D. E. Stevenson novel diffused through an E. M. Delafield lens, in which a jaded London wife and mother is evacuated to a country village to stay with an old school friend, delves into the village's affairs, and learns a bit about herself and happiness in the process.  A fitting title for Persephone or Greyladies.

2
URSULA ORANGE


And while I'm at it, I've just finished this earlier Orange tale (the only other one I've tracked down so far).  It follows four young women who were together at Oxford and are now attempting to maintain their youthful, intellectual ideals while navigating the realities of jobs, relationships, independence, and the pursuit of happiness.  If at times Orange's debut novel reads a bit less like a novel than a case study—or a dramatization of part of Ruth Adam's brilliant history, A Woman's Place—it is no less fascinating and addictive (and even historically significant) for all that.  There are quotable perspectives on virtually every page.  Review to follow soon.


3
EDITH OLIVIER
The Seraphim Room (1932)


Of course.  If you've read the rest of this blog, you know of my undying love for Olivier, and this one (published in the U.S. as Mr. Chilvester's Daughters) is the ultimate achievement of her quirky brilliance.  Her earlier novel, The Love-Child (1927), is the only one to have been reprinted (by Virago in the 1980s, now long out-of-print again), but for me this is her best—a rather loony tale of a tyrannous father (almost certainly based on Olivier's own) and his campaign against indoor plumbing.  No kidding!  I started reviewing her novels in chronological order, and haven't gotten to this one because I keep getting distracted by new discoveries, but someday...

4 & 5
CELIA BUCKMASTER
Village Story (1951) & Family Ties (1952)


It started with a casual reference to Buckmaster in Nicola Beauman's The Other Elizabeth Taylor, continued with my obsessive search for details of the forgotten Buckmaster's life and work, and ended up with the only two novels she published finding a permanent place among my all-time favorites.  They are vivid, compassionate, sometimes funny, always powerful evocations of village life, and both should be more widely read.


6
MARGERY SHARP
The Stone of Chastity (1940)


I've enjoyed other of Margery Sharp's novels, many of which should undoubtedly be in print as well, but The Stone of Chastity is the silliest, daftest, and most laugh-out-loud joyful.  One of my top picks for a rainy day re-read, or a bad cold re-read, or just a bad day re-read, this is the story of a professor who thinks he's discovered an ancient stone in a village stream that's possessed of special powers—no impure woman can step on the stone without falling into the water.  Outraged sensibilities and outrageous antics result.

7
NORAH HOULT
House Under Mars (1946)


Out of my obsessive World War II home front reading a few years ago, this one stood out.  It's dark, it's cynical, it's a bit depressing, but it's also a brilliant character study, set in a boarding-house late in the war with mostly women tenants.  The women snip and snipe and sneak because the stresses and deprivations of wartime have left them exhausted and ready to claw for whatever advantage or happiness they can find.  Reminiscent of Patrick Hamilton's also-wonderful and similarly dark wartime novel The Slaves of Solitude (1947), House Under Mars lives up to Hoult's haunting earlier novel There Were No Windows (1944), already reprinted by Persephone—hint hint…


8
PAMELA FRANKAU
A Wreath for the Enemy (1954)


Admittedly, I'm surprised that most of the novels on this list aren't in print, but in this case I'm downright amazed that A Wreath for the Enemy isn't considered a classic and read in high schools alongside Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.  It's a gorgeous novel about a young girl’s life-altering experiences one summer in the bohemian Riviera hotel owned by her parents.  If anything, it's probably better than Salinger, and at the least would form a powerful antidote to Salinger's male angst.  Perfect for Persephone, but for that matter why (apart from the usual reasons, of course) is it not already a Penguin Modern Classic?


9
MARY BELL
Summer's Day (1951)


This one was actually reprinted by Greyladies a few years back (thankfully, or I might never have come across it at all), but it has lapsed back out of print again.  My only guess as to its continuing obscurity is that it sounds much lighter and fluffier than it really is.  Stories set in girls' schools seem to evoke, for better or worse, stories for schoolgirls.  This one is one of the former but not one of the latter.  It's an entertaining, hilarious, and nevertheless thoughtful and serious meditation on time and eternity, youth and aging, love and heartbreak, joy and melancholy.  Balancing hilarity and heartbreak is quite an accomplishment for any writer, and Summer's Day is now one of my favorite novels.  It's lent an extra air of mystery (and sadness) by the fact that no one knows who Mary Bell was.  [Happily, this is no longer the case.  See my subsequent post on Bell's real identity here.] Grab a used copy of the Greyladies edition before they're all snatched up!


10
DIANA TUTTON
Guard Your Daughters (1953)


(As I was finalizing this post, I stumbled across a mention of a possible reprint of this one by Hesperus Press set for March of next year.  It's about time!  The Hesperus website makes no mention of it, however, so I'm leaving it on my list for now.  If the reprint does happen, I'll be overjoyed to say, "1 down, 19 to go!")

I'm very late to the party here, as numerous bloggers have been recommending this novel for years, and Nicola Humble discusses it at some length in her classic critical text The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s (2001).  And yet it's still out-of-print, which I find so surprising I wonder if Tutton's heirs have been refusing permission—it's absence from bookstore shelves is otherwise inexplicable.  The novel is a bit Dodie Smith, a bit early Barbara Pym, and (more than it might first appear) a bit of the darker side of Ivy Compton-Burnett.  This tale of a family of sisters trying to meet men despite their mother's phobic dread of letting them into the real world is funny and fascinating, and its dark undercurrents only enhance its pleasures.


11
ROSE MACAULAY
The World My Wilderness (1950)


Another novel whose unavailability is genuinely shocking—I'm hoping it's just an oversight and Virago will be printing a new edition very soon.  For me, this is one of the great novels of the immediate postwar, about a seventeen-year-old girl’s difficulty in adjusting to bomb-ravaged London after years of working for the French underground.  It makes powerful and atmospheric use of the scarred ruins of London, and is a brilliant and sensitive precursor to later novels of teenage disillusionment and delinquency.  Also a perfect companion-piece for Rumer Godden's An Episode of Sparrows.  (And, honestly, if it does get reprinted, why not use the gorgeous original cover above?  At least, that's what Furrowed Middlebrow Books would do...)


12
SUSAN TWEEDSMUIR
Cousin Harriet (1957)


Set in the Victorian period and written in a typically Victorian, epistolary style, Cousin Harriet reads like a lost 19th century classic—undoubtedly too scandalous to be published in its time.  Following the difficulties of a smart, moral young woman living at home with her father as she tries to help a female cousin pregnant out of wedlock, the novel's style lends it a sense of immediacy and gives the reader a feeling of having glimpsed a reality hidden from public view.  Cousin Harriet was reprinted by Penguin not long after its first publication, but has been missing from bookstore shelves ever since.


13
D. E. STEVENSON
Bel Lamington (1961)


Some of Stevenson's works have been slowly returning to print recently (Persephone now publishes three, Bloomsbury one, Sourcebooks several, and Greyladies has brought to light more hitherto unknown and unpublished works, as well as her impossible-to-find debut, Peter West—and what could be a better testimonial to Stevenson's broad appeal than the array of publishers she's collected?!?!), but there are still many more worth reprinting—in particular, three more "Mrs. Tim" novels that continue from Mrs. Tim of the Regiment, reprinted by Bloomsbury.  But for this list I'm going with my most recent favorite, which the DES discussion list is just finishing—the tale of a shy girl, left alone after her father's death, making her way in a London office and making her getaway to the Scottish Highlands where she gets a new lease on life.  Charming and completely irresistible.

14
RACHEL FERGUSON


Author of the Virago (and now Bloomsbury) favorite The Brontës Went to Woolworth's (1931) and the wonderful Persephone reprint Alas, Poor Lady (1937), Ferguson still deserves more attention than she gets.  For me, A Footman for the Peacock rivals both of her more widely-read titles, and it has the advantage of combining the daft hilarity of Brontës with the outraged satire of Alas.  In a nutshell, it revolves around a cruelly mistreated medieval footman reincarnated as a Nazi-sympathizing peacock on the estate of a loathsome family of impoverished gentry in the early days of World War II.  Need I say more?  It's a brilliant skewering of snobbishness, entitlement, and casual indifference to the suffering of others.


15
DOROTHY EVELYN SMITH


A novel that appears to divide readers, Miss Plum and Miss Penny is one of my favorite discoveries of this year and was one of the titles suggested as "possible Persephone" a couple of years back. The tale of a spinster (Miss Penny) who rescues a young woman (Miss Plum) from suicide, only to find her life taken over by the manipulative Miss Plum, it's admittedly possessed of a rather dark, sarcastic sense of humor (for example: “I do not anticipate for one moment that Miss Plum has been murdered, though I should have some slight sympathy with her assassin if she had”). And the darkness is cloaked in what would otherwise be the perfect setting and situation for a perfectly light, cozy novel of village life, lending it a distinctly "uncozy" edge. But I found it to be quite perceptive about the darker side of character motivations as well as the ordinary side.  More importantly, no book has made me laugh harder this year.


16
RUBY FERGUSON
Apricot Sky (1952)


From an "uncozy" to a novel that—were there justice in the world—would be read by cozy fans everywhere.  A family comedy set in the Scottish countryside, Apricot Sky is the best approximation I've found of a D. E. Stevenson novel not written by Stevenson herself.  Ferguson's earlier novel, Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary (1937), is one of Persephone's best-loved titles (and one of mine as well).  This one seems like a perfect choice for Greyladies…


17
BRYHER (pseudonym of ANNIE WINNIFRED ELLERMAN)
Beowulf (1956)


Another favorite from my WWII home front reading, Beowulf is an excellent example of "Blitz lit."  Apparently including autobiographical elements of Bryher's and partner H.D. (Hilda Dolittle)'s lives during the war, the novel focuses on two women running a London tea shop—their tensions, their interactions with customers, friends, and staff, their difficulties with food supplies, and (of course) the little matter of falling bombs.  Not to mention one hideous statue of an English bulldog that forms a central symbol in the book.  Bryher, who also wrote historical fiction, has been overshadowed by Dolittle, but she was a talent in her own right (and had a fascinating life as well).

18
RUTH ADAM


Adam is certainly an underappreciated writer.  Apart from her masterful history of women's roles through much of the twentieth century, A Woman's Place 1910-1975—a must-read that's available from Persephone—only her second novel, I'm Not Complaining (1938), has ever been reprinted, by Virago in the 1980s.  Other of her works, such as There Needs No Ghost (1939), about Bloomsbury's reactions to the approach of war, or So Sweet a Changeling (1954), about adoption, have been completely neglected.  She also wrote fiction for girls, which you can read about here. But this one is my favorite so far—a comedy about a group of friends in the immediate postwar who decide to live communally in an old manor house.  It's hilarious, but the problems they encounter provide a vivid and still-relevant antidote to fantasies of Downton Abbey-esque lifestyles.

19
INEZ HOLDEN
Night Shift (1941)


One final wartime work.  With all the interest in the home front and women's roles in wartime, it's hard to believe this one hasn't come to light, but Holden—a talented novelist who worked from the 1920s until the 1950s—has dipped into serious obscurity, now mentioned more in relation to her friendships with George Orwell and Anthony Powell than for the quality of her work.  Night Shift is a short but powerful look at life in a wartime aircraft factory.  Episodic and even experimental in style, it focuses more on the overall mood and activity of the factory than on specific characters, but the effect is vivid and memorable. 


20
DODIE SMITH


And now for something completely different…  Dodie Smith is probably the most widely read author on this list, due to her authorship of The Hundred and One Dalmations (1956) and I Capture the Castle (1948), but her five later novels for adults have been seriously neglected.  That was partly rectified when Corsair heroically reprinted the first three last year, so that they're at least in print in the U.K.  But the final two remain unavailable and increasingly unaffordable to buy second-hand.  I still haven't tracked down Smith's final novel, The Girl from the Candle-lit Bath (1978), but I unearthed this one, her second to last, at a book sale a while back.  It has had mixed reviews online too, but I've been rather haunted by it ever since I finished it—it's hilarious and disturbing by turns, and even a bit edgy, but always entertaining.


[Note: I'll be taking a few days off from posting (and from work—yay!) to relax with Andy and enjoy our long Thanksgiving weekend.  But in the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving to those in the U.S. and ... well ... happy last weekend in November for the rest of you!]

23 comments:

  1. Oh, Scott, you've been holding out on us. Her Peers (and I immediately twigged to the source of the title). Why not have a link to it front and centre, or at least high and visible, on your blog?

    Meanwhile, all those Possibly FMs. Such a delectable selection. I'll keep my mind open for other ideas, as if you didn't have enough of your own.

    And I'll add here, just to be grumpy, what on earth is Sourcebooks up to, automatically republishing everything DES that Persephone has done? There are 40 other books to choose from. There.

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    1. Well, Her Peers was really just a kind of hobby, and since all the stories are available elsewhere and they're all American, I never thought it quite fit on this blog. But Susan Glaspell's "A Jury of Her Peers" is one of my favorites stories ever. You've read it?

      At least Sourcebooks is pushing on with The Four Graces next year, which I doubt Persephone will do. After that, let's hope for a couple of the other fan favorites (and while they're at it, they could do some Ursula Orange, perhaps?).

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    2. Many many years ago, my mom was in a theatre group, and they performed A Jury of Her Peers, (or Trifles). Mom was one of the two neighbours, who discovered the bird in the sewing basket (if I've got that detail right).

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    3. Yes, the bird in the sewing basket is right. The pivotal moment! If I'm getting the timing right, I think Trifles was the play and came first, then Glaspell turned it into a short story called A Jury of Her Peers. What fun for your mother to be in it. I would think that staged well it would be a very powerful play. Now I may have to re-read it!

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  2. Lovely post. Some very enticing titles there. Ursula Orange sounds especially interesting. I agree with Susan about Sourcebooks & DES. I've only recently discovered DES but would love to read more so why don't Sourcebooks reprint the Mrs Tim books or some of the others I see reviewed around the blogs? Thank goodness for Greyladies. Do you like Margaret Kennedy? I've just discovered that Vintage are reprinting 4 of her novels next year - Constant Nymph (which has been a VMC & may still be in print), Together & Apart, The Wild Swan & Ladies of Lyndon. Faber Finds have some others in print too but these will have much more attractive covers! Happy Thanksgiving & enjoy your break.

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    1. Thanks, Lyn! If you can't tell, I'm a bit obsessed with Ursula Orange at the moment--I've just gotten a third one of her novels and dived in last night. Re Kennedy, I'm ashamed to admit that I've only ever read Constant Nymph, but I do have four more on my shelves, I think (the to-read shelves are simply out of control!), so hopefully I'll get to more soon.

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  3. What a list! Apricot Sky sounds irresistible, though I'd happily read everything here that I haven't already come across. I'd love to find a publisher interested in reprinting plays; I think a lot of her fans would love Dodie Smith's plays, especially Dear Octopus. I'm really enjoyed Greyladies' reprintings of Susan Pleydell's books so hope they continue with those and, of course, I am desperate for someone, anyone, to reprint the bulk of D.E. Stevenson's work. But my greatest wish of all is that someone will one day collect and publish all of A.A. Milne's stories about The Rabbits. That would instantly become my favourite book.

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    1. Thanks, Claire! I've always meant to read more of Smith's plays. I think I've only read Call It a Day so far, but I did enjoy that a lot. I haven't read any of he Rabbits stories, but I went back to your review of The Day's Play and I downloaded that book, so I'll check it out when I have a chance. I have a feeling my list will get longer...

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    2. Such excitement here! The inter-library loan system has unearthed a copy of Apricot Sky and it's on its way to me now. I am so looking forward to reading it, thanks to you!

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    3. That's lovely, Claire! I think you'll really enjoy it. Ferguson's other work tends to be a bit uneven, I've found, but I really loved Apricot Sky. In fact, I think it's time for a re-read of it before long...

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  4. Margaret TomlinsonDecember 6, 2013 at 6:59 AM

    I so agree with your comment that Persephone Books should print My Cousin Harriet. I felt like suggesting it to them myself, but never got round to it, unfortunately. My copy is terrible and I would love a smart new one!!!

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    1. Thanks, Margaret. Yes, a little grey copy of Cousin Harriet with beautiful endpapers would be a big improvement on the ragged Penguin copy I have too. Here's hoping!

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  5. Have you tried E.H. Young? Her works are marvelous!

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    1. I'm embarrassed to say I haven't yet, Aidan, but I actually have two or three of them on my shelves, so I try to get to one soon!

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  6. I'm very late to the party, but what an enticing list! I long to read so many of them - the Rachel Ferguson sounds especially brilliant - but, of course, most of these are impossible to find. You've done exceptionally well to put together so strong a list - set up a publishing house, do!

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    1. Thanks, Simon. Oh, if only publishing didn't require time and money, believe me, I would dive in immediately! Hopefully, there will be a sequel to this list at some point. Meanwhile, I think the Ferguson does seem right up your alley. Edgy, funny, and a touch of the supernatural, a perfect combo.

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  7. Delighted to discover your blog - a lot of the books you mention were favourites of my mother but sadly her collection was dispersed when she died in the nineties. I shall start collecting them again after reading your delicious reviews. Thank you.

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    1. Hi, Selah. Thanks for your kind words, and welcome to the blog! I hope you'll chime in with comments often. I know, it's terrible to think of how many personal libraries, just jam-packed with books we'd love to get our hands on, were probably sold off cheaply just in the past decade or two. Who would have thought?

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  8. Just came across this marvellous list of yours. Guard your Daughters is the only one I have read. I recently read a lovely novel by Persephone published author Susan Glaspell called Ambrose Holt and family. I contacted Persephone about it but they told me Susan Glaspell doesn't sell well.
    http://heavenali.wordpress.com/2014/08/03/ambrose-holt-and-family-susan-glaspell-1931/

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    1. Thanks, Ali. I have always meant to explore Susan Glaspell more thoroughly--I have still only read "A Jury of Her Peers," which I love love love love love, if you haven't already figured that out. But I do have Fidelity waiting patiently on my Kindle and now I'll have to add Ambrose Holt and Family to the TBR list as well. So exciting when you come across a nearly forgotten writer that really speaks to you, isn't it?

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  9. Welcome back, Scott! Guess no one's more late to this party than I, but it's aged well & was quite interesting. Also loved reading the "Jury" short story, and must admit to being fascinated by your own collection. Good for you for getting out there, and coming back to keep us updated!!
    del
    curlsnskirls.wordpress.com

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  10. Frances Favell's Chelsea Concerto! i emailed Peresphone about it but have never heard back from them. Have you considered starting a Kickstarter (or similar) crowdfunding effort? it can work. I really really want to read this book!

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  11. great post
    I have to say that for me, most of the new releases of theses publishers are very disappointing, they dont really dig and look for gems and obscurity ... they just keep publishing obvious choices by the same authors
    here is a couple of choices from my fav
    no walls of jasper by Joanna Cannan ( I dont usually pick crime books but this one is unique )

    children in the wood by Naomi Royde-Smith ( madness and fantasy )

    for non british authors
    I am the fox by Winifred Van Etten
    the mandrake root by martha ostenso

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