[This book review was first posted on Story Circle Book Reviews.]
The Persephone Book of Short Stories was published to celebrate the 100th title in the Persephone Press canon. An independent publisher, Persephone Books specializes in re-printing the largely forgotten and neglected fiction and non-fiction works of women who wrote through the middle 20th century years. Perceived and marketed as “middlebrow” fiction, each book in the series is carefully chosen to offer a fresh and new perspective on themes of particular interest to women readers. Their books are neither so “high-brow” as to be deemed “literary,” nor are they what might be termed “commercial” writing, a sometimes pejorative label applied accusingly to books deemed to belong to the “chick lit” or similar category.
The Persephone Book of Short Stories covers a wider range of writing stretching from the year 1909 up as far as 1986. This handsome volume comprises thirty short stories, including the works of well-known authors such as Katherine Mansfield, Irene Nemirovsky, Dorothy Parker, Edith Wharton, and Penelope Fitzgerald. A works of a host of other lesser known women writers are also to be found within its pages, beautifully bound in Persephone’s distinctive dove grey jackets, the “fabric” end papers taken from roller-printed and screen printed cottons representative of the decades marking the earliest and latest stories in the volume.
These stories all share something in common—they focus on the quiet, quotidian lives and events which mark a woman’s life. Essentially each of these writers describes a very ordinary life, steeped in domesticity and so-called normal daily living, the details of which are mostly forgotten. But not by these authors. Perhaps their greatest achievement is just this: to recall to mind and imagination features of times past, whose circumstances still resonate in the lives of contemporary women, albeit in the tones of the times when they were first written.
In fact, what struck this reader was the surprising relevance of many of these tales to modern life. From wearied and harassed mothers to fed-up wives and abandoned lovers, this volume covers the gamut of female relationships. Indeed, the cohesive threads which binds and gathers these stories together are the very relationships which, even now in the 21st century, still tend to demarcate much of the lived experiences particular to women. As a woman, I could identify with the humiliating and demeaning ordeal the author Georgina Hammick described in her story “A Few Problems in the Day Case Unit” (1986), when her ankles were strapped up, and her legs stretched outwards, like a crucified figure hanging upside down, her most private parts open to the scrutiny of a bevy of male medical students.
Following the publisher, Nicola Beaumam’s, advice to “compare and contrast,” I next turned to Susan Glaspell’s “From A to Z” (1909), a penetrating glimpse into the nature of altruistic love, a chastened and chastening emotion which evokes a kind of tender pain leading in time to a “blind, passionate desire” to watch over the beloved’s well-being. Previous interests and minor dalliances can be as nothing when held up against a canvas such as this love greater than all loves. Our hearts ache for the heroine as she watches “a panting human soul sobbingly fluttering down into something from which it had spent all its force in trying to rise….a mist which she could neither account for nor banish was dimming the clear hazel of her eyes.” Unanswered questions are scattered through this tale, musings mostly about what it means to love, to not love, to live a life chosen for oneself, or subjected to the will of another.
But not all the stories describe scenes from a daily life. Some, even after so many years, still send shock waves through the reader. Take, for instance, Norah Hoult’s “Nine Years is a Long Time” (1938), a tale of prostitution with a twist. Or, even more shocking, try Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (1948) for size, and see whether you don’t need to sit a while to recover. Short stories can serve as thunderbolts from the blue, blasting pre-conceived ideas and most especially, nostalgic reminiscences viewed through rose-tinted lens, into smithereens at the reader’s feet. They seem so small, innocuous, innocent almost, when first you pick them up, unaware of the grenade hidden in the white spaces between the words. Beauman is to be applauded for including these subversive stories in her collection as a reminder that in so many ways, we 21st century readers are not so different after all, from our former female compatriots.
As a publisher of books written “by women, for women and about women” (from their website) Persephone Books shares much in common with Story Circle Network. Indeed many of the books in their canon are memoirs and non-fiction titles. As portals into the lives of women living in England from early to late 20th century, these books are an invaluable resource for those of us interested in finding out more about how our foremothers lived, what our fore-sisters thought, and the dreams and desires our fore-grandmothers yearned to behold, not just for themselves alone, but for their daughters and granddaughters too. I cannot imagine a more pleasant way of whiling away an afternoon than sitting in a sofa curled up with a collection of women writers such as are found within the pages of The Persephone Book of Short Stories.