I’ve read quite a few Persephone Books over the last few years, and picked up several more without actually reading them yet. The distinctive grey jackets jump out at me from library and book sale shelves and tell me this is something that would probably be of interest. For anyone who hasn’t discovered this publisher yet, most of the books on their list are from the inter-war years – they have 93 titles in their catalogue, so far, and most but not all are by women. I have read founder Nicola Beauman’s book A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-39, published by Virago in 1983, which looks at books read by women like Laura, the heroine of the great film Brief Encounter, illuminating what their lives were like. Persephone Books really took off from that idea and made many of these books available again.
The reason I’m mentioning Persephone today is that I’ve just read and really liked two of their books, The Fortnight in September (1931) by RC Sherriff and The New House (1936) by Lettice Cooper. It was by chance that I read these straight after one another, but I realised they have a lot in common. Both books are set over a short period, Sherriff’s following a working-class London family on a fortnight’s holiday to Bognor and Cooper’s focusing on a single long day when a middle-class mother and her daughter move out of their large house in a northern town to a smaller one. Both are books where, on the face of it, very little happens, but a lot is told through the accumulation of small details of everyday life.
I often tend to be attracted by books where more melodramatic and larger-scale events happen, but both of these quieter tales drew me in nonetheless. I think Sherriff’s imagination is more visual, not surprisingly as he was a playwright. I found I could see his family on the train or the beach, or at their down-at-heel bed-and-breakfast hotel. His book is quite unusual in that it is about a happy family – the parents, Tom and Flossie, love each other – and it is a successful holiday, with many moments for the family to treasure all year. But there are still problems for each of them to wrestle with, as Flossie is secretly afraid of all kinds of minor hurdles such as the train journey, while Tom feels that his working life has been a disappointment.
There is also a feeling that the family’s summer journeys, and current way of life, are coming to an end, emphasised by the September setting, at the end of summer. Children Dick and Mary are growing up and have their own troubles, and probably won’t come with their parents for many more years. Meanwhile, their seaside landlady is desperately trying to keep up appearances, but her hotel is slowly falling apart and the visitors moving on to other resorts. The landlady has one weeping eye – caused by some undiagnosed illness, and symbolising the encroaching misery which she is determined to keep under the surface.
Lettice Cooper’s book is less visual than Sherriff’s and has more passages of discussion where the characters think about their lives and the world around them. Mother Natalie resents moving to a smaller house, even though she can’t afford to keep up the old one. She is bitter about her family’s large house being bought by developers and she wants to keep her unmarried daughter, Rhoda, living with her – but, in the course of the day, Rhoda starts to realise that she must make her escape now, or end up sacrificing her whole life to the family. The novel also looks at how the marriage of Rhoda’s brother, Maurice, to Evelyn is starting to deteriorate, not for any dramatic reason, no affair or violence… but through a build-up of minor issues. They each want to build their own household in an imitation of the one where they grew up, and turn their small daughter into a version of themselves.
There is quite a lot about social issues of the 1930s in this book, with Cooper’s socialist convictions coming across. The family’s grand old house has been bought by a developer and is being pulled down for a new estate where families from a slum clearance project can move. The characters react differently to this end of an era, and each individual’s feelings and thoughts also fluctuate through the book – at times I felt Cooper was going round in circles, but, then, that is just how our thoughts tend to go.
I would like to read more books by both these authors. An added attraction of the Persephone editions is that they always have interesting introductions – Sherriff’s tells how he went about writing the book, while Lettice Cooper’s has an introduction by Jilly Cooper reminiscing about the author, a relation of hers by marriage, and telling how the characters in the novel are based on real people.