Just Where it Should Be: Persephone Books and the Dream of the Competent Woman

When I walked into Persephone Books on Lamb’s Conduit Street in London, I had the disconcerting sensation that I was walking into my own ideal life, but someone else was living it.


Have you ever fantasized about opening up your own bookstore? It’s a dream I return to on a pretty regular basis. In my head, Amazon is not an issue and my brick-and-mortar store is quietly flourishing. I usually see it on the first floor of a discrete brownstone, with books stacked neatly on tables and in shelves and vases of fresh flowers scattered around—red tulips, maybe, in pitchers. Sometimes in my head I sell all kinds of books, but more often what I’m selling is books by women who have been unfairly ignored and overlooked and pushed out of print. Noel Strietfield’s adult novel, the one they made her rework into Ballet Shoes and sell to kids, or maybe poor, much-maligned Dorothy Whipple, who after all never deserved to be used so often as a symbol of the worst of British bourgeois popular writing. (“We had a limit known as the Whipple line, below which we would not sink,” Carmen Callil of Virago once wrote. “Dorothy Whipple was a popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s whose prose and content absolutely defeated us.” Poor Dorothy!)

In my daydream, I’ve found a way to get those books to the readers who would undoubtedly be clamoring for them if only they knew they existed, and even turn a profit, why not. (In fantasies, publishing obscure feminist literature can make you successful.) And the books are always beautiful—just as beautiful to look at as they are to read.

Persephone Books is doing all of that, and they are doing it better than any of us could.

The London shop is their only storefront, and it’s half-office, half-bookstore. In the back half of the room are intelligent, efficient women talking briskly into phones, filling orders and taking inventories. And in the front half are the books.

The books are all uniformly sized paperbacks, bound in elegant dove-gray and covered in dove-gray jackets. The paper is rich and creamy; the margins are generous; the endpapers are brightly and beautifully patterned. (Artfully, Persephone also makes glossy prints of the endpapers and sells them in their shop.) And they are wonderful, clever, funny, tragic books. Dorothy Whipple is there, and Noel Strietfield, too; also the forgotten adult novels of Frances Hodge Burnett, which have drifted out into obscurity despite the undying popularity of The Secret Garden and A Little Princess. There are the weird old cookery books of Agnes Jekyll, where she teaches you how to set lobster mousse in aspic and offers such fascinatingly unhelpful instructions as “Prepare a farce from veal or the best parts of the rabbit in the usual way.” There is a collection of short stories that are astonishing in their cool, ironic brilliance; the author, Frances Towers, was hailed as the Jane Austen of her generation when her anthology was published in 1949, but she died in 1948 and was rapidly forgotten. And more, and more, and more: 110 books in all and counting.

I walked out of the shop with only High Wages, Tea with Mr. Rochester, and The Making of a Marchioness and considered myself to have been a paragon of restraint and self-control. And as I luxuriated in High Wages, shaking my head at the sheer mud that has been thrown on Dorothy Whipple’s name, I realized that I was reading the Ur-text for my bookstore dream, for that longing that Persephone satisfies.

High Wages is one of those books about a sensible woman who starts a business—a dress shop, in her case—and is wildly successful. Most of the pleasure of the book comes from watching this exceedingly competent, capable woman organize her own life with such aplomb. When you read the description of our heroine Jane’s front window display, you are certain that every single detail of the business is handled with good taste and care.

Against the background of gray was an elegant white embroidered frock with a yellow necklace laid on it. Three equally elegant white embroidered blouses were disposed on the other side of the window; and just where it should be was a bowl of yellow globe flowers to point the colour of the necklace. Jane thought it discreet, fresh, and delicious, and feeling it impossible to behave like a sober shopkeeper if she looked at it any longer, she went inside.

Of course the flower bowl is just where it should be. This shop is run by a Competent Woman; where else would it be?

The business run by a Competent Woman is a favorite trope of mine (I will defend The Little Lady Agency with my dying breath), and it’s part of the joy of my bookstore dream. In the dream, I can put myself in the place of that smart, tasteful Competent Woman and imagine creating a smart, tasteful shop where everything is just as it should be. And that is the dream that Persephone Books realizes: it is a marvelous venture run by Competent Women with fastidious eyes for detail, and it is—to the surprise of everyone except the women who run the place—a smashing success. Looking at Persephone Books, you are absolutely positive that everything is just where it should be. In itself, Persephone Books embodies the spirit of the books it sells. It is its own story.

unnamedConstance Grady is a staff writer for You Know You Love Fashion and has been published on The Toast. Her YA novel reimagines the fairy tales of the Grimms and Perrault.

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