Byline: Report MARY GREENE
Once upon a time, Nicola Beauman set out to write a serious book about Silly Lady Novelists. What Nicola liked reading were middlebrow, middle-class, Middle England novels, the kind, she fondly imagined, that mid-century ladies, like Laura in Brief Encounter, borrowed on their weekly excursions to the town library.
Nicola's book took a long time to write because the Silly Lady Novelists were often out of print and hard to acquire. (Silly novels by lady novelists rarely introduce us into any other than very lofty and fashionable society, as George Eliot once said, tongue in cheek.) In those days, Nicola was a 20-something Islington housewife, with a growing family of small children, and didn't have the luxury of reading for hours in the British Library. Some titles she found for a shilling secondhand - but there was a long list of books that she could never get hold of.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of Persephone Books, the small publishing business Nicola set up - on a whim and a shoestring - to publish the kind of books that her mother's and grandmother's generations had enjoyed before they fell into oblivion. 'I knew there were amazing books out there,' she explains. 'So one day in 1998, I thought maybe I could reprint some. It wasn't a long-held ambition. I'd been writing a biography of the novelist Elizabeth Taylor and I'd run into difficulties - and my youngest child had gone to boarding school. I thought that I could have a new life. You're not too old, at 54, to have a new life. Running a business is huge fun, and not as difficult as you might think.'
Nicola now runs Persephone from what must be the prettiest bookshop in London, in a Georgian house in Bloomsbury, its window boxes planted with cheerful flowers. Her tiny, cluttered office was once the back parlour. The house used to be a grocer's shop in the days when Virginia Woolf lived around the corner, although Nicola agrees that anorexic Mrs Woolf was most unlikely ever to have popped in for a packet of biscuits. It is a building in which you are aware of women's lives lived before you. And in the basement kitchen, where books are stored today, generations of servant girls must have scrubbed and scoured away their anonymous lives.
'I had enormous hubris, I think,' says Nicola, cheerfully. 'The first year we did 12 titles, 5,000 copies of each, and I was quite surprised when they sold rather slowly.' The look and feel of the books add to the pleasure of reading them, their distinctive dove-grey covers opening to reveal endpapers inspired by contemporary fabrics: a wartime Jacqmar silk scarf, belonging to a reader, for a book about evacuees, or curtain material that Nicola remembers buying for her bedroom in the 1950s, when she was 14, and her mother sent her off on the bus to John Lewis. This was for a book of austerity-era short stories by Mollie Panter-Downes. Business only took off with book number 21, a long-forgotten novel from the 1930s by Winifred Watson. Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day - released as a film last year starring Frances McDormand as Miss Pettigrew - was a Cinderella story for grown-ups about a desiccated, downtrodden spinster caught up in a comic social whirl of nightclubs and cocktails. It became a word-of-mouth bestseller. 'I love it,' Nicola says, 'but I was as surprised as anybody. You just don't know, do you, which book is going to take off?'
If today's Bridget Joneses were to stumble into the lost world of Persephone spinsters, they would drown themselves in chardonnay and despair. For many of Nicola's rediscovered titles reflect the lives not only of that generation of surplus women who lost their prospective husbands in the First World War, but also those who suffered from a drastic scarcity of young men as the Victorians exiled thousands of eligible beaux to serve the Empire. This doesn't mean it's all misery lit, far from it, but even feel-good stories are underlined with gritty reality - women surplus to requirements might face hunger and loneliness in their old age. …