Is it odd for a publisher of women’s writing to share their name with the woman Pluto abducted? Persephone certainly seems to think so; their website goes to the trouble of saying they chose the name without knowing the legend behind it – or (by implication) taking the trouble to look it up. So Persephone, full marks for honesty but as a publishing house isn’t that also rather…um…odd?
Persephone’s self-proclaimed aim is to print “(unjustly) neglected fiction and non-fiction by women, for women and about women”. Now, as a reader, I have a problem with one of the three prepositions in that sentence, and it isn’t “by” or “about”; if it’s worth reading, it should appeal regardless of gender, not because of it. I also take umbrage as a woman; after all, we can hardly complain about men not reading books by women while simultaneously putting it out that writing by women is not “for” them! So, Chaps (if you’ve made it this far) please, please don’t be put off by the spurious gender prohibition, because there is actually much for both sexes to enjoy – as human beings – in this, Persephone’s 100th book.
The collection comprises 30 short stories written by 28 different authors between 1909 and 1986 (though most date from 1930s and 1940s). Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that it boasts an eclectic array of subjects, settings and styles. There are works by some illustrious names: Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy Parker, and Edith Wharton; my favourites, though, are by authors I’d never heard of:
The Pain (Pauline Smith, 1923) – bitter-sweet story of an elderly, devoted Afrikaans couple, and the wife’s illness.
The Music Box (Malachi Whitaker, 1929) – a cowed miner’s wife and her son dare to dream.
The Test (Angelica Gibbs, 1940) – a young black woman takes a driving test in racially-segregated America.
Defeat (Kay Boyle, 1941) – an escaped French WW2 prisoner of war, back in his home town in the Unoccupied Zone, tells his tale.
Good Evening Mrs Craven (Mollie Panter-Downes, 1942) – a mistress tries to discover the fate of her amour posted to Libya in WW2.
Subject for a Sermon (Elizabeth Berridge, 1944) – the tension between Lady Hayley, organising schemes for the war effort, and her soldier son on leave, foreshadows the changing social order.
The Lottery (Shirley Jackson, 1948) – inhumanity is normalised in this chilling fantasy.
Rating: ** Worth reading