Friday, 7 December 2012

The Persephone Book of Short Stories

When Persephone Books celebrated their 100th book, how else were they going to do it but with a collection of 30 of their favourite short stories by forgotten female writers from the past 100 years? Welcome to The Persephone Book of Short Stories.

The resulting collection is 480 pages of Persephone joy, with stories spanning from 1909 to 1986. Some of the stories are familiar from Persephone Biannually newsletters or previously published Persephone short story collections, but there are also some pieces in here that will be brand new to Persephone readers.

The choice of stories is in one sense quite disparate – there are romances (eg From A to Z, Here We Are), family tales (eg The Black Cap), horrors (eg The Lottery), feminist polemics (eg A Few Problems In The Day Case Unit)…

But there is also a consistent theme of sexism through almost every story – whether explicit not. This is most striking in The Test (1940, Angelica Gibbs), where in just five pages our heroine Marian fails her driving test for the second time because she again refuses to kowtow to the misogynistic, sexist, perverted lech of a driving examiner, who grinds her down with his relentless, patronising and offensive ‘banter’.

Another theme is the obstruction by man in woman’s way – which is also evident in every single Dorothy Whipple novel published by Persephone (all gems by the way, highly recommended). Again, it’s not an obstruction that’s blatant and in-your-face, but merely a weary reminder by the writers that life for their female protagonists (and presumably themselves as the influence) has an extra hurdle to be clambered over by women before the race can even begin. It’s particularly interesting to read this in the stories from the 1930s and 1940s, as the passing of time has – in many ways – not lessened the difficulties for contemporary women in similar situations. EM Delafield’s story Holiday Group from 1926 perfectly sums up the misery of a family holiday for the put upon mother – which presumably rings true to every single mother today.

The story that stayed with me more than any other, and which still haunts me more than a week after reading it, is The Lottery – a 1948 tale of Wicker Man-esque barbarity by Shirley Jackson. So simply written, so concise with language… The Lottery perfectly sums up a lack of respect for women, a disregard for women as human beings, and the terrifying way in which a community see a woman as ‘sport’: an object for their entertainment. So horrific was The Lottery that I had to read it again as soon as I’d finished it… just to be sure I’d understood it correctly.

I wish Persephone every success with their next 100 books, and I hope with all my heart that therumours of Nicola Beauman closing Persephone after 100 books was nothing more than a rumour… Because to lose Persephone now would be an enormous tragedy for the publishing world, and for the (doubtless) millions of readers like me who devour their books and the introductions to new favourite (or forgotten) authors.

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