A single shade of grey

Discerning readers have been flocking to bijou publisher- bookshop Persephone Books on Lamb’s Conduit Street for more than 15 years. Andre Paine tells the story behind the stylish grey covers and previews their spring titles.

A short stroll from Clerkenwell, Lamb’s Conduit Street is an oasis of independent shops and restaurants that’s one of London’s loveliest retail experiences. At the heart of this popular destination is Persephone Books, a specialist publisher that also operates a bookshop. The building, which dates from 1702-03, is a bijou base that just stocks Persephone’s own paperbacks in their distinctive grey covers.

Named after the daughter of Zeus (a symbol of female creativity), Persephone was founded in 1999 by writer Nicola Beauman to reprint previously neglected women writers from the early 20th century. As general manager Lydia Fellgett explains,

“We are particularly interested in what we call ‘domestic feminism’ – we publish mainly fiction that focuses on women’s lives and therefore they are often set in the home.”

The small publisher’s first home was a former pleating workshop in Great Sutton Street, Clerkenwell. It was able to move to the Grade II-listed building in 2001 thanks to the success of their 21st book, Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day by Winifred Watson. The novel, written in 1938, remains the firm’s biggest seller thanks to a sales boost from the 2008 Hollywood movie, which stars Frances McDormand as the governess who enters a world of glamour.

“Frances McDormand read the book, adored it and was really important in getting the film made,” Fellgett tells The Post. Another of their biggest sellers is The Persephone Book of Short Stories, their 100th edition, which features 30 stories by women writers from across the 20th century, including Shirley Jackson, Dorothy Parker and Irène Némirovsky.

While there are familiar names on those grey covers, Persephone’s literary mission has been to revive female writers who have been unjustly forgotten.

“If we absolutely had to choose a favourite Persephone author it would probably be Dorothy Whipple,” says Fellgett of the author once described as the Jane Austen of the 20th century. “We have nine of her books in print now and they’re all great.”

Fellgett also singles out Mollie Panter- Downes (“utterly brilliant short stories”). Two of her collections are published by Persephone, along with her letters from London during the Second World War for The New Yorker. If you can’t decide from the 120 titles, there’s also a range of classics made up of their 11 bestsellers, including Mariana by Monica Dickens, The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett and The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher.

While the standard editions come in a uniform grey cover and removable dust jacket, once you open the book you’ll discover the unique endpaper and matching bookmark. And there’s a story behind each of these colourful additions: the endpaper is a textile from the same year the book was written and has a relevance to the story.

Some of their books feature endpapers based on textile designs by Lucienne Day (1917- 2010), whose centenary is being marked with nationwide events throughout the year.

“Lucienne Day gave us permission to use three of her designs as endpapers on our books,” says Fellgett. “To celebrate what would have been her 100th birthday, we have dedicated one of our shop windows to her and are selling the commemorative poster produced by her estate.”

They are also readying their new spring titles for April, including one of their few male authors: Theodor Fontane’s 1895 novel Effi Briest is “the German Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina and for some reason is hardly ever read in this country,” says Fellgett. The company’s 122nd book is Earth and High Heaven (1944) by Gwethalyn Graham, which is about the anti-Semitism encountered by a young Protestant woman and her lover, a Jewish lawyer. “It was on the New York Times bestseller list for 37 weeks when it first came out,” adds Fellgett. 

The 25,000 subscribers to the Persephone Biannually magazine are the first to hear about the latest titles. Most of their sales are by mail order, though Persephone does distribute its titles to other booksellers – you can even buy them on Amazon or opt for an ebook version. But part of the pleasure of buying a Persephone book is heading to 59 Lamb’s Conduit Street, browsing the shelves and admiring the cosy, Grade II-listed location as the team work on the latest reissues in the adjoining office.

“We feel very lucky,” says Fellgett.