Persephone! Who can resist the understated sophistication of those covers, betraying nothing about their contents: you simply have to open it to find out what this one's like, and then you're uncovering something which is completely free of modern critical opinion, cynicism and received opinion. I remember reading that the great medieval poem Gawain and the Green Knight was lucky enough to be found after the Victorian, Tennysonian vogue for all things medieval, so that it arrived for us, fresh and mysterious and strange.
Some Persephone titles are fresher, more mysterious and stranger than others. A while ago I read Isobel English's Every Eye, which had the stark, disturbing white hot quality of a Paul Bowles novel. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, on the other hand, is uplifting and light and I want to read that too - I gave it to my Mum for Christmas and she'd finished it by New Year's Day. The Victorian Chaise-Longue, by contrast, was like being deliriously drunk in an antiques shop to the point where you wonder if you, yourself, are another dusty bit of bric-a-brac on sale.
They've just got in a whole load of Persephone books at our local library. In amongst the other New Books in the display, the photoshopped faces of men and women against colourful backgrounds, they look out at you, as if saying, Well, what do you think? You'll never know until you've picked me up - you'll never know for sure until you've turned my last page. When I borrowed The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett, I lucked out by being served by the librarian who had ordered it - who had, in fact, ordered all the Persephone books. She was very proud, but she didn't like Making of a Marchioness, because it was too - and she gestured with her hands. I'm not sure what she meant - I think it was melodrama. She said she liked those novels that weren't so plotty but gave you an insight into another time.
That's another Persephone quality, of course. Less conventionally literary, perhaps, though in my experience this week a lot of Dickens criticism is like that (How does Dickens evoke, respond to, react to, depict, illustrate, critique, his times - perhaps we give that less weight than Miss Pettigrew because, as a culture, we attach more importance to the Victorian era, and to gentlemen's experiences of it: just a thought). I had already picked up and started Consider the Years by Virginia Graham, because I knew the name from somewhere: do you?
Well, she was a lifelong friend of Joyce Grenfell's; Joyce, a comedian during wartime and a writer and actress in various things in the years after, is one of my eternal heroines. I was dazzled to read that
Virginia co-wrote some
of Joyce's songs. And it does bring the past nearer, reading her poetry, most
of which is about her wartime experiences as a civilian and member of the WVS
(The Women's Voluntary Service) and is about confrontations with external
threats as well as buried elements of ourselves (sometimes resilience,
sometimes Blimpishness), and is often written with the freshness of a living
voice. Now and again it goes beyond that, too.
I liked the lighter stuff more. War poetry is uncomfortable at the best of times - when it misses the mark, even by a millimetre, it misses everything. It seemed quite telling to me that one poem ventiloquised a mother who had lost her son - the dangers of insincerity are huge. I liked the laconic Graham, witnessing the strangeness of a world turned upside down. But I loved her comic poetry most of all (guiltily, at times, because I could hear Joyce performing it) like,
Sir, will you kindly place under your observance,
A gentleman in your department D,
Who, though no doubt the cream of civil servants,
Has just been very, very rude to me!
I've chosen that one, partly, because it's shorter than others, which have a delayed effect of a twist in the end - or others which accumulate little touches, little contrasts revealing the strangeness of life completely inverted and upset. It perfectly suits that little grey cover because the very best stuff is understated, with other emotions bubbling up from under the firm repressive power of wartime duty. I liked this one very much too; (have a lovely weekend everyone):
Somehow I think we made a big mistake,
That time when we walked in the spring twilight.
It was warm, I remember, and very clear,
And you stuck a primrose behind your ear,
And there was some sort of tree in blossom, white,
Reflected in the fly-dotted edge of the lake.
Somehow something tells me we missed the bus.
The moment is gone now, it is past recall;
But we walked there, in the sweetest scented breeze,
And I spoke, I know, at some length of evacuees,
And you of the maps you had pinned with flags to your wall.
I think, my friend, more than this was expected of us.