Set on the precipice of change, resides Saunby Priory. Home to the Marwood family who are discovering that time is not necessarily their best asset, nor is it on their side. The widowed Major Marwood has been perfectly comfortable without a wife, and never felt the need to find one. He takes part in cricket matches and constant ponders over a roaring fireplace on how to perfect his team come summer. He prefers solitary walks round the grounds, than elaborate dinner parties. His two grown daughters, Christine and Penelope, live in the nursery at the top of the house. They've never been asked to vacate their room, and now at twenty and nineteen years of age, prefer it that way: it's much more fun upstairs. The solitude allows them the peace to do as they please. A world of their own set apart from the adult dilemmas brewing downstairs. The only thing that could tear the sisters apart is the illness of love. One falls head over heels and finds her life devoted to a man she barely knows, and the other, watching her sister become a crumpled mess, vows never to make the same dreadful mistake. Miss Victoria, Major Marwood's spinster sister, is a painter who produces post modern portraits with shadows pointing in the wrong direction or not existing at all. Her paintings are her life and always take top priority, unlike running the house, which is much more of a bother. The servants emerge to do as little work as possible - thinking the family to be a nuisance - and wishing to return back to the fun downstairs.
The status quo of the family changes when Major Marwood decides to take a wife. Someone that will take care of the house and deal with the nonsense he can't stand, thereby allowing himself the necessary time to plan the upcoming cricket season with Thompson, his right hand man who finds himself between two maids: one who holds his heart, and the other who holds his future. Enter Anthea, whose family is equally as shocked at the marriage proposal as her. She's optimistic, grateful, and equally delighted to have the run over her own house. Though she assumed being married meant having the ear of her husband at all times, and when reality sets in that the Major prefers the silence of his study's fire over talking about the family's finances with her, which are in desperate need of alterations, Anthea decides to preoccupy herself with redecorating Saunby. Her goal is to fit into this family that seems less than thrilled to have her. To Major Marwood's shock and everyone else's, Anthea falls pregnant, which was deemed impossible, and the first of many dominos falls, igniting a chain of events that will alter the family's lives forever.
For all the characters, talk of the war is constantly in the air but remains in the distance, like a threatening thunderstorm that resides over the hills. Close enough to see, but far enough to make the necessary arrangements. It will impact everyone's lives to come. For a novel that is part comedic, part domestic, part character study, and is fully enjoyable, there is a heaviness that lingers over the last 1/3rd of the novel. Knowing what comes next historically and what will happen to this world and the people in it, leaves the reader with a sense of sadness for this world will cease to exist come 1945. That knowledge by no means subtracts from the enjoyment of reading. I found this feeling to be most pronounced in the final pages, as chapters came to a close and journeys were able to start anew. The characters may have avoided a conflict for now but it would eventually come, and that knowledge is what made me sad because hadn't the characters already endured enough?
On a cloudy day in London, with bags full of whiskey in hand, we entered Persephone Books. I had known about Persephone for quite some time but hadn't had the pleasure of visiting the store in person. Known for their steel blue covers and for republishing neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century women writers, and a few men too, Persephone is a haven for all literature lovers and book discovers. Tucked away on Lamb's Conduit Street, you'll find a white facade with windows full of books and posters (one of my favorite is "She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted." which I'm still trying to find a way to have it shipped to me overseas) and a sign out front that says "The Persephone Bookshop is Open." Push through the door and enter the tiny bookstore, stock full of 120 editions, and counting. Inside you'll find bookshelves lined with the steel blue spines and colorful bookmarks that match each book's endpapers. Every Persephone book contains its own unique endpapers suited to the books subject matter and time period.
I spent a good time browsing all the shelves, picking out titles I wanted to explore. I knew I wanted to pick up a copy of The Victorian Chaise-lounge by Marghanita Laski, as it was described by author PD James ‘as one of the most skillfully told and terrifying short novels of its decade.’ So I had to read it. The poetry collection It's Hard to Be Hip Over 30 by Judith Viorst (more commonly known for Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) was selected as a birthday present. And that left one more book to find - as I was going to take full advantage of the three books for £30 special. After being given some space to browse and touch all the covers, lovingly of course, the woman running the store came over and asked if I would like any recommendations. I do appreciate a bookseller giving a customer the time to browser before offering her/his assistance. I immediately took her up on her offer. As we discussed the books I liked to read, she thought for a minute, and then pulled The Priory by Dorothy Whipple off the shelf. Handing it to me, she said, "This was the summer read of 1939." That was all I needed. I was sold. We collected our purchases and scurried away to the rehearsal dinner we were meant to attend, that being the prime reason for our trip.
I've often thought about Persephone, will tell anyone who will listen that this is the place to go for new books, and have even ordered a few books over the phone as presents. The wrapping paper is out of this world, so if you order a book, do let them wrap it for you. It will look stunning. They also ship internationally. You can order books online or over the phone, and the lovely staff will get you all squared away. I've been tempted by their "book a month" program which will supply you with either six or twelve months of a new book each month, hand-selected by you or Persephone. I've yet to pull the trigger but it's in the back of my mind to someday try.
What I recommend the most is to visit the store in person, if able, peruse their catalogue online, and dive into the world of forgotten literature. The Priory is one of my favorite books I've read all year. It stands up to modern literature, while also scratching that itch for something that should be a classic. The writing is witty, deep, and modern. You never know, you may find your new favorite book residing in their collection. I often like to think of the Persephone staff as book discoverers. They've discovered these books when they've been forgotten and given them a new life. That's a job I would love to do and am trying to take their example and do just that in my day to day life. It probably won't have a flashy cover and the print may be too small, but there are books all around the world, some probably in your bookcases, that are asking to be discovered. So take them off those dusty shelves and give them a read. I guarantee that new doors to new worlds will be open for you. And when you've discovered all the books in your immediate vicinity, order a few Persephone books to occupy your time.
And while you're on their website, take a look at their Forum, Post, and Letter (three separate letters that bring you all the latest in book news weekly or monthly, depending on your preference). All are free to join.