Book review: The Persephone Book of Short Stories

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Book number 100 from the “One Shade of Grey” publisher specialising in out of print and neglected mid-20th century fiction – primarily but not exclusively written by women – is a collection of short stories spanning the years from 1909 to 1986.

The Persephone Book of Short Stories

Persephone, 488pp, £14

Ten of the tales have been published in earlier Persephone anthologies, including contributions from Mollie Panter-Downes and Diana Athill, ten are from writers not previously published by Persephone (eg Dorothy Parker, Penelope Fitzgerald), and ten (including Edith Wharton and Penelope Mortimer) have appeared in their publication, Biannually, during the past decade.

It’s a fine, sturdy collection which should, even for an avid reader well versed in women’s fiction, provide a few introductions, either to writers hitherto unheard of, or to lesser known works by familiar names. There’s also a good mix of nationalities, so we not only hear from authors born in the US and the UK, but from those born in New Zealand, South Africa, Russia, and Ireland as well.

What’s intriguing – and vaguely upsetting – about these tales, which are primarily concerned with domestic life at its most quotidian, is that they make women’s lives sound horribly depressing,. Though on an up-note, it’s great to see that so many stories, including the very first, circa 1909, about a young woman embarking on a career in publishing, feature women who leave home to work.

Happy stand-outs for this reader included “Nine Years is a Long Time”, by Nora Hoult (1938), about a woman with a ne’er-do-well husband coming to grips with the idea that her method of keeping the household solvent – casual prostitution – has come to an end. The dynamic between the fully cognizant husband and his wife intrigued me, and Hoult’s musings on the shelf-life of desirability rang true, showing that some things never change. Margaret Bonham’s “The English Lesson” (1947), proved an unexpectedly affecting take on the old maxim, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. And Helen Hull’s story, “It All Begins Again”, which at first seems a traditional tale about the generation gap, turns out to be a subtle musing on the repetitiveness of war and animosity – and worthy of repeated readings.

I was struck, as well, by the similarities between Katherine Mansfield’s “The Black Cap” (1917) and Dorothy Parker’s “Here We Are” (1931), both of which expose the impossibility of true intimacy between non-communicative husbands and wives, and hinge on dramatic misunderstandings that largely play out inside the heads of their protagonists.

What this anthology lacks in laughs, it makes up for in skill and polish. I’d recommend taking it slowly, especially now that the nights are drawing in. Otherwise you risk contracting a rare strain of Seasonal Affective Disorder, brought on by reading about so much relentless melancholy.