Friday, 19 March 2010

Women's Writing

a view from Persephone Bookshore
Lamb's Conduit Street, London

Yesterday, when I was at Jane Austen's House, I got into a long conversation about women's writing with one of our American visitors.  (It isn't unusual for a Jane-specific enthusiasm to lead to other bookish topics.)  By serendipitous good fortune, this American was spending a week in Bloomsbury -- the once-home of Virginia Woolf and so many other writers, and still the heart of literary London. 

I was delighted to enlighten this kindred spirit about one of my favorite London places:  Persephone, the bookshop and printing press which specializes in "rediscovered" 20th century women's writing.  Although anyone may travel there by website, if you are going to be in Bloomsbury or thereabouts you might as well visit the charming bookstore in person.


I wonder how many of Persephone's customers have been drawn there by womanly word-or-mouth?  Sarah in Oxford told Elizabeth, and Elizabeth in New York told me, and I have told all of my bookish friends about this special place.  It isn't meant to be a best-kept secret, but I'm often surprised by how many of Persephone's most obvious customers aren't aware of its existence.  The induction of an Oregonian is one thing, but some of my fellow Austenians hadn't known about it either.

I often marvel that the minute village of Chawton, Hampshire has become an homage to, not to mention resting place of, so much important women's writing.  Just down the road from Jane Austen's House is Chawton House -- which contains a library of rare works published between 1600 and 1800.  Although the Chawton House Library is well-known to academic scholars in the field, it is a best-kept secret that anyone may make an appointment to visit this unique collection.  There is a monthly reading group, too, for anyone who cares to discuss Mary Wollstonecraft or other "foremothers" of English literature.

Chawton House Library
Chawton, Hampshire
Last autumn, I went to see an exhibition called Rooms Of Our Own:  The Female Academy at Lucy Cavendish College in Cambridge.  Most of the featured historical texts, including a play called The Female Academy written by Margaret Cavendish in 1662, were borrowed from the Chawton House Library.  (It amused me, at the time, to think that I had driven all the way to Cambridge to discover something from just down the road.  Last week, I visited the Chawton House Library for the first time . . . but not the last!)

Lucy Cavendish College was established in 1965 as a women's college for students over 21, and our guide for the day was a perfect example of the college's aims.  At the age of 40, this 60ish woman had embarked on her first university degree.  Her first career, as a wife and mother, gradually developed into a second career as a student, and then an academic scholar.  At the age when most people are contemplating retirement, this inspirational woman was writing a book on Rosamund Lehmann --  a notable 20th century British writer.  (Our guide had also written a preface for one of the Persephone novels.)




The Female Academy exhibit featured two reconstructed rooms:  one of them was Virginia Woolf's writing study, that celebrated "room of one's own."  The other was a typical student's room from the 1960s -- not much more than a single bed, a simple desk, a lamp, and a pile of books.  Both rooms tugged at my heart and reminded me of my own student's room -- when I studied English literature at a university in London in the 1980s.  There has never been a year, before or since, that could match it for a truly enraptured immersion in reading and writing.


I have so many other distractions now, but there are still some places which remind me of the pleasures of a shelf of unread books and a comfortable chair and the well-lit silence to read by.



Jane Austen's House
Chawton House Library
Lucy Cavendish College
Persephone Bookstore

43 comments:

ArtSparker said...

Thanks for this view of your world. How wonderful to have these resources/reminders so close at hand!

steven said...

bee you lucky lucky woman to have these riches so close to hand!!! i smiled at your memory of your student room - i had one for two years of my life - matching the description if not the specific details of the one you mention here. two glorious years of thinking, reading, and writing. well there were other distractions also which added colour and substance but we're talking about literature here aren't we! have a lovely evening. steven

Meri said...

That's my kind of bookstore!

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Bee
What beautiful pictues! I love books and going into bookstores.
The lamp makes your last picture stand out--very nice.

Best
Tracy :)

ewix said...

Bee, one of your best posts ever!
Your guide from Cambridge sounds such an interesting person.
Did you ever read "Vindication" --the novel based on Wollstonecraft's life. Excellent and haunting.
I have never been to Chawton House and perhaps may be able to go in May when I visit.
I had another possible taker for the Persephone book reading group in New York. That makes 5 people which is splendid.
ps Any US/New York based Persephone fans can contact me at elizabethwix.com

iNdi@ said...

a "well-lit silence"...oh, I like that!

spudballoo said...

oh this is a perfect post! A bit of everything, and everything that I love. Including Lamb's Conduit Street which has a special place in my heart.

I am loving learning so much from you, and your book recommendations are thus far spot on.

Gorgeous photos. Lovely words. x

Elizabeth said...

Thanks for writing such an elegant post. Loved it. Women, such a special species.

Have a lovely weekend.

Elizabeth

Sarah Laurence said...

Thanks, Bee, I needed to hear about late bloomers. I’m practically a young sprout compared to Cavendish. I love your bookshelf images. You make me want to curl up with a good book.

Minx said...

After discovering a tatty copy of Bonjour Trieste in a bookshop in Penzance I then lost three hours. Bookshops should come with a warning - a gentle one!

Reya Mellicker said...

We're lucky that you're willing to write about these wonderful treasures, the bookshops and houses and all the historical markers of the art of women.

Thanks for this, Bee! And happy spring.

Michelle said...

hello my love, i am writing for your email address...I no longer have it (long story)....i am no longer at businessweek......my new email is michelleconlin1@gmail.com....Please send me your email......dying to write you.....xoxoxox

Nancy said...

As an adult college student, I can relate to the Lucy Cavendish College, and I will put all of these on my list when visiting. Thank you.

B said...

I really like this... it makes me want to go to all these places, but it also makes me want to go back to University, all that time to immerse yourself in research and projects, and learning...

A Cuban In London said...

Many thanks for this glorious tour! And Persephone! Though I'm a bloke, I will be paying it a visit some time soon.

Greetings from London.

Kristen In London said...

I have never been to ANY of these places, I'm ashamed to say! I drive past Persephone every single Friday and while I've been given gifts from there, I have never been inside. I am going to go, over break. Will take my two favorite women: mother in law, and daughter. Thank you.

David Cranmer said...

Persephone would be my kind of stop.

Sara said...

What a delightful post. Thank you. I too learned of Persephone Books from Elizabeth in New York....I just love the Internet!

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Delwyn said...

Hello bee

I just love the name of Persephone for a women's bookstore...if I lived near I would want to come and visit...
Book stores hold a special charm and allure for me as do piles of unread books which I seem to need to have beside my bed and in the study...a little like the security of having reserve money in the bank I need to feel I have a deposit of books at hand...

Happy days Bee

skirmishofwit said...

What a lovely post! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it all. I visited Jane Austen's house about 4 years ago and was utterly charmed.

I always enjoy spreading the word regarding Persephone Books too, and I generally drop into the shop every other month. Loved all your pictures.

Anne said...

Oh, so many places I would love to visit. Persephone is definitely on my list for the next time I'm in that neck of the woods. I'm hoping for summer 2012, if not earlier.

Maggie May said...

i am SO happy when you do these kinds of posts. wonderful pictures, too. i love the name Persephone!

Lucy said...

Lovely light-filled post. I miss English bookshops.

kristina said...

What a fabulous post. And I love the Persephone pictures. I always seem to visit on gray and gloomy days! Would so love to visit Jane Austen's House. Very embarrassed I haven't been. K x

Angie Muresan said...

I have just recently heard of Persephone myself. And I thought I knew it all. Haha. I agree with Steven that you are indeed lucky to have such riches around you.

Barrie said...

I would love to visit these places. One day....sigh.

Merisi said...

Such a comfort reading this post,
and thank you for pointing us to Persephone Bookstore. It is so wonderful to know that there are other human beings out there who treasure and share these riches.

I read about your daffodils' late showing this year.
I remember springs in Washington when they were late and then burst into bloom of all of sudden, only to wither away far too soon because the temperatures climbed too fast. I hope you do get to enjoy their beauty soon and for a long time!

Terresa said...

Beautiful post, love your side bar, too. Loveliness.

Cait O'Connor said...

A joyous post this was for bookish me! Thanks Bee.

Dick said...

Your refreshing view of our rich cultural resources is always a source of new perceptions, Bee. I lived 20 minutes away from Chawton for 20 years and it was in the wake of a post of yours that I visited it for the first time long after moving away!

Maggie May said...

These images are just as good a second time around :)

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Relyn said...

I'm wondering what your favorite Persephone title is. I am enamored of the way they display their wonderful wares. Oh, I want to travel to England and visit the store for myself.

Polly said...

I have finally made it to Persephone's Bookstore! Even though I work just around the corner and walk up and down Lamb's Conduit very very often I have never made it there...

It's so pretty and... pretentious. A perfect little museum but not a very practical place to buy books. The "just around the corner" Waterstones in Gower Street remains my favourite.

But I loved this post! Thanks for all the recommendations!

Merisi said...

Greetings! :-)

I hope you are fine and Spring has finally turned out in all its finery!

i enjoyed scrolling once again through the images of the bookstore. Such a precious place.

A Woman Of No Importance said...

Bee, the beauty and colour alone of Persephone makes it well worth the visit, never mind the mind-boggling array of literature...

I have now had the chance to get caught up a little with your blog, darling Bee, and your words, life, tales and beautiful images you weave here like a Fair Sorceress, always tinkle like sweet music to my ears, many thanks, and much love... Fhina x

splashfish said...

absolutely! A well-lit silence is something to treasure.

Loved hearing about your take on the world.

x

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

One day soon, I will make the pilgrimage to Persephone and Chawton. And I hope to run into you in at least one of those lovely places.

XOX

Anil P said...

How lucky to have been to all these places. The library in the picture is almost magical in its setting and its association with history.

Shaista (Lupus in Flight) said...

Bee, how are you?
The daffs are gone and the cherry is in bloom... Reading this post, led me straight to the Lucy Cavendish website... I applied to do my MPhil in American Literature a few years ago, and then changed my mind. Now I am keen to return to that dream. It's been so many years since my BA in English, do you think it will matter?

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Relyn said...

OK, I read this. I even commented on it, but I didn't get that you actually worked there. I thought you were simply a tourist. Wow! I feel all special now. I have friend who works at the Jane Austen house! YIPPIE!