|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|
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