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A General Post On Discovering ‘New’ Classics: Persephone, Virago, And Apollo

I’m going to start with a couple of quotations because they sum up the whole idea and are just great to read:

“The criterion for inclusion in the Apollo list is that its editors have to feel passionately about the books, and that they should be, on the whole, forgotten or unread. There are novels on the list that have never been part of any canon, but deserve to be, and there are also respected authors like Christina Stead whose absence from lists of essential classics is astonishing to us.” — Neil Belton of Head Of Zeus imprint, Apollo.

“Founder Nicola Beauman’s original concept was to publish a handful of ‘lost’ or out-of-print books every year, most of them interwar novels by women… a grey Persephone cover is a guarantee of a good read. In fact, by far the most important criteria is that we only publish books that we completely, utterly love.” — Persephone’s website.

I’ve been reading quite a few classics lately (or at least what I’ve decided to term classics when it comes to my reading, because it really isn’t straightforward otherwise, as you all know). It’s kind of crept up on me; I had been aware for a long time that I hadn’t been reading many and that my Classics Club list wasn’t getting far (I recently changed the scope for that) and now suddenly I’m reading a lot of them.

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It begun a couple of months ago when looked at the numbers of books I’d read for different categories, but I’ve found myself carrying on choosing classics without much thought. Partly due to review copies and partly due to just being in the zone, it’s happening.

What helps is redefining ‘classic’ and working with books that have been forgotten. You know what I mean: Persephone, Virago. A bit of Pushkin, and now Apollo. Persephone introduced me to Julia Strachey and Marghanita Laski and a whole host of others I should have read by now. Virago – Thirkell. (I’ve also a few from their Du Maurier collection, but the author has never been forgotten; I expect she’ll be around for the foreseeable future!) Apollo is a new imprint from Head Of Zeus so they’ve just started out: Margaret Laurence, Josephine Johnson, and I have Christina Stead on my to-be-read, that book that was daunting but now no longer. [As I edit this post I realise it’s very focused on women. That wasn’t my intention but it does reflect my recent reading.]

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I’ve found something wonderful in reading classics and I’ve found even more wonder in reading forgotten books. It’s not the idea that you’re reading something few have, though that is reason for excitement, it’s that feeling that you are indeed reading a classic. There is just something about a great old book that you can ‘see’, that’s there to notice. Even if you don’t like the book, that reason for it being well-known, or ex-well-known, seeps from it. It’s like reading a wonderful book, that you’d never heard of before you saw it in the shop and bought it, magnified.

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I’m not sure exactly what it is about Thirkell, some sort of semblance to Gaskell, perhaps, and a feeling not dissimilar to the books my mother introduced me to, but with Josephine Johnson it was Little House In The Big Woods, and a feeling of the moors, like it could have been a forgotten Brontë if they’d written about the Southern States of America. Now In November won the Pulitzer Prize in 1935. It’s very of its time, lacking in what we would consider action, but just so good.

Of course its date is more modern classic – 1935, just a year before Margaret Mitchell’s publication – but it still felt good to have read it. It’s hovering just around being forgotten; it’s likely Apollo’s reprint will help it gain ground, particularly given the Prize. Was it forgotten because it was so relevant to a particular period in history, as the Prize might suggest?

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The story behind Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel fascinated me because it’s considered a Canadian classic and from what I’ve found out, it seems it’s still read in the country. It fascinates me because it’s on a topic that will likely never be irrelevant, unlike, perhaps, Johnson’s work – however much the life trappings have changed since, Laurence’s protagonist could be transplanted into a book from today, a person who is oblivious to why her son doesn’t want to look after her any more – we can see why and it’s all to do with her behaviour. Apollo have just published Laurence’s A Jest Of God and thinking it might be similar, I had a look. It is, from the other side of the story – the daughter of an overbearing mother. You can’t see it from the image I’ve used but there’s a quotation from Margaret Atwood who says it’s “An almost perfect book”.

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If judging a book by its cover then I’m very interested in Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding, a ‘portrait of family life in the American South during the 1920s’. The focus is on a particularly mundane year which meant that ‘initial reception of the novel was chequered, with many reviewers challenging the absence of plot’1. Likely what we’d now call a character-driven novel, Apollo’s decision to publish it suggests it’s one to read. Another author who won the Pulitzer, though not for this book, Welty used technology as symbols in her work. Her home in Mississippi is now a museum. Like Kate Chopin’s house it was damaged by fire, but unlike that building there was enough remaining for it to be restored.

I’ll be reviewing Christina Stead’s Letty Fox: Her Luck soon and as I featured it in my first lines post last week I won’t include it here except to say I’ve since found out it was loved by Angela Carter.

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In terms of other books I’ve not read but want to, Monica Dicken’s Mariana, published by Persephone, has been on my list since I first saw it. It was the cover that drew me mostly because , at the time, it was the first non-grey Persephone I’d seen. Finding out later that Dickens was a granddaughter of the Victorian novelist cemented it. Don’t ask me why I’ve not read it yet – I’ve no excuse.

With Virago, I hope to get to all of Barbara Comyn’s and Du Maurier’s books… if I can say that when particularly in the case of the latter it’s been a good few years since I read Rebecca and I have four other novels on my shelves waiting.

Which little-known books would you recommend, particularly those published no later than 1960? (Arbitrary decade, I know.)

1Wikipedia’s page on Eudora Welty, accessed 17th May 2017.



May 17, 2017, 7:25 pm

Such a great post. I’m especially interested in your description of the work of Josephine Johnson. I just added her to my TBR. :)

Jenny @ Reading the End

May 18, 2017, 12:39 am

Ooh, this is a fun post! I always recommend as many Rumer Godden books as possible for damn sure, and then maybe some lesser Mary Renaults? It’s not that people DON’T know Mary Renault, but I never feel that enough people love her. :p



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