Apr 25, 2010

The Sunday Salon - On Rediscovered Classics

Persephone and Capuchin catalogues

Lately I’ve been having fun exploring the catalogues of publishers and imprints that specialise in bringing forgotten classics back into print. Persephone Books and the Bloomsbury Group need no introduction, as they’re both quite popular in the book blogging world. The same goes for the Virago Modern Classics, which also have some passionate enthusiasts. Thanks to the Spotlight on Small Presses series, I was recently introduced to the NYRB Classics, an American publisher which I noticed has quite a few titles in common with Virago. Then there are the elegant Capuchin Classics; Fidra Books and Girls Gone By, which specialise in children’s literature; and Dedalus European Classics and One World Classics, which publish English translations of classics originally published in other languages, many of which are not widely known outside their countries of origin. I’m sure there are others I’m either forgetting or simply haven’t heard of yet - if you know of any, please let me know!

I’m still a newcomer to the world of rediscovered classics, but already I begin to see what it is that people so like about them. With Persephone in particular, for example, five books were enough to make me understand why they inspire such devotion. There’s a very clear vision at work behind the selection of these books, and I’ve begun to take notice of what I think of as the Persephone sensibility. The Persephone sensibility is, among other things, noticeably feminist, and I love it for that. And then there’s the fact that these novels are often about domestic or otherwise marginalised experiences.

This ties in with gender, of course, as very often these experiences were marginalised exactly because they women’s experiences. But the vision at work here seems concerned with more than just gender – it seems concerned with untold stories of any sort; with the kinds of issues that tend to be silenced; with the many experiences that fell outside the boundaries of what “real literature” was understood to concern itself with. I’m talking about Persephone, but I think this also goes for Virago and the Bloomsbury Group. I’ve yet to read any books from the other publishers and imprints, but I wonder if I’ll notice anything when I finally do.

I love the fact that these classics are being rediscovered, for many reasons. I find that reading these neglected books expands my understanding of literature, of history, and of human beings in general. By legitimising experiences what fell by the wayside, by allowing past definitions of what was “worthy” of being written about to be widened, we can perhaps achieve a more inclusive and sympathetic vision of life, past and present.

The popularity of these rediscovered classics also prompts questions about the nature of canons and their formation. As much as people will sometimes get up in arms about any attempts to link politics and literature, it’s very hard to deny that the formation of a canon is a political process. My belief is that it’s also somewhat arbitrary – I won’t argue against the merits of the books that make the cut, but I will argue that plenty of worthwhile ones somehow don’t.

The expansion of the literary canon and of the range of experiences we recognise as of interest is a natural consequence of the passing of time and of changes in our sensibilities. As issues that used to be swept under the rug cease to be taboos, an incredible number of forbidden stories suddenly become permissible – and we realise that they’re actually just as interesting as the stories that did get told. Such is the case with women’s stories, with stories about glbtq people, with stories about other marginalised groups, and so on.

Finally, let’s no forget the fact that many of these books are a lot of fun to read. They’re still fresh, still relevant, still appealing – they have all the attributes that people normally attribute to classics, and which are often used to argue for their maintenance in school curricula, for example. This, before anyone asks, is something I do agree with. I love classics, but I want to define the term as widely and inclusively as possible.

Are you a fan of any of these publishers or imprints? If so, what do you love about them? Do you agree that the books share a common sensibility? And what do you think of the idea of the canon inevitably being expanded as our own sensibilities change?

In case you haven’t had enough of my blabbing for the day, I wanted to point you towards Rebecca’s blog, Lost in Books. All through the month of April, Rebecca has been running a wonderful series on cultural diversity, for which she invited several bloggers to talk about their cultural backgrounds. Today’s guest post is by me, so if you’re curious about my relationship with Portuguese culture, do click over.


  1. I have no experience reading any books by these publishers, but I do want to explore them sometime soon.

    I feel you are spot on in stating that when our sensibilities change, our "canon" will change. Since I have no experience in literature, I linked it to history in my mind. In history there's been a time when people from other cultural backgrounds, women and lower-class citizens have gotten more attention and that only started back in the 70's or 80's, I believe. It's still developing today. It also works limiting, at times. For example, I believe the recent insistence on a canon of national Dutch history has a lot to do with people thinking their own identity is at stake in Europe. (which I do not agree with, but the feeling is there nonetheless).

    Having just read "The Awakening" I wonder if it would've been recognized as a classic before the second feminist wave in the 70's?

  2. Great post. I'm glad there are more of these independent publishers whose aim is to take these long forgotten books back to the masses and it's not just all about commercialism and ka-ching! I've yet to read a Persephone book but I have my designs on many of it's title and have just discovered NYRB thanks to you! :-) It makes me sad that to think how many other great titles and authors have been forgotten. And, of course, it makes me think about what makes a classic author.

  3. I love the idea of re-publishing forgotten 'classics' as well as the ones from other languages/cultures. There isn't enough of this but times are changing, and as you say, the literary canon is being nudged slowly but persistently.

    These publishers are great, as well as the huge amount of texts that has become available online as eBooks. So far, I have only read one Persephone book - Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day by Winifred Watson. What a lovely story! I would definitely recommend it to anyone who has had a bad day, or not. :O) I've also bought The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgon Burnett, but have not read it yet.

    Thanks for all the links by the way :O) I was only aware of a couple of these publishing houses.

  4. I have no experience with these imprints whatsoever, but I know there is a huge fanbase for Persephone. Whoever decided to lead this movement should be applauded!

  5. I love classic republications for a more utilitarian reason. We have some old editions of classics, and the print is so small I can't even bother trying to read the book. Re-issues tend to have "normal" sized print (or what is considered normal to us now) and they are much more eye-friendly!

  6. Thanks for these links, lots of publishers to check out.

  7. Wonderful post! As you know, I love forgotten classics and I'm a truly devoted Persephonite. You've put it wonderfully by mentioning the Persephone sensibility and the careful selection process of Persephone Books. I believe a lot of thought and care is taken in their choices. It really shows.

    I'm eager to try Capuchin Classics and the Girls Gone By Series too. More things to look forward to.

  8. I must say I'm still finding the courage to read classics...

  9. Woe is my ignorance! I just asked Amanda last week what Persephone was! Thanks for the post. I don't know if I'll end up plunging in (there are so many classics still in our canon that I have neglected...) but I appreciate the links in the event that I do.

  10. Oh I love reading classics. I've been reading quite a few of them recently, but I still have a long way to go.

  11. I have a confession to make: the Persephone books scare me to death. They shouldn't, I know, but I worry that they will be too...feminine for me. I know that sounds dumb, but so many of the "women's" books I was exposed to as a kid are everything I dislike about the ideas of what women are "supposed" to be. I worry that some of that will be prevalent (or at least visible) in the Persephone books, simply because that's what was expected of women, or that they will be the opposite, a militant feminisim that I also dislike. I need to get over that and just try a few of them out, but I haven't yet.

    I guess "rediscovered" classics also scare me because every experience I've had with lesser known works by famous authors (The Iron Heel by Jack London, Villette by Charlotte Bronte, The Last Man by Mary Shelley, etc) have been terrible. I've hated and/or abandoned every single one, and have gotten to a point where I've realized there is a REASON some books are remembered and some aren't. I worry that all this newly discovered classics will be the same way - not worth remembering. I know, logically, that this isn't true. But it's harder to internalized this, you know? I feel like such a loser.

  12. "The popularity of these rediscovered classics also prompts questions about the nature of canons and their formation. As much as people will sometimes get up in arms about any attempts to link politics and literature, it’s very hard to deny that the formation of a canon is a political process." I agree! And also that it feels arbitrary as well--almost like, did someone just wake up thinking about that book one morning?

    This may seem off the mark, but I recently read an interview with Matt Damon where he was discussing the academy awards and he suggested that they wait several years, maybe five or ten, before they decide what was "best picture" for a given year. That way, we have perspective; we can see what fades from view that might have been very popular at the moment, and what emerges as an influence that might have been a sleeper.

    I think we should do something similar with books--reviewers are way too eager even to call a new book a "classic," usually because it's like some other book we have already canonized, rightly or not, and so it begins to perpetuate itself, this idea of what goes in the canon. Sometimes I wish we could get a clean slate, but that would take a lot of reading, and a lot of people willing to revise their term "classic."

    Sorry for the tangent! :-P

  13. Iris, I think your history analogy is an excellent one! And I wonder when The Awakening was given its current classical status...something to look into for sure. I know that the second wave of feminism and the civil rights movement were responsible for the rediscovery of many forgotten authors, including the wonderful Zora Neale Hurston.

    Mae: It makes me sad too, but at least we're going back and rediscovering some of these lost gems!

    PherenV: I need to read Miss Pettigrew! It's almost everyone's first Persephone, but I have yet to read it. I haven't read The Making of a Marchioness yet either, but I've heard wonders about it.

    Sandy, I agree!

    Jill: I think that's actually also an excellent reason! Many of these books are graphically very appealing, which is certainly another point in their favour.

    Katrina, you're most welcome!

    Mrs B: I'm glad to heart that a long-time fan like you agrees that there's something to their selection! It's part of what makes them so wonderful of course.

    Alice: I used to be intimidated by many of them, but not anymore! The more I read them, the less they scare me :P

    christina: I had never heard of them pre-blogging either! That's what blogging is all about :P

    Emidy, as do I!

    Amanda: I don't think you're a loser, but I also think you have no reason to worry. They definitely don't promote stereotypes of femininity, and they don't preach a particular ideology. I worry that by saying they share a sensibility I made them sound samey, which they aren't at all. They cover a very wide range of experiences and themes. I haven't read the books you mentioned (though The Last Man is on my list), but so far my experience with obscure classics doesn't make me think they were forgotten with good reason at all.

    Priscilla: Don't be sorry! That's actually a very good point. It does seem sometimes that these definitions of what is memorable, worthy, relevant or whatever simply feed on themselves and become self-fulfilling prophecies.

  14. Lovely post! I´ve been eyeing the Persephone books for a while, sadly my library doesn´t have them so I need to buy them and since I haven´t read any of them it´s so hard to decide on one. Is there a favorite you would recommend?

    Thank you for posting the links to other such publishers, I can´t wait to browse their catalogues :)

  15. Bina, I'm still a newbie myself, but so far the ones I've enjoyed the most were Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson and Saplings by Noel Streatfeild. Fortunately Persephone Week (hosted by Claire at Paperback Reader and Verity at The B Files) is coming up, which means you'll get lots and lots of Persephone recommendations!

  16. Love the rediscovered classics... just wish they were easier to find in stores! I purchased a NYRB classic (The Summer Book) at the Strand Bookstore this week - first heard about it from you :-)

  17. I'm loving The Brontes Went to Woolworths and can't wait to find more from Rachel Ferguson.

    Since I had to look through the catalogue of NYRB classics for the Spotlight Series tour, I found so many books and authors I want to read.

    I love the idea of reading something really old that no one else is reading. That's why I picked The Wolf Leader as my Alexandre Dumas read for the Classics Circuit. Everyone knows the Three Musketeers but almost no one knew about that one.

  18. I must confess I am partial to the NYRB Classics - I think the cover designs have this kind of "outsider" quality that fits the titles perfectly.

    You do raise an interesting point about smaller presses representing marginalized experiences. In the case of NYRB Classic I appreciate the effort in making available lesser known European literature. I mean, lesser known to English-speaking countries, I guess. I grew up in a family with an acute love for European writers (not just Spanish, as I am) so many of the authors published by NYRB Classics sound like old friends to me...

  19. greaat aren't they both ,this is a growing area in publishing and welcome one world are wonderful as well ,all the best stu

  20. I had never heard of most of these but will definitely be looking out for them! Especially the Persephone books. Curiosity duly piqued!

  21. I've also only recently discovered these types of publishers, but it took only a glance at the NYRB Classics catalog to make me a convert. I also love what Bloomsbury is doing, I want to get a Persephone book and I realized the other day that my copy of The Passion of New Eve is by Virago :-) I think previously, I never really NOTICED publishers of books, but now these smaller presses have such distinctive covers that it is easy to recognize a book and snatch it up.

    As to literary canon- I agree it's a political process, and I'm so thrilled that there are now possibilities for underappreciated works to gain exposure. There was also a fascinating series on NPR today I heard about the future of publishing that I really enjoyed. Let me know if you want the link- I can just try to make you an international NPR fan with the stuff I link you to!

  22. I saw your post on Rebecca's blog and loved it! Thanks for sharing with us.

  23. I'm afraid I have nothing concrete to contribute, as I haven't read any books by the imprints you mentiond (or many lost/rediscovered classics in general), but I wanted to say that you've got me thinking about the topic. I'll be interested in seeing how the canon shifts now that our idea of what is or isn't acceptable has broadened.

  24. I've loved some of the books that Persephone in particular has reprinted--and I'm eager to get my hands on the two they've just come out with this month. I absolutely adored DE Stevenson's Miss Buncle's book, and i mean to get my hands on Mrs Tim of the Regiment, republished by the Bloomsbury Group--another company I've just become aware of. I've only read one of their reprints, but it was excellent. It's interesting, as you mention, how books can become fresh and relevant again, and enjoyed just as much as they were when the were originally published.

  25. Thank you for the links. I haven't indulged in the Persephone titles yet. I am hoping the library will purchase some. As for "rediscovered classics" I remember my first reading of The Awakening, for a womens' literature class 25 years ago, and what an eye opener that was. Since then I've read many authors I had never heard of during high school or my first round of "higher education", Willa Cather, Sarah Orne Jewett, Nora Zeale Huston, many others. That class was a blessing.

    The fact that small publishers are willing to take a risk with these titles means there is a need for them. What a wonderful thought.

  26. I still haven't read anything from Virago or Persephone, but only because I know every time I try a few books from one of these presses I get completely addicted to them! NYRB is one of my favorites; I feel completely safe assuming any of their books are good and 90% appeal to me directly. Same goes for someplace like Hesperus, Dalkey Archive...I'm sure I'm forgetting more.

    I think what I appreciate most is I know there has been thought behind what is being published. While marketing is still a big part of what these presses do, it's niche marketing and if I'm part of that niche it means their job is literally to cater to me or someone rather like me. I'm very appreciative of that as a reader.

  27. I don't know many of these aside from Persephone and I love their catalogue. I really want to check out Capuchin! They sound fantastic. I'm beginning to learn not to say "I don't like classics" anymore because that is such an untrue statement. Yes, there are certain classics out there that I don't like, but that's such a misrepresented generalization to make when there is so much GOOD stuff out there.

  28. I've not read a Persephone book, but after reading several raving reviews, I told myself I need to read at least a book by them! :)

  29. I've read about 10 and own about 30 of the NYRB Classics, Ana, so I'll agree that they're awesome. Not sure that there is really a distinct sensibility in play (other than with the cover art), but the quality has been consistently top notch from my point of view (hence my inability to stop buying them!). By the way, love what you say about wanting to define classics "as widely and inclusively as possible." While I shouldn't be bothered by this apparent lack of imagination by others, I get annoyed sometimes looking at bloggers' "classics" lists/suggestions and seeing them dominated by the Jane Austens of the world with maybe a token French or Russian or U.S. author. How about a little more variety?

  30. For those interested in neglected classics, I just wanted to mention that there is a whole website devoted to the subject of neglected books--titled, simply, The Neglected Books Page:


    Stop by and check it out!

  31. What a fascinating post and thanks for linking to me as a Virago enthusiast, and also for sharing the Persephone love! I am so glad that there are publishers out there who are able to bring books which we might otherwise miss back to our attention.

  32. there does seem to be a bit more of a craze for this but as there is no copyright for many of these books its also good money making for the publishers.

    Here is my lasted 'I want' the decade classics which shape Britain


  33. I love the idea of these rediscovered classics, but they are hard to find at my library. I have been able to find a few through ILL but that usually takes a while. *sigh*

  34. I am only just getting in to actually reading classics. For the longest time I was scared of them. I love, love, love the idea of rediscovering the ones that were swept under the rug for one reason or another. I think of it like the current 'list of banned books' thing - we love books on those lists that others want to ban. Imagine if they were hidden for years?!

  35. I really want to get my hands on the Persephone catalog and order my first book! I also have just read one of the NYRB classics and it was excellent!! I love that more of the forgotten classics are being re-released and will have to try to add some more to my collection! Great post, Nymeth!

  36. I'm a fan of the Persephone Books and more recently the NYRB books. Have you checked out any from the Hesperus Press? I think you'd like those!

  37. JoAnn: I can't wait to hear what you think of it!

    Chris: Unfortunately this and Alas, Poor Lady are the only books of hers that have come back into print :\ Hopefully more will be reprinted in the future!

    Exiled by Accident: I can see just what you mean about the designs :) And I also very much appreciate the fact that these presses are making an effort to expand the notion of a classic beyond the English-language cannon. Dedalus publishes a lot of Portuguese classics, which makes me happy :)

    winstonsdad: They really are! I need to get my hands on some Capuchin and One World books.

    Gricel: I'm glad to be spreading the Persephone love :D You need to keep an eye on Paperback Reader and The B Files next week, as they'll be devoting the whole week to Persephones.

    Aarti: Don't you love the little Virago apple? I love that these publishers are graphically distinctive in addition to everything else. I didn't use to be aware of publishers either, but these stand out - I think they deliberately cultivate their identity, and I like that about them. Also, yes, do send me the NPR link! :D

    Kathy, I'm so glad you liked it!

    Memory: I'll be interesting to see for sure!

    Katherine: D.E. Stevenson is on my must-read list! Both Miss Buncle's Book and Mrs Tim of the Regiment sound irresistible.

    Gavin: That class sounds like a blessing indeed! It's so strange to think that for so long an author like Hurston was completely forgotten - someone who touches so many readers all these decades later. It goes to show how arbitrary these things really are.

    Nicole: They CAN be addictive, yes :) And I know what you been about noticing that their selection is always thoughtful. That's something I really appreciate as well.

    Chris: There really is! I think it's easy to put all classics in the same bag, so to speak, because the same ones seem to be discussed again and again. And I'm not saying these books *shouldn't* be read and taught and discussed, but there's room for more.

    Melody: You do! I'm sure you'd enjoy it :)

    Richard: Yes, I absolutely agree about the need for more variety and to look beyond the English-language canon. That's why I so appreciate what Dedalus and One World are doing. Also, clearly I need to read more NYRB Classics!

    Editor: Thank you SO much for bringing that site to my attention! What an amazing resource.

  38. I'm "afraid" to click on the links since I have so many books overflowing on my shelves as it is. I know I have several from Persephone on my list. The covers are so incredibly beautiful and that alone almost makes me want to read them.

  39. Verity: Thank you! So am I. I loved your post on Fidra, btw, and I can't thank you enough for bringing some of these to my attention.

    Chris and Jess: The Penguin Decades series is amazing! I kind of want them for the design alone. Anyway, most of these books (the Persephones and Bloomsbury ones at least) are actually still not copyright-free, even though they're on the older side. This is why sites like Gutenberg can't have them, and why without these publishers it would be hard to have the chance to read them at all, unless we came across second hand copies.

    Fredegonde: As someone with no access to a public library, I feel your pain! If I want to read them, I have to invest and buy them.

    Amy: Yes, exactly! Back then books like The Well of Loneliness actually WERE banned.

    Zibilee: You should sign up to receive the Persephone catalogue in the mail! They'll send it anywhere free of charge. Be warned that it's very very tempting, though!

    Iliana: I see that the Hesperus site is currently being rebuilt, but I can't wait to explore it when it's back!

    Kathleen: I love how pretty their editions are too! That seems to be true of many of these publishers. The design is yet another thing that makes them stand out.

  40. I thought I'd commented the other day, but I guess not!

    "we can perhaps achieve a more inclusive and sympathetic vision of life, past and present." I love this. I think that's why I love classics. I've just discovered these "rediscovered" classics and I look forward to reading more in the coming years!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.