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The Weird, the Welsh and the Wonderful

A lot of my fiction reading comes from small, independent publishers, particularly those who are reissuing books that have been undeservedly forgotten. There are some real gems to be discovered, and below I’ve picked out some of the more “off the beaten track” books I’ve recently enjoyed. 

Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy – Persephone Books

You may already know of my fondness for Persephone Books. Founded by biographer Nicola Beauman in 1998, their aim is to publish neglected books, mainly by women working in the mid-twentieth century (but not exclusively). Their books are gorgeous: clad in stylish grey covers with stunning front and end papers taken from contemporary designs by iconic designers such as Liberty’s, Lucienne Day and the Omega Workshop – and they come with matching bookmarks.

Throw in a great magazine (Persephone Biannually) and a lovely book shop in London’s Lamb Conduit Street, and you’ve got a book lover’s paradise.

Reuben Sachs is by a Jewish woman, but has been accused of being anti-Semitic. Originally pubished in 1888, it’s a story of love thwarted by ambition and materialism, and in particular explores how these values impact upon women. Its tone is sometimes bitter and even cruel, but it’s a thought provoking read, and I would certainly read more by Amy Levy. I was, then, sad to learn that she committed suicide when she was only twenty seven.

 

My last haul of Persephone Books with tea cup at the ready

Women’s Weird: Strange Stories by Women, 1890-1940, edited by Melisa Edmundson – Handheld Press

Handheld Press publish work by authors who “deserve to be rediscovered”. Their nicely-produced books come in three categories: Classics (forgotten fiction), Research (non-fiction) and Modern (contemporary authors). So far I’ve been reading books from the Classics category, which include excellent introductions as well as biographical and bibliographical information. Their books include fantasy, crime, thrillers, letters, history and LGBT+. 

Women’s Weird: Strange Stories by Women, 1890-1940 is a collection of short stories in which women explore the shadow land between the natural and supernatural. As is to be expected with any collection, I liked some stories better than others, but there are some wonderful stories from Edith Nesbit, Mary Cholmondeley, Margaret Irwin and others. Melissa Edmundson’s introduction provided an enjoyable and informative commentary.

They’ve recently published a second collection, Women’s Weird 2, which is definitely on my “must read” list.

Here are Lovers by Hilda Vaughan – Honno Welsh Women’s Classics

I’m cheating a bit here as I read Here Are Lovers some time ago, but as it’s one of my favourite books by one of my favourite authors and it’s published by one of my favourite independent publishers, I couldn’t leave it out.

Like Handheld Press, Honno Press also publish both classic and contemporary fiction and non-fiction. Their focus is on Welsh women's literature, and they publish books in English and Welsh. Honno was founded as a cooperative in 1986 by a group of volunteers and its work is supported by hundreds of shareholders. They cover fiction, non-fiction, poetry, autobiography, books for children, and more. And another attraction: they’re based in Aberystwyth, where I spent many a shivering holiday as a child.

Honno Welsh Women’s Classics have published three of Hilda Vaughan’s books. Of course, I’ve read them all – and I hope they publish some more. 

You can read the full reviews of these and other books on GoodReads. As I wrote about Here Are Lovers some time ago, I’ve included that one in full below.

Here Are Lovers by Hilda Vaughan

A brilliant novel...the story of Gronwy Griffith’s attempts to get an education and change class has obvious parallels with that of Jude in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. Gronwy’s family ekes out a meagre existence on a Welsh hillside, but Gronwy dreams of becoming a parson. The family are so poor they can’t afford to buy books, but a chance meeting with the squire’s daughter, Laetitia, opens up new possibilities for Gronwy when she agrees to lend him books.

While Gronwy is trapped by his poverty and lowly status, Laetitia is imprisoned by her gender and social position. She can call nothing her own; the horse she rides, her clothes, even the books she lends Gronwy are her father’s. She can barely call her time her own: every evening she must sit through interminable dinners.

Gronwy and Laetitia inhabit different worlds: he is a Welshman living in the power of an English squire who wants to eradicate the Welsh language and culture, and she is the squire’s daughter and is expected to behave accordingly. But what draws them together is more powerful than the social gulf that divides them. Both Gronwy and Laetitia are misunderstood by their peers, and this shared sense of not belonging is the germ of a passion that has tragic consequences for the lovers and their families.

Much more than a tale of star-crossed lovers, Here Are Lovers is a razor-sharp dissection of power and politics: the power of patriarchy over women; of wealthy men over the impoverished; of the English squirearchy over the Welsh peasantry. A terrible struggle is chronicled in its pages – a struggle in which both sides suffer. It is against the background of this universal tragedy that the tragedy of the two lovers is played out in a story told with sensitivity and compassion. As one of the characters says, “ ’Tis the little small differences atween folk as do make them able to harden their hearts one against another. But if you were onst to see the great big likenesses o’all human folk, you ’ouldn’t be able to hate your enemies no more”. It is the denial of this truth that condemns Gronwy’s and Laetitia’s love, and perpetuates enmities.

It’s a beautifully written book, with some memorable characters and a compelling story, and I absolutely loved it.

 

 

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