By Riana Patel
Over the course of nearly fifteen years Persephone Books has been publishing a range of books written by women around the middle of the 20th century, from biographies to science fiction to poetry and even to cookery. Every book is selected to be “intelligent, thought-provoking, and beautifully written” and also features a distinctive grey jacket. To celebrate publishing its 100th book, The Persephone Book of Short Stories brought together ten stories each from previously published books in its collection and its magazine and another ten from its archives. There is a great diversity of authors – some well known like Edith Wharton – that span nearly eighty years of literary fiction. Though these thirty stories focus mostly on the quotidian, they still manage to convey the profoundness of emotions and relationships in a nuanced way.
The 1967 story, “A Bad Cold” by Elizabeth Spencer illustrates just how the mundane can be turned into a story with a feeling of purpose. A character, Pete, is at home, sick with a cold, whilst his wife and children go about their daily routine. He is insistent that his wife has a secret lover, jokingly prodding her about this hypothetical affair to the point that his wife becomes quite exasperated. He is, however, still smiling through “the provoking haze of headache, sore throat, bleared eyesight, and severe nasal congestion,” perhaps at the expense of his family’s nerve. This routine conversation between a wife and husband somehow leaves the reader wondering about the lives of the characters and their happiness, which is no easy feat.
Interestingly, the book features the 1948 classic by Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery,” which is a warning tale of blind adherence to tradition. In a quiet town, “the lottery” takes place as a tribute to the corn harvest, yet it is only revealed at the end that the other members of the community harshly stone the winner of the lottery, Mrs. Hutchinson, to death. Her voice, that only can cry out how “it isn’t fair,” is lost amongst the collective mass of the villagers that conform to the ritual of the lottery. The brutality of the situation is written fairly clinically; the further irony being that her son, Davy, is given stones meant for his own mother, which further marks Jackson’s treatment of mob mentality. Written just after the end of World War II, “The Lottery” remains a harrowing reminder of the dangers of the group psyche in the face of tradition.
However, arguably the best story of the collection is the first one, “From A to Z,” by Susan Glaspell. Written in 1909, the story centers upon a new college graduate, Edna Willard, who works on copying definitions from a dictionary in a publishing house and her relationship to her colleague. This well-crafted conceit allows for wit in the exploration of the dullness of a dictionary, framed by the chemistry between the two characters. The style of the prose is straightforward yet imbued with feeling, all leading to the question as to whether “things like rain and streetcars and wet feet and a sore throat [determined] life” Here, as with in most of the stories in the collection, is the idea that the most commonplace things can have the most meaningful impact.
In the stories by Spencer, Jackson, and Glaspell, and most of the rest of the stories, the characters are revealed subtly and through a slow-burning plot, featuring women who are important yet not dominant and emotional yet not foils. The nature of “The Lottery” makes its clinical tone all the more chilling, whereas “From A to Z” seems to radiate a warm tone whilst refraining from being too cloying. “A Bad Cold” unfolds more like a vignette than a story with a distinct plot, but focuses on the ordinary. The ordinariness of the lottery, the publishing house, and Pete’s bad cold are incredibly important to the characters that inhabit each story, yet alone are seemingly insignificant. What these authors, as well as the others featured in the collection, have managed to craft are windows into the process of time that shows how the accumulation of the small snowballs ending up being the big, or the things that matter most. Perhaps the greatest strength of the collection is that it offers readers a sampling of women writers from over a hundred years to not so long ago, who can then trace the changes of history to the changes in the stories and styles. It would be difficult not to see the parallels between the women in the stories and the women who wrote them—although much has changed for women over the span in which the stories were written, much has stayed the same. In fact, much has always been there; the exquisite and the everyday, evoked by these thirty authors into stories that are emotional and profound.
Through the small and quiet, the stories in The Persephone Book of Short Stories reflect the ethos of Persephone Books: “intelligent, thought-provoking, and beautifully written” indeed.