Camden New Journal
Publications by New Journal Enterprises
  Home Archive Competition Jobs Tickets Accommodation Dating Contact us
The Review - BOOKS
Published: 3 December 2009
An image from Maria Eliza Rundell’s A New System of Domestic Cookery
An image from Maria Eliza Rundell’s A New System of Domestic Cookery
Rundell cookery reheated

A hit 19th-century guide to kitchen harmony has been revived by Persephone as the independent publisher celebrates its 10th birthday, writes Ruth Gorb

A New System of Domestic Cookery.
By Mrs Rundell. Persephone Books £10

HERE is a cookery book that Jane Austen could have used (but probably didn’t).
It was aimed at practical, middle-class ladies in charge of modest households – just such a one as Maria Eliza Rundell. Her book was first published in 1806, went into numerous editions, and sold in hundreds of thousands. Everything went quiet for a couple of centuries. Until now.
And who better to give us the first reprint than the champion of women’s forgotten writing, Persephone Books?
Persephone is 10 years old and has become part of the reading-woman’s lifestyle. Novels, biography, poetry, cookery, journals – mostly by women, and largely written in the first half of the 20th century – are reproduced in pearl grey covers, each with elegant end papers and matching bookmark. They are instantly recognisable, something readers love but which creator and spirit of Persephone Nicola Beauman says briskly is about economy: “We can’t afford designers, so we stick to the same covers.”
Beauman is the ultimate hands-on publisher, a perfectionist who not only finds the forgotten books and prints and publishes them from start to finish, but attends to every tiny detail, such as searching through swatches of defunct textiles to get end papers of the right period. She does it all with a staff of one and a half, plus a team of devoted readers who come to stuff envelopes with the twice-yearly Persephone magazine. She has managed it all between bringing up five children and writing four books – the latest, a biography on The Other Elizabeth Taylor, is the first in a series of Persephone Lives.
Legend has it that her re-discovery of neglected women’s writing had its roots in the film Brief Encounter, and the Celia Johnson heroine’s visit to the library. What were the books in her shopping basket? What were women reading in the 1940s? Research led to Beauman writing her first book, A Very Great Profession, which looked at the way women’s reading between the wars reflected their lives.
“It wasn’t really that,” says Beauman, ever pragmatic. “I’ve been interested in women writers all my life.”
Persephone started life in darkly atmospheric premises in Clerkenwell before moving to its current pretty shop in Bloomsbury. Most of the business is done by mail order, but customers come to the shop not only to buy books but to enjoy just being there; there are lunches and teas, lectures and book groups. “We can’t afford PR, and this is a softer method of getting ourselves known,” she says.
Is there such a thing as a Persephone Woman? There is, she says, and it’s about time she got the sort of books she wants to read.
Her best-selling book? Probably Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day, a zany 1930s comedy that was made into a film.
Her own favourites? Everything by Dorothy Whipple, now equally well-loved by her readers.
Sometimes books by unknown writers are brought to her, some­times they are by familiar names, some of whose work has been left in the dark for too long – Wini­fred Holtby, Marghanita Laski, Penelope Mortimer, the sublime Molly Panter Downs. There are cookery books on the list, off-beat titles such as the 1940s They Can’t Ration These, and the 1930s Good Things in England. Now we have the splendid Mrs Rundell, a domestic goddess with such a high profile that she became involved in a rather nasty publishing scandal.
Selling in thousands as she did, by 1816 her Domestic Cookery was a hugely valuable bestseller for her publisher, John Murray. Then for some reason, perhaps family pressure, she approached another publishing house, Longman.
There followed a lengthy and acrimonious legal tussle which lasted until 1823. Murray won out, and Mrs Rundell’s book continued to be profitable for many years.
Her success lay in her practicality. The recipes are brief and clear, the advice applicable to cooks today: she tells you how to test fish for freshness, suggests you boil potatoes in their skins, says sternly that her idea of preparing fruit for children, simply simmered with sugar, is “a far more wholesome way than in pies and puddings”.
Her household hints are occasionally helpful, but all wonderfully readable: “To destroy crickets: put Scotch snuff upon the holes where they come out… To prevent the creaking of a door: Rub a bit of soap on the hinges…”
Beauman, who has lived in Hampstead for many years, likes to think that much of the book could have been written in Hampstead. It seems that after Mrs Rundell was widowed she inherited a house from her husband, a building which is now the Holly Bush pub. “More research is needed,” says Beauman.
She wishes she had more time to do it, says it’s all a bit mad, and that half of the problem is she hates bureaucracy.
Her first 10 years have been a hard slog, and she has loved every minute of it.
“We’re in profit now, although not much,” says Beauman.
“But I’m not in it for the money. I’m doing it for all those women writers. Wouldn’t they be incredibly happy not to be forgotten?”

Persephone Books is at 59 Lambs Conduit St, WC1. 020 7242 9292. The shop will be part of the street’s Christmas shopping open evening from 4-8pm on Thursday, December 10.

Comment on this article.
(You must supply your full name and email address for your comment to be published)





» A-Z Book titles


Theatre Music
Arts & Events Attractions