My Persephone Prize essay

The Persephone Prize was announced yesterday – many congrats to the winner; their winning essay will be published by Persephone soon, I believe. I didn’t expect to make the shortlist, and (indeed) did not, but it was only today that I realised that I’d accidentally sent an early, incomplete draft… doh! But I’m sure I wouldn’t have won anyway.

I asked them if I could publish my essay here – and they said I could. And so below is my (complete! I think… I’m now wondering if I’ve misplaced the final version…) essay about forms of adoption in some Persephone titles; soon I’ll be posting my Mum’s (aka Our Vicar’s Wife’s) entry too. I just thought, since we spent time writing them, we may as well share our efforts with the wider world! Here goes… 

‘I must try to make
her feel at home!’: forms of adoption
Persephone Books, it could be argued, performs the work of
an adoption agency. That is one, at least, among its many roles and activities.
Novels, biographies, cookery books, and more, are found neglected and unappreciated
– and given new homes; firstly between dove grey covers, joining a united
family bearing the same likeness, and then in actual homes of readers across
the world. It is appropriate, then, to look at the forms of adoption which appear
in a selection of Persephone’s novels. While actual adoption is not (I believe)
given centre stage in any Persephone novel – although some, like The Children Who Lived in a Barn by
Eleanor Graham, seem almost to be crying out for it – there are versions of it
which can be seen in several, particularly in Doreen (1946) by Barbara Noble.
Looking through the Persephone catalogue, it quickly becomes
apparent how many of the books show how wartime disrupts families – which is,
of course, a truism. The Second World War splits up a family in the moving
non-fiction work On the Other Side:
Letters to my children from Germany 1940-46
by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckberg; it
creates an unusual family in Jocelyn Playfair’s A House in the Country, where Cressida Chance’s large home (‘big
enough to be a hotel’[1],
as one character thinks) houses an increasing number of paying guests; it is
the catalyst of a search for family and identity in Little Boy Lost by Marghanti Laski.
In Doreen, the
Second World War does both actions: it disrupts a family and it creates a new
one, while continually asking what it means to be a family. Doreen is the young child who is evacuated to the
countryside, to be away from war-torn London. Her mother is poor and fiercely
protective, but recognises that she must place her child’s safety over her own
happiness (and the picture is complete with a dead child neighbour, Edie, who
acts as a warning of what could have happened had Doreen not moved to safety).
If adoption is the transferral from one home to another, then Doreen has not
only done this, she has had her first home changed out of recognition (‘it was
a come-down living in two rooms after you’d had a whole house to yourself’[2]), and
has already experienced life in another quasi-home: the air-raid shelter that
she finds diverting but hardly domestic.
Although shy on arrival, it is not long before Doreen has
found her place in her new surroundings:
With a child’s chameleon
adaptability she had acquired the colour of her new background. She was the daughter
of the house, petted by Francie, teased by Geoffrey, exercising an affectionate
authority over Lucy’s giggling simplicity. She was as much at ease as she had
been at home, and her domain was wider.[3]
Noble does not paint a portrait of a cruel or alienating
couple; Francie and Geoffrey Osbourne (Doreen’s new ‘parents’) are welcoming
and kind, although with different perspectives. Perhaps almost as important as Doreen’s
adoption (albeit temporary) into this household is her transition to a new home
and new surroundings. Doreen explores
not just the people that make up a family, but the idea of a landscape and a
building as a sort of family; it is familiarity with a landscape and
architecture that ultimately creates a home.
The home is extremely important in many Persephone novels
(and not just those that focus a title upon it: A House in the Country, The
New House
, The Home-Maker, House-Bound). Few could forget the vivid
interior scenes in The Victorian
or the cosy domestic bliss of Greenery Street. Doreen is one of Persephone’s explorers of the
Left to her own devices, she
liked to from room to room, mounting first the flight of stairs to the floor
which contained her own bedroom and then the further flight which nowadays was
very little used and which led to what had been the servants’ bedrooms and a
lumber-room. She was fascinated by the thought of such a large house to contain
three persons.[4]
Alongside this (to Doreen) fantastically large house, she is
presented with a series of microcosmic or skewed homes – not just the air raid
shelter, but the Obsournes’ shed, and the toy house she is given as a present.
The image of the home recurs, multiplying itself through the novel, and echoing
the central problem facing this form of adoption that falls short of adoption:
the multiplicity of options facing Doreen. For, of course, as a friend says to
her sympathetically: ‘“You’ve got like two mothers, haven’t you, Doreen?”’ The
‘like’, interrupting the flow of the sentence, demonstrates that the sentiment
cannot be simple. She does not have two mothers; she has not transferred from
one family to another (or one home to another), but remains part of two
families, and torn between them: ‘She cried because she had learned to love
more than one person and it seemed that this was some kind of crime.’[5]
A similar situation arises in Family Roundabout (1949) by Richmal Crompton, where Mrs Willoughby
and Mrs Fowler are in unspoken competition for the role of grandmother – the
former ‘outraged’ when the latter appears to usurp her position; ‘That this
woman’s futility should have brought Jessica to a sense of duty when her own
authority had failed!’[6]
These non-romantic rivalries between women – particularly those that are not
voiced – evoke a certain distinct variety of domestic anxiety and
unsettledness. The difference here, of course, is that both of Crompton’s women
have equal standing – relationally and socially. Much of the tension in the
dynamics of Doreen develops from the
class distinction – which comes to a head when Mrs Rawlings visits (as Geoffrey
queries, ‘“Is Mrs Rawlings going to take her meals with us?”’[7])
In Doreen, the
third corner of the triangle comes in the form of Doreen’s father, but he is
never a serious contender for a family, and – in the swift-moving train and
pipedream house – does not provide a stable option for a home. Doreen’s
loyalties are torn between these two homes, and only in the throes of a fever
is she able to embrace both options: ‘Doreen herself seemed to regard them
without discrimination.’[8]
Mrs Rawlings senses the struggle, and thus gives one of the
few mentions of ‘adoption’ in the novel:
[There] wasn’t any reason for
carrying on as if they’d adopted the child. She’d soon put a stop to that kind
of talk. Some people – give ‘em an inch and they’d take an ell. But it was a
nice room – it was nice for Doreen to have a room to herself.[9]
Like Doreen herself, who relishes the ‘privacy and seclusion
of her own bedroom’ and the ‘charm of possession’,[10]
Mrs Rawlings recognises the importance (articulated so famously by Virginia
Woolf, although perhaps not envisioning quite this set of circumstances) of a
room of one’s own. Independence is somehow found in this warren of
The idea of adoption was not brought about solely by war, of
course, nor was evacuation the concept taken to its extremes; Leonora Eyles
writes it Unmarried But Happy of
‘several cases where a lonely woman has taken on a little orphan of the air
raids (I imagine quite illegally, but there was not much law in those dark
nights) and made for it and herself a happy home.’[11]
But, in Francie, we see elements of the stereotype held up by those discussing
adoption earlier in the century: the woman who adopts for the sake of her own
emotional needs. In her 1977 memoir Woman
in a Man’s World
, Rosamund Essex
wrote about adopting her son, David, at the beginning of the Second World War:
‘in the days when I adopted there were so many abandoned and unwanted children
that it was far better to have at least one parent rather than none’.[12]
(The choice facing Doreen – of two mothers – was not, of course, facing David.)
From an early age, Essex had wanted to adopt to avoid becoming ‘an acidulated
old spinster’;[13]
precisely the variety of person that some writers in the interwar period had
warned against adopting. The advice given in the many guides for (or treatise
on) spinsters considering adopting was: don’t. For instance, Laura Hutton
writes in The Single Woman and Her
Emotional Problems
(1935) that ‘child adopted because the adopting mother’s affections are starved is [likely] to
suffer serious psychic damage’[14]
Francie is not a spinster, of course, and her marriage is a
happy one. But her childlessness (and her unhappiness about this) is an
overarching theme in the novel: ‘“I’ve always felt sorry for children who
weren’t really wanted. […] That’s partly why I’ve always wanted children of my
own – because at least they couldn’t ever feel like that.”’[15] It
is even suggested that she chose her husband because she ‘wanted someone [she]
could mother’; the same phrase used in a (fairly repellent) book called Wasted Womanhood: ‘Life is without
meaning to her unless she “mothers”.  It
may be her husband […]’.[16] While
individual women have, of course, always found fulfilment in different things
and different aspects of their lives (some wanting career, some wanting
romantic love, some wanting filial love, and many desiring a combination of the
above), there was a dominant line of thought in the early 20th
century that childless women had ‘an incessant aching longing for the
fulfilment of that primary feminine instinct’, to quote Mary Scharlieb’s
pessimistically-titled The Bachelor Woman
and Her Problems
This is certainly true for Francie. While there is no
indication that Doreen suffers ‘serious psychic damage’ (at least from this
particular avenue), it quickly becomes clear that she is initially more comfortable
with the casual, undemanding affection of Francie’s husband – who, at the
outset of the novel, isn’t particularly enthusiastic about the idea of
temporarily adopting an evacuee. He remains affectionate but not overwhelmed by
the need for this surrogate daughter:
Was he abnormally detached or
Francie abnormally involved? And if the latter, was it with Doreen as an
individual, the affectionate, impressionable little girl who had fitted so
smoothly into their household during the past six months, or with a symbol of
childhood only, the representation of an idea? Long before Doreen had made her
appearance, there had been a niche prepared for her.[18]
Earlier in the novel, Noble writes that it ‘did not surprise
Francie to find that the child she had imagined and the child who had
materialised should blend so smoothly.’[19] She
becomes almost a Frankenstein figure. The same sentiment is seen in a fantastic
novel of the 1920s: Edith Olivier’s The
. In this instance, the child has quite literally been ‘imagined’
and ‘materialised’; an imaginary childhood friend, Clarissa, is inadvertently
brought to life by the lonely spinster, Agatha. This scenario seems entirely
born from the starved emotions discussed by some interwar commentators, and
Olivier’s novel shows how this miraculous event cannot be controlled by the
woman; her ‘love child’ eventually changes and leaves her.
In Doreen, of
course, there is no fantastic panacea. Olivier’s Agatha has to go through the
formalities of filling out adoption forms, to explain the sudden appearance of
Clarissa, but Francie does not have even this procedure to turn to; inherent in
the evacuation is its finiteness. ‘The happiness she brought them was a
borrowed happiness. She was on loan to them’[20]
More than that, the home that is enlivened by Doreen’s presence will also
revert back to its previous state – and it is this domestic consideration that
is on Francie’s mind: ‘One day Doreen would go back. This house which bounded
her existence would be once more a house without a child. And that would be
hard to bear.’[21]
Perhaps Franice and Geoffrey would have been good candidates
for adoption. This form of it, though, only emphasises the absence of children
in the longterm home; Noble’s novel expertly shows the possible heartbreak for
all concerned as the aftermath of the kindness of evacuation.
And now to turn briefly to another Persephone novel,
published not long beforehand but with a very different form of adoption. If
the Second World War brought about disruption to families through bombings and
evacuation, then the First World War left its own legacy. Agatha (in The Love-Child) was of the generation
that had ‘two million surplus women’ (the much-mentioned figure of how many
more women there were than men in the 1920s). This, necessarily, led to large
numbers of women who neither married nor had children, chastised by those
interwar commentators, such as the one who proclaimed in 1920 that ‘it behoves
all who can in any way assist in the replenishing of the diminished population
of these islands to do so to the best of their ability.’[22]
Also among their number, perhaps, is Miss Pettigrew – of Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (1938).
Although the reader is not vouchsafed elaborate detail about
Miss Pettigrew’s past, and the ‘surplus women’ situation may or may not have
been the cause of her current life, but we know early in the novel that ‘there
was no personal friend or relation in the whole world who knew or cared whether
Miss Pettigrew was alive or dead.’[23]
Later on, she confides that she has never been kissed, but ‘still ha[s]
Feminine Instincts. Deep in the female breast burns a love of the conquering
Yet it is not really sexual love that is foregrounded in the conclusion to the
Cinderella story Miss Pettigrew experiences. She is thrown into a frantic and
complex world of romance, intrigue, and even drugs – and, yes, she closes the
novel proudly announcing her ‘beau’ – but ultimately the happy ending to the
book is Miss Pettigrew’s own form of adoption. 
There is no child at the centre
of the adoption; it is not even entirely clear who is adopter and who adoptee.
It takes place in the final pages, when Miss LaFosse (who has introduced Miss
Pettigrew to this new world) asks Miss Pettigrew to look after her house:
“Michael and I are getting
married. Quite soon. But Michael has a kink. He will live in a big house with
big rooms. He says he spent all his youth with a family of nine all cooped in a
little flat with the walls closing in on him and never a room to himself, and
He Will Have Space. He has his eye on a beautiful house now, but it is immense.
We are both to live there. I can’t look after houses. I know nothing about
looking after houses.”[25]
In the same way that Doreen and Francie see their
relationship through houses, and interaction with them, so Miss LaFosse talks
only of the house – repeated almost like a mantra in this speech. Michael’s
childhood resembles Doreen’s (although she is able to think fondly of the
‘familiar, cluttered rooms and friendly, crowded streets’[26]),
and he is equally beguiled by the idea of an expansive home; one that exceeds
necessity and thus permits freedom. Miss Pettigrew’s response is not unlike
Doreen’s excitement at the room of her own:
Miss Pettigrew began to tremble.
It was little a great light bursting with a radiance that spread and spread. It
was fear gone for ever. It was peace at last. A house to run almost her own.
How she had longed for that! Marketing, ordering, like any other housewife.[27]
It is not the husband that makes the housewife, in her case;
it is simply the house. Or, rather, the home; like Doreen, Miss Pettigrew has
experienced a series of quasi-homes – acting as a governess, rather than part
of the family – and the spectre of another looms on her horizon: ‘“There was
nothing for me but the workhouse, and now you offer me a home.”’[28] She
has been adopted into the household. Her temporary stay with Miss LaFosse –
effectively an evacuation from her dreary life into the safety of companions
and friends (even if the danger of other aspects) – is made a fixed and
permanent adoption, albeit an unconventional one. And, at the same time, she is
also adopting Miss LaFosse and Michael – becoming, in some way, their caregiver
and parent figure.

[1] Jocelyn
Playfair, A House in the Country
(1944) (London: Persephone Books, 2002) p.19
[2] Barbara
Noble, Doreen (1946) (London:
Persephone Books, 2005) p.8
[3] Doreen p.59
[4] Doreen p.89
[5] Doreen pp.125f
[6] Richmal
Crompton, Family Roundabout (1949)
(London: Persephone Books, 2001) p.206
[7] Doreen p.56
[8] Doreen p.206
[9] Doreen p.63
[10] Doreen p.89
[11] Leonora
Eyles, Unmarried But Happy (London:
Victor Gollancz, 1947) p.33
[12] Essex,
[13] Essex,
[14] Hutton
[15] Doreen p.16
[16] Doreen p.87; Charlotte Cowdroy, Wasted Womanhood (London: Allen &
Unwin, 1933) p.82
[17] Mary Scharlieb,
The Bachelor Woman and Her Problems (London:
Williams & Norgate, 1929) p.54
[18] Doreen p.165
[19] Doreen p.48
[20] Doreen p.217
[21] Doreen p.110
[22] Joseph
Dulberg, Sterile Marriages (London:
T. Werner Laurie, 1920) p.10
[23] Winifred
Watson, Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day
(1938) (London: Persephone Books, 2000) p.2
[24] Miss Pettigrew p.208, p.220
[25] Miss Pettigrew p.231
[26] Doreen p.38
[27] Miss Pettigrew p.232
[28] Miss Pettigrew p.233

One thought on “My Persephone Prize essay

  • March 13, 2015 at 8:28 pm

    Excellent piece, Simon, and definitely prize-worthy! I hadn't thought of Miss Pettigrew in those terms – very thought-provoking! :)



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