The Story of the Where-Virago-Led-Me Bookcase

Once upon a time there was a wicker bookcase, where all of my Persephone books lived. I was delighted to find it, a few years ago know, because it was a smaller version of my Virago bookcase, and the two looked lovely together. At first there was space for a few more additions back then, but that space filled up and eventually the collection outgrew its home.

That was why, when we acquired another wicker bookcase and started to think about what should go where, I decided that the Persephone collection had to move. I was never entirely convinced that it was the styles of the book and the shelf quite suited each other, and they’re a little less accessible than they were but the plain shelves in pale wood that they sit on now suit them much better.

That left me a bookcase to fill, and that’s where the story of the Where-Virago-Led-Me Bookcase began.

I had the idea of putting all of the old hardback books by Virago authors that I’d collected over the years in one bookcase.

I realised quite quickly that they wouldn’t all fit, and so I took out the authors that had also been published by Persephone, in the hope that I would be able to do a similar bookcase for Persephone one day. I had to put a couple of authors I felt less fo a bond with to one side too, and I was sorry to have to do that, but I was delighted with what was left.

* * * * * * *

1st

The first shelf is home to books by G B Stern and Sylvia Townsend  Warner.

I picked up a lovely, seasonal story named The Ten Days of Christmas and that started me collecting her fiction. And then I picked up Monogram her first collection of memoirs in the library and that started me collecting her non fiction. I love her versatility, her intelligence and her wit.

I still remember the wonderful day when I came across a long line of books by and about Sylvia Townsend Warner in a second-hand bookshop. The six collections of short stories live here, I have a couple more in paperback on another bookcase, and I hope to pick up the others that I don’t have one day; because STW really was mistress of the art of short story writing

* * * * * * *

2nd

The second shelf has to be my favourite – because it holds books by Margery Sharp and Margaret Kennedy.

I adore Margery Sharp’s books and I really hope that they will find their way back into print someday soon. In the meantime I’ve collected most of the gettable ones – there are a few more in my collection of elderly paperbacks that I’ll photograph another day – and I dream of the earliest titles that are ridiculously scarce and even more ridiculously priced on the rare occasions when copies appear for sale.

I was delighted that so many people joined in the celebrations for Margery Sharp Day – and I’ll definitely be throwing her another party next January.

I love Margaret Kennedy just as much, but for very different reasons because she’s a very different writer. As most of her books are in print I’m building my collection slowly and steadily. It’s hard to pick favourites because her books are very diverse, but if you pushed me I think I’d pick The Feast. Or Lucy Carmichael. Or ….

I’m not planning to repeat Margaret Kennedy Reading Week, but I’m thinking of a ‘Margaret Kennedy Day’ on her birthday, next April. And I’m thinking of maybe doing the same thing for one or two other authors.

* * * * * * *

3rd

The next shelf is home to books by Ann Bridge, Rachel Ferguson, Elizabeth Jenkins and Ruth Adam.

‘The Light-Hearted Quest’ – a book I picked up in a charity shop many years ago – was my introduction t0 Ann Bridge, and when I found that it was part of a series I started to track down the other books. I have most of them now, and a few of her other books, but I’m still missing a couple. I know that Bloomsbury Reader has them all back in print now, but the would feel like cheating. But reading Enchanter’s Nightshade earlier in the year reminded me how good Ann Bridge was at a particular kind of book, and so maybe I will cheat ….

I have only read one book by Rachel Ferguson, but because she has been published by both Virago and Persephone I have picked up her books whenever I could.

I bought The Phoenix’s Nest by Elizabeth Jenkins in a bookshop closing-down sale. It was a little more than I would usually pay, but I’d never come across the title before, and I wanted to buy something before the owner. When I got it home and looked it up I couldn’t find anything out about it – I would have wondered if it was by another Elizabeth Jenkins, but I knew that it wasn’t because the cover references Harriet – and so I’m inclined to think it was a very good buy.

I have yet to read Ruth Adam, but as she comes warmly recommended by both Darlene and Scott, as she’s published been published by both Virago and Persephone, it seemed sensible to invest in a few of her books ….

4th

The fourth – and final – shelf holds books by Sheila Kaye-Smith and Pamela Frankau

I came across a number of Sheila Kaye-Smith’s books in the 50p box outside my local second-hand bookshop quite a few years ago, before I had read any of her work, and I was smitten by titles like ‘Ember Lane’, ‘Sussex Gorse’, ‘Green Apple Harvest’, ‘Star Brace’ …. Since then I have read one of her Virago titles – Joanna Godden – and one of these books – The End of the House of Alard – and found much to enjoy.

But while I like her books I have to say that Virago has introduced me to finer writers; including Pamela Frankau . When I read her for the first time – the book was The Willow Cabin – I was delighted that I had already rescued a couple of her books from the 50p box, and since then I have successfully tracked down a few more of her out-of-print titles.

* * * * * * *

And that’s it!

Now tell me, how are your books arranged …. ?

46 thoughts on “The Story of the Where-Virago-Led-Me Bookcase

  1. “Arranged” is not necessarily the right word for my books…. Notionally, they’re initially split by e.g. genre (Russian fiction) and then alphabetically, or publisher (e.g. Virago) then likewise. However, there’s often crossover, I tend to run out of space in a particular section and then there are the piles that have gradually arrived and not been sorted away anywhere. Basically I need an aircraft hanger, lots of empty shelves and plenty of time to actually sort the books out properly…… :s

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    1. That sounds very like the situation here, though I suspect that I have fewer Russians and more Victorians. There was an empty helicopter hangar down the road a few years ago, but sadly the site was sold and a supermarket built without anybody thinking what a file library it might have been.

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  2. Lovely description of the shelves Jane…my book shelves have no order except History and Non fiction, Classics and everything else…. Sigh! One Day I will become more organized!

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    1. I tell myself that a little bit of randomness is good, and that it’s nice to have very different authors juxtaposed, to help draw me to the books I want to read but had forgotten to look for – that’s how my general fiction is once I’ve cherry- picked books by theme to shelve together. I’d like to think that one day they all be sitting happily in their different families, but I don’t think that’s likely to happen any time soon, for reasons of time and shelf-space.

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  3. In boring, uninspired alphabetical order by author (for the novels). This virtual peek at yours was lovely. And can I please put in a vote for another Margaret Kennedy celebration, or a day or a week for anyone else you care to name. Of course, then I might have to set up a ‘where Jane has led me’ bookshelf…

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  4. Very nice! I have three long shelves full of my Viragos (100), NYRB Classics (40) and Persephones (10), and little clusters of “books Virago has led me to” scattered throughout the shelves: half a dozen Margery Sharp (I’ve read “The Nutmeg Tree” at least three times), half a dozen Dorothy Canfield, some Rebecca West, some Susan Glaspell, some Naomi Mitchison, some Kate O’Brien, some Rumer Godden. And Sylvia Townsend Warner is well represented both among the Viragos and the NYRB Classics.

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    1. What a wonderful range of authors. Most are on my Virago and Persephone shelves downstairs, though not as many as I’d like by Dorothy Canfield or Susan Glaspell as they’re more difficult to come by on my side of the Atlantic than yours.

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  5. Lovely post Jane.
    My Virago are housed in 2 1/2 bookcases in alpha-order by author & then title. My Persephone are housed in the 2nd half of that 3rd bookcase, the order being the Persephone publication numerical order.
    The other 10 bookcases in my wee house house the remainder of my 4,0000 book library all in alpha-order. First by author, then by title. I am now at a place in time where I am removing books from my library when once read, I don’t think I will reread & they are not a ‘heart’ book. (except for my V & P books)
    hugs,

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    1. How organised you must be Belva, to keep such a collection of books in good order. I’m adopting a similar approach when it comes to passing on books I’ve read and acquiring others, by trying to focus on the quality of the library I’m building for myself,

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  6. I completely envy you your collection of old books I love books like that. You remind me that I have been meaning to buy a new bookcase and still haven’t managed to get around to it.

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  7. Well I had to look at your bookshelf twice because I was convinced it was mine….but of course it isn’t but I did have a wicker bookcase once a long time ago. My bookcases are never big enough and I fear it is a dreadful problem but if you’re going to have problems, I’d choose this one any day. I love where my books take me – it’s the cheapest form of travel and you meet the nicest people on the way.

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    1. We started off with one wicker bookcase that my mother bought some years ago, and we’ve picked up a few more over the years, quite cheaply because they seem to be rather out of fashion now. I love them, and hope to pick up a more if we can.

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  8. I do love browsing your bookshelves 🙂 Thank you for sharing! I love the older editions too.

    My books are organized by author, but I have spent a lot of time figuring out who goes next to whom. Jane Austen and Penelope Lively fill one shelf, and Mr Trollope has a shelf to himself just below them. P.G. Wodehouse could fill a whole shelf, but he shares with E.F. Benson and Nancy Mitford. When I discover a new author, it can take some time to decide just where she or he fits in.

    I’ll look forward to celebrating Margaret Kennedy and Margery Sharp with you.

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    1. That’s a lovely way to shelve books, but it must take some thought. I imagine that you’ve kept Mr Trollope and Mrs Oliphant some distance apart, and I hope that Miss Kennedy is not too far from Miss Austen, as I know that she was inspirational for her.

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      1. Yes, because the wrong juxtaposition of some authors can feel quite jarring! Currently Miss Kennedy is shelved between Mollie Panter-Downes & Barbara Pym.

        I love all responses back & forth – such a fun topic!

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    1. We’re all different, Jessica, and the important thing is that you’re happy with your shelves and your reading. There are lots of different books mixed up many of my shelves, and stacked up around the house, but I’m gradually trying to get things arranged thematically so that I can think of my shelves as my own personal library.

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  9. What a wonderful bookcase! I am very big on thematic groups on my shelves: gardening books all together, histories all grouped by region of interest (applicable biographies and memoirs included where appropriate), and fiction generally by publisher or genre. Could not care less about alphabetizing and am certain I would never find anything again if I tried to sort that way!

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    1. This is definitely the home for the best books I have that aren’t in green or grey or in little paperbacks – they have their own shelves. I don’t think I could ever keep up with alphabetizing, and your approach sounds quite like mine. The important thing is that we can find things and that we feel at home with our shelves.

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  10. Lovely post, Jane – I enjoyed browsing your bookshelves. My own shelves are in a bit of a mess at the moment, double-stacked with books arranged roughly by theme/country of author. I really do need to buy a new bookcase!

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    1. This is definitely my favourite bookcase, with books by nearly all of the authors I’m actively collecting. I love rearranging, but it eats up so much time, and so I’m doing a little bit from time to time, just so that I can find things and have some themed shelves to gaze at happily.

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    1. I dream of finding copies of Rhododendron Pie and Fanfare for Tin Trumpets, and I do think there’s hope for reissues. If it can happen for authors like Edith Oliver and Richmal Crompton (her adult novels) surely it can happen for Margery Sharp too.

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  11. I love your choice of books. Margery Sharp a great favourite. I had most of them but gave them to Sheffield Hallam University when they established the popular fiction 1900-1950 collection in its own little ‘pod’ beneath the citry centre streets. Do visit it. They collect early editions of fiction that was enjoyed but not been republished. however sometimes Bloomsbury, Virago or Persephone put that right. Look forward to following your blog. My present project, Reading Sheffield, now has its own website. readingsheffield.co.uk

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  12. I love reading about the relationship you have with the physicality of your books, Jane, there is a real feeling of you giving your books a physical home and making them comfortable, just like an honoured and loved guest who comes to stay (your books are smiling in contentment to each other!)

    As to my own ‘shelves’ – well for years it was ‘anyhow’, where I could fit them, apart from my ‘professional orientation books’ which were all on one bookshelf in my study area so I could easily access them for research.

    But a year ago I had some major decorating work done and everything got taken into storage for a month. So that was curious, well over 1000 books all taken away – plus everything else. I had the sofa (which turns into a sofabed) my computer, the chair and a table but everything else in living and sleeping space was packed up and taken away and I was living out of one suitcase for a month. That was careful packing – not quite what you’d take when going on holiday, as it had to include my work related requirements for that month as well.

    What it did do, for the first time in years, when everything came back in over 100 boxes which took a month to unpack, was that I could order my shelves! What fun I had. Fiction now lives in the bedroom bookshelves, A-z by author, 2 big roughly 6 foot high and wide bookcases, with adjustable shelves, so there’s some negotiation re shelf space for the very tall books. And as one bookcase is very deep, I’m into double shelving so the back row is hidden. This is also good as it tends to keep visitors from saying ‘can I borrow’ and I find it hard to say no – but mourn those books which are never returned. Few people would be browsing in the bedroom! The lounge and the hallway hold all the non-fiction books and these are divided into rough subject matter sections, some of which (plays, poetry, biographies) will be alphabetically arranged within their sections) But this finally means that if ever I want to find a book I can probably do so, knowing where it is within about 10 books on either side – eg all my books which are about ethics and philosophy for example will be in a particular area. So far (about 9 months on from the great re-arrange) I can more or less say everything is roughly where it should be, though I do note a tendency for a high bedside table stack (TBR) and a slight higgledy piggledy on one of the small lounge and hallway bookcases where books which should have been arranged in a permanent home but haven’t yet, are lurking. As I have NO MORE SHELF SPACE and no more walls which can have space for either free standing shelves or strength for built in, the painful culling process is almost permanent – books in must mean books out. Of course the problem is that a trip to the charity shop with a bag of books, which in theory means some bookshelf space has become free, tends to mean a return from the charity shop with another bag of books. If I had SPACE and lived in a castle not a small flat, I don’t think I would ever use my Kindle, except for NetGalley advance review copies. The experience of REAL reading in a book you hold and treasure is superior in every way. And as for real loved books which are second hand and may even have interesting underlinings and annotatings from unknown earlier readers, those are prized above everything else!

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    1. Your shelves sound exactly like what I want, when we find the time and money to refurbish upstairs. A castle to keep my books in would be lovely, but I’ll be happy when I have my reading room upstairs as I want, and can sit in the bay window and look across the bay to the castle on St Michael’s Mount from time to time.

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  13. Wow…you mentioned an Elizabeth Jenkins’ novel that I’ve never heard of and I’m also slightly annoyed I didn’t look for her name while book shopping yesterday. We all know there will be a next time…but what a score for you! So far my system is…Viragoes, Persephone, WWII, and fiction in one bookcase, non-fiction is on a second bookcase, fiction that has come in lately is on another bookcase, library discards and other unsightly (but still loved) books are in the spare room. It’s always fun to play around with the shelves, isn’t it!

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  14. I’m sure that Elizabeth Jenkins’s name would have registered if you’d seen it Darlene, even of you weren’t actively looking. I like the sound of your system. Mine started with Viragos and Persephones in particular homes, and it’s gradually evolved as different themes suggested themselves.

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    1. Royal Borough and Passionate Kensington are both non fiction, and looks to be anecdotal social history of that part of London and the people who live and work there. And Sea Front is a WWII story set in a fictional seaside town, that I ordered because the cover was so lovely and I live on a sea front. I’ll read that one soon and let you know more, and the others will follow along one day.

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  15. I’ve come to this late, having had a gap in blog reading a while ago and now thinning out what I’m going to read, but I loved this post. It reminded me of Persephone’s “50 books we wish we had published” collection (I’ve got SO MANY of those so must be their ideal reader!).

    My own books are in alpha order by author in fiction, except my Persephones, which live on an ancient and much-loved but ugly bookcase. Books on Books and “Pretty Books” flank the bathroom door at the top of the stairs in sweet but inefficient stepped bookshelves (where the shelves are thinner and shorter at the top). Then downstairs non-fiction is arranged into biography, music, feminism, travel (biog in order by subject, travel by author), psychology, social history, quest books, books about owning hotels, and Large Books on the shelves behind the sofa, loosely grouped into social history, art, cookery and fitted in wherever. So a mix of organisation and disorganisation!

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