For women, the early 20th century had its compensations. The First World War brought fear and unimaginable grief, but also a cascade of new freedoms: work (in factories and on farms, as police officers and bus conductors), better and higher education, the vote, accessible contraception and divorce. But the story is a little more complicated: the girls who lost their men in the trenches were left perpetually single, while the depression of the Thirties steered the married ones out of the workforce and back to the kitchen. A glut of young, educated and frustrated people, conditions that always seem to lead to art or revolution. The suffragettes had already tried violence. This time, women plumped for the pen, producing an outpouring of superb fiction, much of which was soon patronized and forgotten. Until Persephone.

The cult indie publisher specializing in neglected 20th-century women’s writing marks its 25th anniversary this year. “I don’t like the word brand,” says Nicola Beauman, Persephone’s founder, but she has forged an instantly recognizable one in spite of herself. Each Persephone title is numbered (the 150th will be published in April), plumed with vibrant vintage-print endpapers (individually rooted out by Beauman from period books or the V&A — “it’s a sort of instinct”) and otherwise identically bound in chic slate-grey. The color was inspired, Beauman tells me, by the takeaway coffee cups of the New York deli chain Dean & DeLuca. It’s a vibe: Persephone’s Instagram now has more than 77,000 followers.

“I don’t like the word brand,” says Nicola Beauman, Persephone’s founder.

For those in the know, the grey jacket has become a hallmark of quality. Between its elegant flaps, brilliant writers from the 1920s to the 1960s with names that feel exotic today — Dorothy Whipple, Cicely Hamilton, EM Delafield, Lettice Cooper and Mollie Panter-Downes — have found passionate new readerships. “People who like us trust that if we say a book is good, it is,” Beauman says.

We are sitting in spring sunlight in the back of Persephone’s bookshop in Bath (to which it relocated from Bloomsbury three years ago), an 18th-century building that has had other lives, Beauman tells me, as an Indian carpet shop, an art gallery and a Jewish dentist. Today, it feels halfway between a bookshop and a cheerily twee recreation of an old-fashioned English parlor, the shelves jostling against stern wartime rationing posters (“Buy it with thought. Cook it with care”) and vases of flowers.

Clockwise from top left: Cicely Mary Hamilton, an English actress, writer, journalist, suffragist, and feminist; Mollie Panter-Downes, British novelist and columnist for The New Yorker; E. M. Delafield, a British novelist and playwright; Dorothy Whipple, an English writer of popular fiction and children’s books.

Beauman, an alarmingly sharp 79-year-old presiding over her shop and staff in a brightly patterned sweater, set up Persephone in 1999, at the age of 55. She was motivated by a sense of frustration at the lack of interest shown by other publishers of neglected women’s writing, such as Virago, in what she calls “domestic feminism” — stories about spinsters, wives and grandmothers whose political struggles are written in margarine, not blood. In 1983, Beauman (who has also written biographies of Cynthia Asquith and the novelist Elizabeth Taylor) wrote A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-39, featuring many of the authors she would go on to publish. When her father died, leaving her some money, she went to Foyles, bought a volume called How to Publish a Book and set to work.

“People who like us trust that if we say a book is good, it is.”

It was tough going at first. Persephone published 12 books in its first year (“I was so enthusiastic,” she says drily) and struggled to turn a profit. Then a woman walked into the basement office in Clerkenwell with a copy of her mother’s favorite book, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson, a tender Cinderella story, published in 1938, about a struggling middle-aged governess whose life becomes accidentally entangled with a glamorous nightclub singer. Miss Pettigrew became a word-of-mouth bestseller and was made into a film starring Frances McDormand. Other Persephone titles have been discovered in similarly strange ways, their authors spotted in an obituary or in Virginia Woolf’s diary.

“When people say to me what a success Persephone is — literally, it was luck,” says Beauman, who doesn’t like to play favorites. “Miss Pettigrew is a marvelous book, but it’s no more marvelous than any of our others.”

Each Persephone title is numbered; the 150th will be published next month.

There is plenty of variety across the Persephone stable — Despised and Rejected, the story of a gay conscientious objector; An Interrupted Life, the diary of a Jewish woman in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation; plus a few brave male authors (because “I don’t want to be the kind of feminist who hates men”) — but war and its repercussions ripples down the list, inescapably. “Both wars were a huge turning point for so many people. They felt tremendously alive. You couldn’t just be sleepy and dull during a war,” says Beauman, whose parents were German Jewish refugees.

Some tackle the subject directly. William — An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton, the first book Persephone published, about a couple on their honeymoon in Belgium in 1914 who accidentally stumble into the invasion, is “the best novel about the First World War ever written”, says Beauman. “But that’s very hyperbolic.” Hamilton, who spent the war in France working in hospitals and organizing entertainments for the troops, probably scribbled the first draft in pencil in a canvas tent, in snatched gaps between clearing up shattered buildings. As Beauman writes in her preface: “We are used to war poets writing poems in these circumstances … we are not used to women novelists writing novels.”

“When people say to me what a success Persephone is — literally, it was luck.”

Some come at the subject on a slant. Take Whipple’s 1953 novel Someone at a Distance, No 2 on the Persephone list (it has sold more than 20,000 copies), a mesmeric, quietly horrifying domestic tragedy that at first glance has no particular connection to the horrors that came before it. Yet the story of the Norths, an unreasonably contented middle-class couple whose marriage is horribly changed by the arrival of a beautiful, ruthless, penniless French woman, feels in some ways like an allegory for the century: bucolic rural bliss torn asunder; a once steadfast man lured away by France; women’s lives transformed for ever.

Whipple remains Persephone’s bestselling author. “You can sit in the shop for the day and at least two people will come in and say ‘I love Dorothy Whipple’,” Beauman says. She’s infuriated by the way the literati has condescended to the “Jane Austen of the 20th century”, as JB Priestley called her. The novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett was a fan, but used to hide her Whipple books under the sofa when visitors came. “People think she’s middlebrow … And you’d have a job finding her literary influences. What are her literary influences? She wasn’t at university.” (For what it’s worth, I’d say George Eliot.)

There is plenty of variety across the Persephone stable of books.

Beauman thinks that some mid-century women writers are anointed by the academic community — people such as Barbara Pym and Rebecca West — while others such as Whipple are left to gather dust “in the other corner”. Persephone tries to usher them back into the light.

Today, life at Persephone is as placid and secure as the (illusory) surface of so many of its stories. Turnover is steady, buoyed by comforting bestsellers such as Miss Pettigrew (what Beauman calls “hot water bottle” books). She estimates that 70 percent of sales come from mail order — loyal readers who subscribe to a book a month ($240 for a year) or send a “box set” (six books for $113) to friends and family. Not cheap but then, but few new books today are.

Of course, there’s a ceiling to Persephone’s ambitions –— even as more and more mainstream publishers are beginning to churn out “forgotten masterpieces”, Beauman has no wish to dilute the quality of her collection. “I don’t want to get bigger. It sounds awful to say, but there are very, very few books that I would want to publish now.” She is in the gradual process of handing the business over to her daughter, Fran, and thinks the list might get to 175 — perhaps. “We might change direction,” she tells me. “Or we might go on for ever.”

Susie Goldsbrough is the assistant literary editor at The Times of London