Right – Day One of the Persephone Week is finished, and so far I’m on track. I’ve read one book: Princes in the Land (1938) by Joanna Cannan. I think I’m supposed to link back to a central page, but I wasn’t sure which, so instead I’ll link back to two Persephone-related quizzes (with prizes!) on Claire’s and Verity’s respective blogs.
Since I’m hoping to read about six books this week, which requires a lot of reading, the reviews of them will be quite short. Hopefully enough for you to decide whether or not you want to investigate further the Persephone Books I’m reviewing…
I’ve been looking forward to reading Princes in the Land for quite a while, not least because it is often compared to one of my favourite Persephone Books, Elizabeth Cambridge’s Hostages to Fortune. Both are set in Oxfordshire; both concern the role of a mother, realising that her children and husband are not exactly what she expected. But where Cambridge’s heroine is pragmatic, wise, and selfless, Cannan’s is rather different. Having read Danielle’s recent review, and the blurb on the Persephone website, I wonder whether others have had different responses to the book… my views will become clear.
The novel opens with Patricia and Angela travelling with their mother, to live with the grandfather in their ancestral mansion. Patricia is travel-sick and miserable – no glamorous introduction to a ‘angular, freckled’ girl; a disappointment to their mother. Their mother ‘had been brought up to ring bells and now had no bells to ring’ (an example of Cannan’s concise, accurate summations of character) – as a poor relative, she must return to her father-in-law’s house, after the death of her husband. We speed through Patricia’s childhood here, and enter stage left a husband: Hugh. They meet in a train carriage, and have soon (after one or two incidents of note) married and set up house.
And the bulk of the novel follows this nuclear family of Patricia and Hugh, and their three children – August, Giles, and Nicola. For the most part, it chronicles Patricia’s illusions about them; the way her children form characters which are anathema to her. They don’t become murderers or drunks, but in her eyes a rejection of horses, an embracing of evangelical Christianity, a lower-middle-class villa, are all akin to her children beating orphans to death. It was here that Princes in the Land differed from Hostages to Fortune – where Catherine selflessly allows her children to follow their own paths, and sees them as acceptable, Patricia views any lifestyle other than her own ideal as dreadful. She has made sacrifices to her marriage, and initially seems an admirable character through and through – but by the end she appears increasingly selfish and unkind. This is mostly exemplified through her dissatisfaction with daughter-in-law Gwen. Her crimes are of the variety of saying ‘Pardon?’; using doilies; wanting to call her daughter Daphne. Patricia says at one point, without any evidence of irony, ‘Goodness knows I’m not snobbish.’ Does Cannan, somehow, agree with her? Can she be that blind? Patricia makes Nancy Mitford seem positively egalitarian. And, unlike Nancy Mitford, this horsey-huntin’-say-glass-not-mirror persona is presented without a shred of self-aware humour.
Which is odd, because Cannan writes quite wittily at times. For example, in describing Angela’s husband Victor – he is:
‘a pink young man with china-blue eyes and hair as golden as Angela’s, who could and did express all life was to him and all his reactions to it in the two simple sentences, “Hellish, eh?” and “Ripping, what?”‘
I suppose, in the end, I didn’t know where I stood with Princes in the Land. I don’t believe in judging a novel by the likeability of its characters, and Cannan can certainly write engagingly, sometimes amusingly, and in a domestic vein so familiar and welcome to Persephone fans. But I cannot sympathise with the character – her themes of a mother’s sacrifice, watching children grow, are ones I usually love, but the stance we seem encouraged to agree with is so prejudiced and, dare I add, proud. Though this only becomes concrete towards the end of the novel – before this, Cannan does show the family’s interlocking relationships from various, more generous angles… as I say, I’m not sure where I stand with the novel. It is certainly well written, and I’m glad I’ve read it, but… my overriding response is a desire to re-read Hostages to Fortune.