Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan

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I am loving my Persephone six month subscription; it’s such a treat to have a surprise book dropped through my letterbox once a month (as I’ve completely forgotten which books I chose!) and if anyone is already starting to think about Christmas presents, I can highly recommend it as a gift idea. You can find more information about it here.

This month’s book was Princes in the Land, and I sat and read it in one indulgent reading, utterly absorbed by the life of Patricia Crispin, who begins the novel a wayward, impish child, romping across the countryside on a horse and caring nothing for the opinions of others. After the early death of her useless, aristocratic father, her snobbish, small-minded mother is invited to take her two daughters to live with her father in law, Lord Waveney, in his Norfolk stately home, Hulver. Patricia, who is everything that her mother deplores, is her grandfather’s favourite, and she grows up wild yet indulged, with every whim catered for against the background of thoughtless Edwardian privilege. When Patricia comes to marriageable age, she rejects all notions of marrying well, as her sister has done before her; she will not be shackled to a brainless young aristocrat who cannot share her own restless, curious soul. One day, she meets awkward young scholar Hugh Lindsay on a train, and falls hopelessly in love at once. He promises to be everything her heart longs for, and they are quickly married, despite her mother’s disapproval. Patricia, despite knowing she will have little money, is not fazed at the thought of a change in the only life she has ever known; confident in her love for Hugh, she looks forward to a life of adventure with the man she adores.

However, as time passes, it becomes clear to Patricia that her marriage is not going to be the adventure she had hoped for. Hugh, embittered by his impoverished childhood and ever conscious of the gulf between his and Patricia’s backgrounds, is obsessed by appearances and finances, and constantly criticises Patricia’s attempts at housekeeping, for which she has never had the slightest training. Absorbed in his academic career, the two drift apart, with Patricia focusing all of her energies on her three children and slowly learning to forget the life she had once dreamed of, and the passions she once had, as she takes on the role of the urban housewife. When Hugh finally achieves his dream of a professorship at Oxford, Patricia takes her chance to go back to the rural life she longs for; they buy a house in the countryside, and she is once more able to have a horse, and introduce her beloved children to the rural pursuits she loved as a child. She brings them up to love nature, simple pleasures, adventure and romance. She pours everything into them, considering them her life’s work; they are her inheritance, her ‘princes in the land’, as the Bible tells her. Despite the disappointments life has dealt her, her children are her solace and her recompense; she may have few friends, few interests, and a husband who is practically a stranger to her, but her children give her life meaning and purpose, and she holds on to them as to a life raft in an increasingly stormy sea.

However, as the children grow up and develop interests of their own, Patricia realises with great sadness that all she has done for them, all she has given up for them, has been largely fruitless. None of them take the paths she had hoped for, and none of them appreciate what she has done for them. She is a stranger to them, and as they drift off to live their lives, leaving her behind, Patricia cannot help but wonder what it was all for, and whether there is any semblance of the old Patricia  left inside of her to reclaim as she looks to a future where there is nothing to hold on to but herself.

This is a beautifully written novel that is really rather searing in its brutality towards its protagonist, and is remarkably interesting in its treatment of the role of motherhood. The cult of the mother has been in place for a good couple of hundred years, and there is still a widely held belief in society that a woman who is not a mother is something less of a woman for not having brought a child into the world and nurtured it. Here, Joanna Cannan questions this belief, by showing how Patricia actually becomes less of a woman for becoming a mother; her true self is stripped away in the process of giving herself so fully to her children, and it is only at the end, when she accepts that her children have gone from her and will never be coming back, that she can begin to recover her true identity. For there is a great danger, Cannan seems to suggest, in a woman placing all of her hopes and dreams onto her children, who are not, after all, ‘hers’, but their own people, with their own dreams and desires, who will not necessarily become the people their mothers had hoped they would become. Children can disappoint, hurt and betray you; if everything you are is built around them, then as they move away from you, your life falls away with them. At the end of the novel, when a surprising event changes Patricia’s perspective on life, she realises this, and decides it is time she stopped living for her children and started living for herself. As such, Cannan is calling for women to not blindly subsume their selves beneath the role of mother, to not be content to sacrifice their dreams and desires in order to become nothing but a bland, benign presence in their children’s lives. For, in my reading of the novel, Cannan is not criticising motherhood; she shows clearly what a joy it is to have children, and how wonderful the experience of bringing up a child can be. What she criticises is Patricia’s style of motherhood; she is disappointed in her children not because they are cruel or unkind but because they are not what she wanted them to be, and this matters so deeply to her because she allowed her life to become too dependent on what her children chose to do with theirs. She becomes, in many ways, her own mother, who she as a child could also never really love, but there is hope in the knowledge that Patricia can see this by the end of the novel, and is determined to change her future, knowing only too well that there is no opportunity to go back.

I found Princes in the Land a truly thought provoking novel, that questions and challenges and isn’t afraid to raise the quiet fears that lie in all of our hearts about the decisions we have made and the people we have allowed ourselves to become. It’s the sort of book that would be perfect for a book club, and I wish I had a group of people from different stages and walks of life to discuss it with, and be able to see whether Patricia’s experiences echo their own. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and I’d love to know what other people who have read it thought of it, so please do share your opinions!

4 comments

  1. I have read about Persephone books by so many bloggers but have course have never found one here in Tasmania though many of the Persephone books are in my vintage Penguin collection. I enjoyed this review. I like the premise of Persephone so decided to bite the bullet and ordered a six month subscription of the books, at random I add, to receive . I am really looking forward to them and plan to blog about them as I read them. Something to really look forward to in 2017. Thank you for the idea and the link.

    1. I read this about a year ago and while I can’t remember all the details, I do remember liking it and feeling heartbroken for her disappointing marriage — I remember her husband not treating her very well. I don’t remember the big event at the end of the book but I know I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads so I know I enjoyed it.

      Glad you are liking your Persephone gift subscription! I received one as a gift a few years ago and naturally I still haven’t read all the books.

      PS I’ve downloaded all your Tea or Books? podcasts with Simon and am catching up, I just love them! I think I’m up to Episode 13 plus the three most recent. I’m looking forward to hearing more of them!

  2. travelling penguin – what a coincidence, I am in Tasmania too. We go back to the UK every year and as we always stay at the Tavistock, which is in Bloomsbury, I almost always make a trip to Persephone’s and buy a book to bring back – I only wish I were able to attend some of their events. If you order one book per year from their website, you receive their quarterly magazine which is always a very good read. It’s a bit expensive having the books posted here but I treat myself.

    I haven’t read Princes in the Land but this review resonates with me. My three sons are adults with children of their own now and grandchildren and I understand completely what the author is saying. I am an only child and migrated here with my parents in the 50s so have no other relatives here. My mother put all her hopes and dreams on me and I’m afraid that only caused me to rebel. I foolishly married a man quite unsuited to me, uneducated and inarticulate, although wild and good looking. At first my mother refused me permission to marry as I wasn’t 21 so we moved in together, I was soon pregnant and she refused to see us or change her mind about the marriage. So we didn’t marry until several years later which was considered quite socially unacceptable then.

    I stayed married for 23 years till my three sons were young adults, had a passionate affair which didn’t end well, and left to live alone. I think I had decided not to do the same thing to my own children and in one way that was good, they all turned out to be reasonable people but not close to me. All three have drifted to their partner’s family and only contact me spasmodically. Nothing wrong- but I think they feel I was a distant mother and maybe I was. How hard it is to make the right decisions in life.

    Thank you for a very interesting review.

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