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!