Monday 24 August 2009

Persephone Week 1: Princes in the Land

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 (1936) 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.


  1. I put this on my wishlist after reading another review of it. I think your not knowing where you stand makes me more curious to read it. I was just looking through your sketch collections and particularly enjoyed the Aunts Aren't Gentlemen. You are very talented...they were all very good.

  2. Well done Simon, I don't know how you, and others, manage to read a book a day but my hat is off to you! Since I do have Hostages to Fortune on my bookshelf and do not yet own Princes in the Land, I look forward to reading the former. Okay, that's me off to read!

  3. Interesting post! You are a fast reader--it took me a while to get through this one. You've given me lots to think about. Patricia was certainly prickly and could be quite cynical, but I could understand what she felt to a point. Perhaps I am at a cynical point in my own life but some of what she felt resounded with me. I should reread the Cambridge book now as I read it a few years back and don't think I remember details enough to make a good comparison.

  4. I hadn't made the connection with Hostages...

    We're putting links in our welcome posts and hopefully Claire will do a roundup sometime soon!

  5. I'll post a summation as conclusion of the challenge at the end of the week but I may periodically link to reviews as they appear throughout the week to ensure nobody misses anything!

    I have to say that I am intrigued by your review. I associate Princes in the Land with Hostages to Fortune anyway because I bought them at the same time and mix them up! Hardly the same thing though...

  6. I absolutely loved this book and cheated a bit as I read and reviewed this before the reading week started!

  7. Simon, I just finished this book and thought it was terrible. Isn't Cannan an incredible snob? The whole novel revolves around class issues. All the relationships have to do with class: Patricia's horrible mother accurately predicts the out-of-class marriage will ruin her life, Patricia is stuck sacrificing her identity unhappily, her husband seems secretly glad to have declassed her, and that Christian convert son is also a snob. The other two seem okay, though. And Patricia's redemption is riding horses! Oh my God, how shallow!

    Cannan should have stuck to pony books!

  8. Thanks for your comment! I'd forgotten all about this book, so had to think back over it

  9. Then again, Patricia braved a house fire to save a child at the end too. I think is a bit more sympathetic character than indicated above

  10. Then again, Patricia does save a child in a house fire at the end of the book, and shows great heroism, so I think she is a bit more sympathetic of a character than indicated above. Cannan did not strike me as snobbish, just quite truthful.


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