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Princes in the LandSometimes, there is nothing better than starting a book with low expectations.  Everything I had heard about Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan had prepared me for a pretty awful book.  Well, it’s not awful.  It’s clearly not at the level of Hostages to Fortune, another Persephone title which deals with the same subject matter, but it is still a very interesting novel.  I may not have admired the writing and I am afraid the author wanted me to like the intolerable central character but, like most Persephone books, it gave me a lot to think about.

First published in 1938, Princes in the Land focuses on Patricia, a baron’s granddaughter who, after a privileged childhood, chooses to marry Hugh, a young academic.  Indulged by her grandfather and brought up to expect a future with servants to wait on her, Patricia has no idea how to run a home or take care of her husband.  It does not take long for difficulties to arise between the young couple, largely, it seems, because neither of them is at all capable of explaining how they feel to their spouse.  Watching the spirited, horse-mad Patricia try to tame herself to the domestic life is just as difficult for Hugh as it is for her:

In those early years, he was a difficult husband.  Poor but proud – so he thought – he was easily offended.  His Scots reserve involved them in innumerable misunderstandings.  He never said, ‘I hate your having to cook and push the pram.’  He said, ‘It would have been better for everyone if you had learned to cook instead of learning how to break horses.’…Though he must have known better, he persuaded himself into believing the handy old sophistry that women are adaptable and made no allowance for the fact that Patricia was tackling a job that she hadn’t been born or bred or trained for.

But, with time, Patricia learns how to be the kind of wife she thinks Hugh needs and, more importantly, learns how to be a mother to her three children.  As the novel begins, Patricia is proud of August, Giles and Nicola but as time progresses she realises how little she knows each of them.  August, the eldest, makes an awful marriage at a far too early age.  Giles joins the Oxford Group.  And Nicola breaks her mother’s heart by denying any interest in horses, far preferring motors.  As their true characters are revealed, Patricia is horrified by how different her children are from the people she thought them and by how little influence she seems to have on them, these children for whom she’s slaved all these years:

The kingdoms she had won for them they had rejected.  August with his shiny black bag and his bowler hat, his two pounds a week and his gimcrack villa; Giles dispensing God as a remedy for discontent, boredom or sex repression; Nicola without an idea in her head beyond combustion engines – these weren’t the children for whom she’d given up fun and friendship, worked, suffered, worried, taken thought, taken care, done without, suppressed, surrendered and seen her young self die. 

That, really, is the crux of the problem for me: Patricia’s feeling of resentment towards her family, this idea that they owe her something for the changes and sacrifices she has made over the years as she has aged from girl to wife to mother.  Patricia doesn’t push; she doesn’t attempt to control her children’s lives (though, frankly, a little more interference in August’s life would have probably been useful): she just sort of smoulders at them, feeling cheated and hard done by.  She is such a sour woman that it really isn’t a surprise that her children keep their distance from her.  They spend years trying to please her, showing her the sides of them they know she wants to see.  When they dare reveal their true selves they are greeted with nothing but dismay and contempt.

It is hard to take Patricia’s reaction to both Giles and Nicola’s “betrayals” too seriously.  Nicola’s case seems particularly inoffensive: however much you yourself may adore horses, your child not liking them is hardly the dramatic insult Patricia seems to think it.  I can understand her worry over Giles’ sudden religious mania but, again, there are worse fates.  Most of the novel is concerned with August’s fortunes and, there at least, I share Patricia’s concerns.  Having impregnated Gwen, a shopkeeper’s daughter several years older than himself, August thinks the honourable thing to do is to marry her (despite his parents’ reminders that this is really not necessary).  The marriage is not a good one and Patricia must watch as all the energy and vitality seeps out of her outdoorsy son after he and Gwen move to the London suburbs.

Cannan puts a lot of effort into making Gwen appear as unattractive and unsuitable as possible, giving her the kind of aspirational lower middle class tastes and behaviours sure to set Patricia’s teeth on edge.  If you are the kind of person who can’t stand snobs, you are going to loathe Patricia.  (Though I would first ask what you’re doing reading middlebrow 1930s fiction because, honestly, it’s all snobs, all the time.)  I tried so hard to maintain some sort of impartiality while reading these passages but I couldn’t do it: for once, I was in sympathy with Patricia.  I can withstand Gwen’s use of ‘pardon’ but how can you stand someone who buys matching furniture sets, actually likes suburban villas, and, worst of all, uses paper doilies?  It has been more than a month since I read this but I’m still shuddering over the horrible prospect of life with the soulless, materialistic Gwen.  Poor August.  That said, the energy Cannan expends in painting such a relentlessly negative portrait of Gwen and in detailing Patricia’s horrified response seems excessive.  These passages are straight melodrama really, without an ounce of humour – and if there is ever a time for humour, this would surely have been it.

Patricia is intolerable and the writing is mediocre but this is still an interesting book.  I am always intrigued by and love to read about the relationships between parents and their adult children, especially about mothers who must learn the limits of their influence and control.  Princes in the Land proves an excellent guide for what not to do.

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