Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan

This is one Persephone book I had never heard anything about, so I picked it up and started reading without having any idea what to expect. I didn’t know who Joanna Cannan was until I read the biographical information on the cover and saw that she was the mother of Christine, Josephine and Diana Pullein-Thompson, three authors who were famous for their horse and pony stories. I remember reading some of the Pullein-Thompsons’ books as a child, so this made me more curious about reading Princes in the Land.

This novel has very little plot but like most Persephone books it raises a lot of interesting issues including marriage, parent/child relationships and class differences. The book itself is well-written and I liked the setting and the time period, but unfortunately this is the first Persephone I’ve read that I didn’t enjoy much at all.

Princes in the Land, published in 1938, is the story of Patricia Crispin and her experiences of being a wife and mother. We first meet Patricia as a child, shortly after her father has been killed in the Boer War. Patricia and her sister Angela are being taken by their mother to live with their grandfather, Lord Waveney, at his mansion in the countryside. While Angela is the quieter and better behaved of the two girls, Lord Waveney takes a special liking to the red-haired, freckled Patricia, who is more courageous and shares his love of horses.

Several years pass and Patricia marries Hugh Lindsay, a student from a poor background, much to the disgust of her mother who wanted Patricia to marry someone of her own class. Patricia and Hugh have three children, August, Giles and Nicola – and as they grow older they begin to disappoint Patricia as much as she had disappointed her own mother.

The biggest problem I had with this book was the characters. I don’t always need to like the characters to be able to enjoy a book, but in this case I think it would have made a big difference if there had been just one person I had been able to identify with and care about. Patricia and her mother both seemed to be complete snobs. Patricia’s attitude towards her daughter-in-law, Gwen, is particularly nasty and based purely on the fact that she thinks Gwen’s family are ‘common’. I don’t mind reading about snobbish characters if they are written with a touch of humour or satire, as in Jane Austen novels for example, but that wasn’t the case here. Patricia seems to think her attitude is perfectly acceptable and I felt that we, as the readers, were expected to agree with her.

The portrayals of marriage and parenthood were very cynical. The sad thing is that I really liked Patricia when she was a child at the very beginning of the book but as the years went by she changed into a person even she herself didn’t appear to be comfortable with. It’s tragic that despite devoting her life to her children, they barely seemed to know or understand each other at all. None of them really did anything bad and were children who Patricia could have been proud of, but because they failed to meet her expectations she ended up feeling disappointed in them and dissatisfied with her own life.

I’m sure a lot of people would enjoy reading Princes in the Land much more than I did, so please don’t let me put you off reading it. It was an interesting book, worthy of being a Persephone title and I can’t fault the writing either, but the amount of snobbery and class-obsession was just too much for me.

5 thoughts on “Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan

  1. James Portman says:

    I think people are missing the point. Joanna Cannan wasn’t writing one of her cosy equine novels here. She was delivering a surprisingly astringent piece of social commentary.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for commenting, James. I haven’t read any of Joanna Cannan’s cosy equine novels and I wasn’t expecting this to be one. The problem I had with this book was that I got the impression the author shared Patricia’s attitude – maybe I’m wrong, but that’s the way it came across to me. I’m glad you enjoyed the book more than I did!

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