Whenever I pick up a Persephone book I haven't read, almost the first thing I do is search back through the old Persephone Quarterlies, and more recently the Biannualies, for Nicola Beauman's original piece on the book. These little magazines surely one of the jewels in Persephone's crown, and free if you buy a book or visit the shop (one of the other jewels.) Each book published will have had an informative introduction, with biography, history and context woven in along with some relevant photographs, and as luck would have it No 29 was the first I laid my hand on, so how lovely that it was also one of my favourite cover pictures too.
Remember this one??
And how appropriate that it is Girl Reading, painted in 1932 by Harold Knight (husband of Laura Knight). Lying on a chaise in front of a window, a young and very elegant woman reads a magazine, and if you are anywhere near the Harris Museum & Art Gallery in Preston then lucky you, it's on your doorstep.
I was amazed to discover that Joanna Cannan, a writer I had never heard of until Princes in the Land was published by Persephone, actually wrote a book a year for forty years from 1922 onwards. That seems like a lot of books to disappear off the radar. Of course now I know much more about cousin Gilbert but I was unwittingly very familar with Joanna Cannan's daughters Josephine, Diana and Christine Pullein-Thompson. I read my share of pony club books as a child, even though I didn't have a pony, had never actually sat on one and didn't even really like them... except everyone else did, so I thought I should try.
The novel opens with mother and daughters enduring the train journey from hell to reach their new home, with poor Patricia being as a sick as a dog, and with no servants on hand it is all a bit much for all of them…
‘Just as cows are there to give milk, and hens to lay eggs, and dogs to retrieve game, they [servants] were there to come and clear up the mess when you rang the bell…’
Ah yes, we have far to fall I thought as I read and couldn’t wait to see how it would all unfold.
Patricia and Angela’s father Almeric, the son of Lord Waveney, has been killed in the Boer War, and their mother Blanche, falling on unaccustomed hard times, is forced to repair to the family seat in Norfolk and live off the kindness of her father-in-law. Blanche now ruing the day she married Almeric…
‘…surely in spite of her teeth there’d have been other chances…’
The childhood years pass swiftly with much horsey outdoor-ness (reflected beautifully in the Lucien Day fabric endpapers) until Patricia, much to her mother's dismay, falls for the charms of impoverished academic Hugh and agrees to marry him, from whence on it would seem her fate is sealed. She will be sentenced to a life lived far below the salt and the social status to which her mother has aspired. Witness the wedding list...
'Blanche made lists of what Patricia couldn't do without and Patricia sent them to Hugh. Hugh crossed out house parlourmaid, dinner service for twelve, champagne glasses and canteen of dessert knives..'
The exhortation of the title is thus...
'You shall have children, whom you shall make princes in the land...'
Biblical in origin, from the Psalms (45:16) and as the years pass, and Patricia gives birth to three children becoming compeletely subsumed by them, Joanna Cannan carefully delineates a mother's every endeavour on behalf of her family.
With its themes of inheritance and marriage, the dependence of women, motherhood and sacrifice, along with social class and snobbery, how fascinating it it to watch the lowly Hugh, rising to the role of an Oxford professor and unwittingly taking on the mantle of the 'snob.' Meanwhile the children do what children are supposed to do and live their own lives and, when calamity strikes within their own brood, what a clever 'turning of the tables' Joanna Cannan executes as Hugh and Patricia try to work their way through the living nightmare.
Powerless to intervene, and somehow stopping herself from doing so anyway, Patricia, realises that though all is naught as long as she has her children, she now has time to reflect on all those thwarted ambitions that she has held for them..
'...first August, then Giles, then Nicola had gone, further than any ship or train or aeroplane could have taken them, far over ranges you couldn't climb, seas you couldn't sail, across the intangible deserts of experiences she'd no part in, to lives and loves and hopes in which she had no share. And they'd not gone as princes...'
and the final realisation..
'The kingdoms she had won for them had been rejected.'
Surely one of the most searingly honest and powerful observations about the realities of being a mother it is possible to make.
How many of us have held those secret ambitions for our children and perhaps masked disappointments accordingly... sending the Gamekeeper to violin lessons might have been one of my more foolish ideas. My disappointment was short-lived, Young Musician of the Year was never going to happen.
Perhaps what Hugh and Patricia can't see is that, for all that they may disagree with them, their children are indeed each living their lives within the moral parameters established for them, with fidelity and integrity, with endeavour and honesty, and with a determination to be themselves.
Early in the novel Joanna Cannan suggests that...
'Patricia was, in fact, more intelligent than you would have suspected; more intelligent than she looked; too intelligent for her environment...'
and it is at her moment of realisation that an awareness of Patricia's equally well-concealed emotional intelligence is revealed with her remarkable rendering of this insight into her entrapment...
'How had it come about, this metamorphosis? Well, love's a horse thief. With oats and apples he'd lured the young wild creature. Saying it'll be oats and apples every day for you, he'd slipped on the halter, the collar, harnessed her, and then there'd been no more oats and apples but the long uphill road and the load behind.'
There will be another life-defining 'episode' before the end of the novel that reveals even more about the courage of a woman who realises...
'I didn't adapt myself... I was caught by life and shut up in a cage...'
and there will be change, because woven into the book, intentionally or otherwise, is a well-executed delineation of that inter-war period of social mobility. As the book draws to a close with Patricia's children musing over their mother's new-found wisdom and seemingly 'new' hobbies, never a truer word spoken than that stated so memorably by Penelope Mortimer in another recent Persephone read, Daddy's Gone A-Hunting... a child can't be expected to understand its mother.
The piece in the Persephone Quarterly suggest that Princes in the Land will be a book that readers will find hard to forget. I couldn't agree more, and if you have read it I would love to know your thoughts because I suspect you will remember it too. If on the other hand it sits unread on your shelf, you have a little diamond waiting.