I've yet to meet a Persephone that I didn't like. Each has its own distinct personality and tone, and while I might occasionally need to work my way into a story, they always seem to win me over in the end. The thing with those plain grey wrappers is you're not always exactly sure just what you're in for when you start a new book. The blurbs inside the jacket give a taste of the story rather than a detailed description, so quite literally when you turn that first page you're entering an unknown world and if you're lucky (and with a Persephone you usually are) inside will be hidden treasure.
Joanna Cannan's Princes in the Land is my latest find. This slender novel comprised of just over 200 pages is very much a domestic novel. Not having a family of my own I often expect domestic novels to be outside my realm of experience and understanding and therefore believe I'll be less able to identify with the story, but time and time again I'm proven wrong (some stories truly are universal). Patricia, the mother and protagonist of the novel, and I are about as different as chalk and cheese (as the saying goes), but I felt a natural affinity for her nonetheless.
"Patricia at eighteen was angular, freckled and troubled by pimples on her shoulders. Though she was boisterous at home, she was mouse-like at parties; what she had to say could only be said to understanding people like her grandfather, and in company the only subject on which she would open her mouth was horses."
We first meet a very young Patricia on a train being ill much to the displeasure of her fastidious mother. Her sister Angela, though easily "frightened", is much more "at home among ladies and gentlemen, had sweet manners and never made a mess." The implication being, of course, all to her mother's pleasure. The Crispins are on their way to live with their grandfather as their father has very inconveniently been killed in the Boer War leaving them penniless and alone. Although her mother's not too happy with the arrangement it works out well for tomboyish Patricia who becomes the apple of her grandfather's eye. She grows up in the stately residence of Hulver, the seat of a nobleman.
It's an upbringing that's not too serviceable in a marriage to a poor student with ambitions to become a professor where there will be no great house, no servants, hunt balls or riding to hounds. One simply must do for oneself and one's family. It's a sacrifice Patricia is willing to make. She rises early, studies cookery books, learns to wash woolens and cancels her subscription to Horse and Hound substituting Woman and Home.
"Patricia, cooking, sweeping, dusting, scrubbing, washing, pushing the pram, grew quick and competent, forgot the stillness of winter oak woods before a hound speaks, walked briskly past the saddler's thinking if tomatoes were too dear she'd buy liver to cook with the bacon, talked of prices, talked of shops and servants, took pride in a clean house, her neat mending, her well-balanced, well-cooked meals."
Patricia would do anything for her children, but she's never possessive. But as her children grow older she discovers they're not at all the people she thought they were. Everything she holds (or held) dear, seems to be contemptuous to her offspring. And she experiences feelings of uncertainty--has it all been worth it?
"She'd worked hard, she'd given up most things to raise this family, to make this home, to be what she was, cheery Mrs. Lindsay with a charming house and three nice children, one going into the Army, one not sure yet but perhaps publishing, one still too young to know her own mind but almost certain to do something with horses. Oh, she might as well have given up long ago when she was tired and her back ached and her legs ached in Glasgow!"
None of her children turns out as expected, each following their own path--all disappointing their mother. They choose lives that are the polar opposite that their parents would have hoped for them. No matter how bad things may be, and how much Patricia may lament the things she's given up she never regrets her choices.
This novel really resounded with me. Our stories may be different, but we are both at a similar stages in life. The idea of starting at one place and ending up in another and then looking back and wondering about your choices along the way is something I can easily relate to, and I'm always amazed when an author seems to get inside my own head and write the things I feel and wonder about. In becoming a wife and mother women often lose their own identies as they become subsumed in caring for others. It's not just that Patricia doesn't recognize herself any longer, but her children and even her husband see her as "mother" and "wife" and not who she really is. Happily at novel's end Patricia finds a way to regain some aspect of her own former self yet still care for and support her family.
Princes in the Land is a beautifully rendered novel though bittersweet in many respects. It's realistic in its depictions of how a family grows up and grows apart. I could sympathize with Patricia but with her children as well. As adults they begin the process of making their own choices good and bad and perhaps come to the realization of exactly what they give up in making hasty decisions. And so the cycle starts again.
As a side note Joanna Cannan was only one author in a very literary family. Her daugters were well known in their own right for their "pony stories". Cannan began writing in 1922 and wrote a novel a year for the next forty years. After WWII she began writing detective fiction, "because she felt the world she used to write about was beginning to disappear" (per the Wikipedia). And the endpapers, taken from a screen-printed linen (1938-39), is the perfect choice for this book!