‘You shall have children, whom you shall make princes in the land…
My first #20booksofsummer review (though currently reading my fourth) Princes in the Land is a Persephone book that for some reason I had overlooked through years of perusing the Persephone catalogue. I asked for it recently for my birthday, and I am so glad that I did. Princes in the Land will certainly turn out to be one of my favourite Persephone novels, it is subtle, and in the depictions of the disappointments of parenthood I think it quite masterly.
The novel is about family life and motherhood; Patricia Lindsay is a woman who in middle age as her children begin to make lives for themselves is left wondering what her life has been for. Patricia made sacrifices for her children, adapted her expectations of life, but what in the end, was it all for.
We first meet Patricia as a child in a railway carriage. Patricia is very travel sick, and her mother unaccustomed to such domestic difficulties and with no servant to help is frankly unamused. Patricia and her pretty sister, are travelling to live with their dead father’s family at their Hulver estate in Norfolk. Their mother Blanche is not much liked by her father-in-law – finds herself tolerated, Patricia – to her cold mother’s great surprise is soon her grandfather’s great favourite. Blanche is only a minor character – though superbly drawn, she is determined to make the best of life with her husband’s family. Blanche is unhappy at the need to rely on her husband’s Almeric’s father who she thinks of as bad old Lord Waveney. Blanche favours her older, prettier daughter Angela – who in time will marry a title.
“He could have forgiven her her worm’s eye view, her social ruthlessness, her sickening smug materialism, but her euphemisms, her not mentioning, made him squirm; he was exasperated beyond measure by the false humility with which she took his money. She wasn’t an honest snob: she couldn’t say ‘labourer’ or ‘gentleman’: she said ‘people of our class’ and ‘nobody’. And she wasn’t an honest gold-digger: she couldn’t say thank you and keep her soul: she gave in to him in all things. Agreed with him, pandered to him, shutting her thin lips on the most trivial difference of opinion in the way that says. ‘I can’t answer back; I’m a poor relation.’ It is doubtful if, in spite of his good resolutions, he would have kept her at Hulver but for the sudden, and to Blanche’s mind inexplicable, fancy which he took for Patricia.”
At Hulver Patricia grows up used to great privilege, allowed to indulge her passion for horses, hunting and the countryside, she is never expected to learn sewing or cooking. Patricia has a wonderful relationship with her grandfather, he is her indulgent friend and confident, who she will carry with her through life. However, his estate passes to a male heir on his death. With Angela already satisfactorily married – Patricia meets Hugh Lindsay, an impoverished Scottish academic, who much to Blanche’s horror Patricia becomes engaged to.
Marriage to Hugh brings great change to Patricia’s life – she must learn to cook and keep her small house neat and clean on a budget, gone is her beloved horsey outdoor life. Patricia, adapts, she learns how to be a good wife – and she represses the pangs she sometimes feels for the life she lived at Hulver when her grandfather was alive. Hugh seems to forget the time he was entranced by the sight of his flame haired love riding a spirited former Grand National winner in the grounds of Hulver.
“It didn’t occur to him to wonder whether she was dead or sleeping, the red headed hoyden who had taken him riding in the Hulver oak woods; it didn’t occur to him to ask whether it was at all painful, this adapting process, whether the young self whimpered as you smothered it deeper and deeper until it slept or died.”
Three children are born to Patricia and Hugh, two sons and a daughter. Patricia gives her whole life to her children.
When Hugh is given a professorship at an Oxford college, Patricia manages to persuade him to buy a house on the outskirts of Oxford. A ramshackle old farmhouse with some land, room for a horse, space for her children to roam about in, the smells and sounds of the rural life that Patricia loved so much as a girl.
Patricia has her hopes for her children – she thinks she understands them; thinks she know which way their lives will take them. However, England between the wars is a place of great change, the social inequalities don’t matter so much to the young, and new experiences are opening up. Patricia’s children all choose paths which surprise her. She is puzzled, and distressed, she has given her whole life to these three young people, and in the end they move in directions she can barely understand.
“…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.”
This is a wonderful novel, I can’t think why I managed to overlook it so long. An exquisite examination of family life that shows with brilliant honesty and some poignancy that parents can’t live their children’s lives for them, and however much it may distress them they must allow them to go their own way in the end. Patricia comes to the point in her life only in her forties, when her life’s work is done – and in accepting this new world she must adapt herself again.