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Princes in the Land

by Joanna Cannan
Persephone book no:

62 63 64

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A Well Full of Leaves
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ISBN 9781903155530

Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan has the same theme as Persephone book No. 41, Hostages to Fortune, a great Persephone favourite: it too is about a woman bringing up a family who is left at the end, when the children are on the verge of adulthood, asking herself not only what it was all for but what was her own life for? Yet the questions are asked subtly and readably.

Having shown us how everything is made bearable for Patricia if her children can be at the centre of her life and, more importantly, (because she is not a selfish woman) if they grow up to fulfil her ideals, Joanna Cannan proceeds to show us her happiness being slowly destroyed. The tragedy of the book is that not only do none of the three children live up to their mother’s expectations, she has to watch as each of them takes a path that is anathema to her. Yet of course, she can do nothing about it; nor, sensibly, does she try.

Joanna Cannan began writing early, and her first novel was published when she was 26. From 1922 onwards she published a book a year for nearly forty years – novels; detective novels, including the very successful Death at The Dog, which is in print in America; and the first ‘pony’ book (first in the sense that the focus was on a pony-mad girl rather than a horse or pony), a genre that her daughters Josephine, Diana and Christine Pullein-Thompson were to make very much their own. Princes in the Land is about an interesting and rarely-discussed theme; it is also evocative about Oxford.

Joanna Cannan ‘lived enthusiastically’ and wrote novels that were ‘witty, satirical, even cynical. She presented clashes between idealists and materialists, with no easy solutions’ writes the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (making Joanna Cannan one of twenty-eight of our writers to have an entry in that great dictionary); this is the book of hers with a thematic bite that Persephone readers will find hard to forget.

For more on Princes in the Land, have a look at the Persephone Perspective.


'Horse's Head' a 1938-9 screen-printed linen by Lucienne Day is the fabric used for Princes in the Land (1938), a novel in which horses are a leitmotif.  Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/ Design © Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation

Picture Caption

'The Breakfast Table' by Harold Knight, 1927

Read What Readers Say

Nicholas Clee, ‘Times Literary Supplement’

Mere excellence will not secure the survival of a work of fiction. Novels that fail to attain classic or cult status disappear rapidly from view; their only chance of resurrection is to enter the radar of an enterprising firm such as Persephone. ‘Princes in the Land’ is a happy discovery: while it has no claims to be considered imperishable, it is astute and skilful, and is certainly as well worth reading as most of the new fiction on the market today. It opens as a cool, sharp social comedy… The narrative changes tone as it reaches the heroine’s married life in the 1920s. This is not a proto-feminist novel; Cannan has no critique to make of the roles of men and women. But she does give an affecting account of the suppression of personality that her heroine undergoes in order to adapt herself as a wife and mother. She focuses her thwarted desires on her children – who of course do not turn out as she hoped.

Clover Stroud, ‘Waitrose’ magazine

A subtle depiction of the claustrophobia and melancholy of thwarted maternal ambition. It addresses the loss of a mother who realises she’s raised children she doesn’t recognise, since “the kingdoms she had won for them had been rejected.” Published in 1938, this surprising novel addresses the contemporary premise that motherhood is absolutely not the definition of a woman.

Categories: Childhood Family Mothers Woman and Home

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