“Middle age is when your age starts to show around your middle.” (Bob Hope)

This post is my contribution to the 1938 Club, hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Stuck in a Book – do join in! As I rooted through my enormous TBR for books published in this year, I was astonished by the number I owned published in 1937 and 1939 – despairing, I turned to my Persephone pile and found two, hooray! So although it was scary biscuits there for a while, it all came up ticketty-boo in the end…and I promise that’s the last dubious 1930s slang you’ll hear from me 🙂

As it turned out, the two novels were linked thematically too: both are comic portraits of middle-aged women rediscovering themselves and proving that life can still hold surprises. Both were an absolute joy, so thank you Karen and Simon, for moving these to the top of the TBR and bringing them into my life that bit sooner!


Firstly, Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan. Patricia is a wild, horse-loving redhead, part of the landed gentry but determinedly not a debutante, not wanting to marry someone like her sister’s choice:

“Victor, a pink young man with china-blue eyes and hair as golden as Angela’s, who could and did express all life was to him and all his reactions to it in two simple sentences, ‘Hellish, eh?’ and ‘Ripping, what?’”

Patricia falls for Hugh, a middle-class scholar who offends her mother’s upper-class sensibilities:

“‘it’s the small things that jar – cruets and asparagus servers and ferns..’

‘Patricia,’ said Lord Waveney winking at his grand-daughter, ‘isn’t such a fine piece of porcelain that she can’t stand a jar. If I were a woman, I’d sooner my husband kept a cruet than a mistress. Damn it, I’d sooner he helped himself to asparagus with servers than whisky without discretion.’”

Patricia marries Hugh and as they both change over the years she ends up feeling vaguely disappointed; he is preoccupied professor, she has compromised who she was out of all existence. They have three children and as they grow older Patricia wonders what is left of her life:

“I’ve just got to grow old and feeble and ugly. And what then? She asked, passing the marmalade factory, diving under the bridge, fleeing on between lighted dolls’-houses, and answered herself: some foul disease- a paralytic stroke and your face all sideways, or cancer and your last words on earth a howl for morphia”

I realise this may sound resolutely depressing but it really isn’t. Princes in the Land is written with a light touch and is filled with witty observations. Cannan laughs at human foibles but does so with affection. Patricia soon cheers herself with the thought of her children, the fact that she is:

“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 but almost certain to do something with horses”

One by one, her children break the news to her that actually, they do not have the remotest inclination to follow the paths she has imagined for them. Patricia is a nice person, she is sensible and she loves her children, and so she steps back to let them make their own choices and mistakes. It means however, that she is not fulfilled through them, and so she is thrown back to thinking about what on earth she is going to do with the rest of her life:

“The kingdoms she had won for them they had rejected. August with his shiny black bag and his bowler hat, his two pounds a week and his gimcrack villa; Giles dispensing God as a remedy for discontent, boredom or sex repression; Nicola without an idea in her head beyond combustion engines – these weren’t the children for whom she’d given up fun and friendship, worked, suffered, worried, taken thought, taken care, done without, supressed, surrendered and seen her young self die.”

I hope it’s not too much of a SPOILER to say she works something out – the tone of the novel means I remained hopeful that she would, and it would have been a real shock if a depressing, bleak outcome had won. Princes in the Land is just lovely, and truly moving: I don’t think anyone on the bus noticed me having a little cry as I reached the end…


Secondly, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. Unlike Princes in the Land, Miss Pettigrew is all light and very little shade, but that is not a criticism. It’s a joyous novel: a day in the life of the titular poverty-stricken spinster, a woman society has written-off as having nothing to offer, whose willingness to embrace new experiences sees her reborn.

In desperate need of a job, Miss Pettigrew arrives at the apartment of the glamourous Delysia La Fosse:

“In a dull, miserable existence her one wild extravagance was her weekly orgy at the cinema, where for over two hours she lived in an enchanted world peopled by beautiful women, handsome heroes, fascinating villains, charming employers, and there were no bullying parents, no appalling offspring, to tease, torment, terrify and harry her every waking hour. In real life she had never seen any woman arrive to breakfast in a silk, satin and lace negligee. Every one did on the films. To see one of these lovely visions in the flesh was almost more than she could believe.”

Miss La Fosse has lots of experience but little common sense, Miss Pettigrew has no experience but much common sense. As she gets swept up in Miss La Fosse’s complicated love life, this virtue means she soon becomes indispensable. Rather than sitting in judgement of this Bright Young Thing, Miss Pettigrew finds herself enjoying this foray into a life hitherto unknown.

“ ‘Do you know what that is?’

‘It looks,’ said Miss Pettigrew cautiously, ‘very much like a Beecham’s Powder. Very good, I understand, for nerves, stomach and rheumatism.’

‘That’s cocaine,’ said Miss LaFosse.

‘Oh no! No!’

Terrified, aghast, thrilled, Miss Pettigrew stared at the innocent-looking powder. Drugs, the White Slave Traffic, wicked dives of iniquity, typified in Miss Pettigrew’s mind by the red plush and gilt and men with sinister black moustaches roamed in wild array through her mind. What dangerous den of vice had she discovered? She must fly before she lost her virtue. Then her common sense unhappily reminded her that no one, now, would care to deprive her of that possession.”

As the day progresses Miss Pettigrew dives headlong into events and finds herself forever changed.  This is a novel to read when you need a lift, to be carried along as Miss Pettigrew is on a wave of fun and silliness. It is also a reminder that to open yourself to the unknown is to allow space for hope, and for change, at any time in life.

“She didn’t care what happened. She was ready for it. She was intoxicated with joy again. Past questioning anything that happened on this amazing day.”

I haven’t seen the film of Miss Pettigrew but I definitely plan to – Frances McDormand, wonder of wonders:

37 thoughts on ““Middle age is when your age starts to show around your middle.” (Bob Hope)

  1. I bought a copy of Miss Pettigrew only last week and your review makes me want to read it right this very minute! The same goes for the Joanna Cannan, an author I’ve not heard of before, but your quotes made me roar with laughter! Fantastic reviews Mme Bibi, you’ve certainly got the 1938 club off to a rip-roaring start! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I haven’t read Princes but feel it’s so far up my alley that if I wasn’t hovering near Twitter tonight waiting for the Bailey’s announcement, I’d be buying and reading it (it was the quote about cruets and asparagus servers that won me because I know… I know that it’s the little things that jar).

    To Miss Pettigrew – I’d seen the film when it first came (LOVED IT) but only read the book last year (an afternoon VERY WELL spent). It was one of those rare cases where I did film before book and also one of those rare cases where each were equally delightful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tell me about it – I’m bombarded on all sides by people trying to get me to use asparagus servers, I’m sick of trying to explain myself 😀 There’s lots of little touches like that in Princes, so I think its definitely up your alley!

      That is great to hear about the film – I’m really looking forward to watching it!


  3. I loved Miss Pettigrew too – and I love that quote about the unlikelihood of her losing her virtue! So funny! I wish I lived back in the days when people still said “Ripping, what?” – it seems to me to be an admirable philosophy of life…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks so much for taking part in the 1938 Club! It seems the perfect year for Persephone – Manja and (the one I’m reading) The Children Who Lived in a Barn were also 1938. I’m so glad you enjoyed these Persephones – I loved Miss Pettigrew (book and film) but I have to confess that I couldn’t get on with Princes in the Land, and found the mother rather monstrous. I’m glad you loved it so much 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really did – the characters were all a bit monstrous in their own way but I rooted for them all the same 🙂

      The film of Miss P seems to have been a huge success – I must fill this gap in my viewing soon.

      I’ve heard great things about The Children Who Lived in a Barn – I look forward to your review!


  5. Pingback: The 1938 Club: welcome! – Stuck in a Book

  6. You’ve made me really want to read Princes in the Land. I love books about the flatness of it all, and those kinds of Barbara Pym funny-but-sad stories that chart what it is to be a middle-aged women, probably as it’s my next stop, and I intend to be very good at it. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson | JacquiWine's Journal

  8. I took a class on modernism in grad school, and I just hated everything we read. I hated the language, I hated the topics; it seemed like modernism could be boiled down to high school boy and girl fall in love, young man goes to war and cheats on fiancee, contracts syphilis, then one or both die tragic death as punishment. There were some great African American authors at that time — Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, WEB DuBois, Ann Petry, Nella Larsen — but we didn’t read any of them in my class.

    Liked by 1 person

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