Making Conversation

I’ve been at my mother’s most of the week, and she has no internet, but there is an internet cafe nearby, so I put this half-written piece on a memory stick, intending to tidy it up and post it there for the Persephone Readathon being run by Jessie at Dwell in Possibility, but somewhere between Tamworth and Ledbury I lost the memory stick. Anyway, I’m back home now, and I’ve sorted it out, and tried to keep it brief. Well briefish (and if that’s not a word it should be)

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Making Conversation, by Christine Longford, was first published in 1931. The endpapers and bookmark are from a 1931 silk dress in a private collection.

Christine Longford (nee Trew) married Edward Packenham, the sixth Earl of Longford, and spent her weekends in an Irish castle. It was an unusual alliance because Christine came from a very different background – her mother, having been abandoned by her husband when Christine was only three, kept her head above water by taking in paying guests. And it was these early experiences that Christine drew on when writing her novel Making Conversation. The title forms a theme running through the book for young Martha Freke never quite masters the art of making conversation. We follow her through her childhood, her schooldays, and her ill-fated university adventures, and learn she’s inclined to say too much, or too little, and has a habit of agreeing with other people, which doesn’t make for good conversation (or good communication). And somehow she never quite understands what’s going on, failing to read the signs other people pick up, not realising what is really meant, or what the consequences might be.

She learns early that words have their dangers. As a young child she buys a brooch for Ellen, the cook-general, who was actually christened Beatrice, which is considered unsuitable, so she is called Ellen – the name on the jewellery, ‘in bright gold, written in a cursive hand, with a line below it and a full stop after it’. It will, says her mother, help Ellen remember her new name (it all strikes me as being very cruel – after all, one’s name is part of one’s identity, and other people shouldn’t come along and alter it just like that). However, what sticks in poor Martha’s mind is that she is chastised for revealing the cost of the gift. Ellen will not value it now, explains Mrs Freke, because ‘people like that never do’. There’s a whole lesson about social etiquette and the class system contained in just a few lines.

Miss Pilkington, their only permanent guest, tells Mrs Freke she should encurage Martha to talk more, or she will be at a disadvantage when she goes out into the world. Indeed, Martha is at a disadvantage when she goes out into the world, but I am not sure that talking more – or less – would help. Anyway, Miss Pilkington brings in a net profit of 10 or 15 shillings a week shillings a week, which was a lot of money in the days before the First World War, so no-one iwas going to argue with her. As a bit of background, Martha’s father, Major Freke, disappeared after signing too many cheques, which is why Mrs Freke is trying to make a living running a guest house. And Miss Pilkington appeared in response to the following magnificent advert which was ‘mostly’ true:

Board residence. Officer’s wife receives few guests in country home, Wessex. Delightful surroundings, fishing, tennis. Musical. Pukka sahib. Terms moderate, lower to permanency.

Sometimes there are musical evenings, when Martha plays the piano as Miss Pilkington sings, and sometimes she recites poetry, but if guests or visitors speak to her she never managers to respond in the right way.

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Christine Longford

She attends the High School in nearby Adderbury, travelling in a hired wagonette (seeking cover under an oilcloth in bad weather). But the driver drops her at the station, so she has to walk along the High Street, arriving late and missing prayers and part of the first lesson. Mortifying though this may be, I should think it is infinitely preferable to arriving at the school gates in what is essentially an open wagon.Martha, who has been given a place on ‘special terms’ because of her mother’s ‘unfortunate circumstances, never quite fits in. For start there’s her brown stockings, shoes and galoshes (they should be black); her hair, which should be plaited, and the fact that her mother won’t let her stay late for netball. But it’s her lack of conversational skill which lets her down (or releases her, depending on your point of view) due partly to a misunderstanding about the meaning of the word adultery.

So she ends up at the Close School which, her mother claims, takes an ‘inferior type of child’. There, Martha is shocked to discover that it is the High School which is inferior, and that she has been very badly educated. However, she’s a bright girl, so she catches up and eventually gains a place at Oxford. At university studies take a bit of a back seat and she’s caught up in the excitement of dances and tea parties. But once again she is let down by her inability to say the right thing at the right time…

This doesn’t seem to be one of Persephone’s most popular novels, and I’ve seen a few less than enthusiastic reviews. I’m not sure if people didn’t like Longford’s style, or the fact that it doesn’t really lead anywhere, or if they thought the ending odd and unlikely. But I liked it, and I liked Martha. She’s always a bit of an outsider, never quite sure what’s the right thing to do or say, influenced by others and inclined to agree with what they say.

Her mother, for all her pettty snobbery, is also a bit of an outsider. We are told that but for her unfortunate circumsances she might have been considered county, but I don’t think that’s true. She’s a stronger character than Martha, and I think she’s a bit of a rebel at heart, who takes a certain pride in being slightly different, being looked at and talked about. Her guesthouse somehow seems slightly raffish and Bohemia and, as time goes on it acquires a reputation for being rather subversive, scandalous even, when villagers become suspicious of some of the paying guests. For their visitors include ‘a surplus pupil or two’ from the vicar, and the odd foreign students provided by Mrs Freke’s uncle who is (or was) something in the diplomatic service. Many of these young people are foreign, some are camp aesthetes, some are refugees, some are pacificists… none are welcomed by local people, but they are all very entrtaining.

The portrayal of life during the First World War was interesting – you hear a lot about battles, and politicians, but not a lot about the ‘home front’. In Making Conversation you get a glimpse of the fear and distrust for anyone different, and the difficulties caused by wartime shortages.

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7 thoughts on “Making Conversation

    1. It’s worth reading again I think. Christine Longford captures that slight uncertainty when you don’t quite known the right thing to say, and the puzzlement and shame of getting it wrong. And I liked her portrayal of people, and the account of Martha’s time at The Close, with all that emphasis on things that don’t matter, like hair styles and footwear.

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