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)

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.

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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House Husband and Working Wife

Author Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Good things always come in threes, and that’s very much the case with American writer Dorothy Canfield Fisher, whose work can currently be celebrated on three different blogs, and I’m trying to join with all of them! To be honest, I’m cheating, because I’m re-posting a piece on The Home-Maker from way back in 2012, which is so long ago I’m sure everyone (including me) has forgotten what I said. I’ve reread it, enjoyed it as much as the first time, and was going to write a new review, but my thoughts are pretty much the same, which may indicate that wonderful though it is, it’s not the kind of the book where you find something different to focus on each time you read. Anyway, here goes…


When my brother and I were very young, my mother used to turn the dining room lino into a skating rink, or the frozen Arctic wastes, and we would slide across the floor… it was years later that I realised this not only kept us happy, but also got the linoleum polished with the minimum of effort! And it’s the kind of ploy that Lester Knapp would approve of, for Lester is a house-husband with a highly individual take on housework and childcare.

Actually, I’m jumping ahead, because when we first meet Lester, he’s not a house-husband at all. He’s working in the office of town’s big store, where he’s bored, unhappy and badly paid. A quiet, unassuming man, he’s a dreamer, who loves poetry and books, but hates his job, and is not very good at it. He and his wife Evangeline have three children, Helen, Henry and Stephen, and Evangeline is, as everyone is always telling us, ‘a wonder’ but wonders are not always easy to live with.

On the face of it she is the perfect wife and mother. Her house is always in apple-pie order, she produces lovely, healthy meals, runs up fashionable garments from old clothes and fabric offcuts, and even creates stylish furniture from old pieces. Make no mistake, Evangeline is a Domestic Goddess par excellence – but no-one is easy when she’s around. Members of the Ladies’ Guild are a little in awe of her ability, and are uncomfortable in her presence, while her down-trodden husband and children suffer from what used to be called ‘a nervous stomach’, and live on tenterhooks, always fearful of doing or saying the wrong thing, and worried about not living up to her high ideals.

Persephone’s gorgeous ‘Classic’ edition.

And Evangeline is unhappy as her family. She has eczema, which never improves, and her hair is falling out in handfuls as she slaves away, obsessively cooking and cleaning to keep the house ‘nice’. The book opens with her scrubbing furiously at a line of grease spots which lead from the stove towards the door of the dining-room.


Henry had held the platter tilted as he carried the steak in yesterday. And yet if she had warned him once about that, she had a thousand times! Warned him, and begged of him, and implored him to be careful. The children simply paid no attention to what she said. None. She might as well talk to the wind. Hot grease too! That soaked into the wood so, She would never get it clean.”

You have to admit, it’s a pretty unusual start to a novel, and over the next few pages we see Evangelin’s iron will, and her feeling of resentment that no-one realises what she has to do. For her, the clock never says ‘tick-tick-tick-tick’ but always ‘So much to do! So much to do! So much to do’. The only person who stands up to Evangeline is Stephen her youngest son,who has a will as strong as her own, and is given to temper tantrums. He is generally regarded as a ‘problem’ by friends and neighbours, who are mystified by his behaviour because Evangeline is such a perfect mother.

Then everything changes. Lester loses his job and contemplates suicide because he can no longer support his family. He falls off a neighbour’s roof while extinguishing a fire and is confined to a wheelchair, unable to walk or work. The future looks bleak indeed. But Evangeline, who is a feisty sort of woman, applies for a job at the store, and the owner decides to take a chance on her. She is given a position in the ladies’ wear section and turns out to be a brilliant saleswoman. Not only can she sell well, she’s a quick learner, good at managing staff, the customers love her, and she’s full of innovative schemes to attract customers, increase sales and maximise profit.

My ordinary silvery grey edition – these covers are much nicer in reality than they are in photographs!

While she works her way up to a key position at the store, Lester stays at home with the children and takes on the role of home-maker – where he is as innovative and successful as his wife is in her new role. His solution to the problem of cleaning dirt off the floor is to have it covered with newspaper each morning, and to clear it away each evening, before Evangeline returns home. It has the added bonus that Stephen can paint without making a mess. As Lester and his children tackle the difficulties of cooking and cleaning, they learn about love, responsibility, commitment, how to share things, and how to air their own opinions and make a contribution to family life. Gradually the children become confident as he tells them poems and stories, plays games, involves them in running the house, hugs them, and makes them feel loved and valued – and they, in return, adore him. 


The transformation of Stephen’s behaviour is especially touching. There is a key moment when Lester understands Stephen is petrified that Evangeline’s threat of washing his Teddy-bear will be carried out, and that his much-loved, dirty, old toy will be spoiled for ever. Lester has to convince his younger son that nothing will ever be done to teddy that he doesn’t want. And the final turning point comes when Stephen realises that when he goes to school his father will miss him. In one scene Lester, anxious to channel the little boy’s anger into some form of positive action, gives him a rotary egg whisk and asks him to beat a ‘pretend egg’ and turn a bowl of soapy water into froth. Stephen lacks the co-ordination and experience to know how to use the whisk, but he sticks at the task and eventually succeeds.

And what of Evangeline all this time? She comes home from work each day tired, but fulfilled. She’s no longer bitter about the hand life has dealt her, and as she no longer has to do the housework she hates so much, she seems content to spend her evenings relaxing, or playing cards with her family. And, since she is earning good money, they are able to buy luxuries for the first time ever, and she even agrees to Henry having a dog and a bicycle. I may have made her sound unlikable, but she’s not. She’s warm, passionate, quick-witted, intelligent, and has this tremendous vitality, and an urge to do everything to the very best of her ability. I could understand her frustration with the monotony and drudgery of housework, and the fact that once everything is neat, and clean, tidy, people come along and mess it up, so you have to do it all over again… and again… and again. She loves her children – but can’t cope with being with them all the time. And the relationship between her and Lester is quite tender. I think they are such opposites that each is able to give the other what they lack.

But there is a cloud on the horizon for Lester recovers the use of his legs, and although he tells no-one, his wife discovers his secret, and both fear that they must return to their traditional roles – he as a wage earner, and she as a home-maker. Neither feel they can face the censure of small-town America by going against convention and continuing as they are, and in the end it is the doctor who finds a solution that will ensure the continued happiness of the Knapp family.

The endpapers in the Persephone edition are from Galway, a silk velvet and terry fabric produced by Warner and exported to America in 1917.

I loved this novel, which is published by Persephone, but it must have seemed pretty outrageous when it was written in 1924, because it featured role reversal and progressive theories about education, both of which threatened the established order of things. More importantly, it highlights the importance of valuing people for themselves, whatever their age and sex, and shows how difficult it can be to stand up against the expectations and conventions of society, and to do what is right for you, rather than being pushed into a role that doesn’t suit you.

There was a certain amount of sentimentality, which is not always to modern taste, but it wasn’t obtrusive, and was in keeping with the characters. Overall, I liked the way it was written, especially the shifting viewpoints, which enable us to see things from the perspective of the various characters – even the children have a voice.

The Virago Group at LibraryThing have selected Dorothy Canfild Fisher as Author of the Month, while Jane at Beyond Eden Rock will be paying tribute on February 17, as part of a year-long Birthday Book of UnderAppreciated Lady Authors (you’ll find the introductory post here). Finally, Jessie at Dwell in Possibility is staging a Persephone Readathon (click here for details).

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Saturday Snapshots: Poppies

Wave: The poppy installation at the Naval Memorial on Plymouth Hoe commemorates service men and women who died in the First World War.

I don’t often write Remembrance posts because, rightly or wrongly, I tend to think that it somehow seems wrong to commemorate those who died in WW1 and WW2 while there is still conflict going on all over the world, and mankind doesn’t seem to have learned anything from past. But while I was in Plymouth last month I walked up on the Hoe and came across Wave, the poppy installation at the Naval Memorial, and found it very moving indeed, and it doesn’t glorify or justify war in any way.


The ceramic flowers were originally part of Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red display at the Tower of London back in 2014.  Created by artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper it involved a staggering 888,246 blooms, each representing a life lost during the First World War. I saw the original exhibition, which was truly stunning, and the Plymouth display, although considerably smaller, is every bit as breath-taking, and every bit as thought provoking.

The Naval Memorial from a distance: You don’t see the poppies until you get right up close, especially when it’s as foggy and rainy as it was the day I visited – the sky may look blue in this photograph, but it was a very nasty shade of grey!

The poppies have been placed to form a giant wave, rearing up against the memorial, which was established by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Close by is a hut where visitors can leave their memories and thoughts, and there are excellent information boards about the Great War and the work of the CWGC, as well as volunteers who provide guided tours.

Raindrops keep falling: That’s a paved area, not a water feature – I wanted to try and get all the poppies and all the memorial in a picture, but didn’t succeed.

The Plymouth display took 8 days to set up, and is one of is one of two sculptures taken from the original installation. It’s already been shown at Southend, Cardiff, Hull and Derby, and other venues are planned, including Stoke. But Plymouth is the only location where the poppies have been placed on a war memorial, which makes it all the more poignant. I gather it is lit by spotlights at night, which makes it look even more spectacular. Wave can be seen until November 19, and if you’re in the Plymouth area it really is worth a visit, and will make you think about the pity and futility of war.

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A close-up of one of the ceramic poppies.

Sunday Snippets: Star Maps

I always say I’m a bit of a bookish magpie, stealing ideas from other people when they catch my fancy, and I came across this ages ago, thanks to Pam at Travellin’ Penguin, and filed it away in my brain for future use, where it rattled around for several months until the other day, when I found myself singing along to David Bowie but substituting the words ‘Star Map’ for ‘Star Man’, and was prompted to dig this out.

literary star map 1

It is a Literary Constellation, created by artist Nick Rougeux who uses the opening lines of famous books to make beautiful images. And, in case you’ve forgotten, the first sentence of Alice in Wonderland is:”Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?”

Rougeux, who describes himself as a ‘designer, data geek and fractal nut’ makes his maps from the opening lines of novels, and the first lines of chapters in short stories. I gather that the maps are basically sentence diagrams, based on grammatical structure, and words are linked according to the part of speech they are (verbs, nouns, adjectives etc) and their length.

He has a brilliant website where he explains the technique:

“Constellations were created from words of first sentences of each chapter in classic short stories to draw a paths based on word length and part of speech. The directions of lines were based on part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, etc.) and length is based on the length of the word. Star sizes are also based on word length. Constellations were hand-arranged in a loose clockwise pattern starting at the top with a faint highlight connecting each in the order chapters appeared in the story representing the cloud of the galaxy usually shown in vintage star charts.”

He also produces artwork from punctuation:

alice punctuation

Talking about this on his website he says:

“Between the Words is an exploration of visual rhythm of punctuation in well-known literary works. All letters, numbers, spaces, and line breaks were removed from entire texts of classic stories like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Moby Dick, and Pride and Prejudice—leaving only the punctuation in one continuous line of symbols in the order they appear in texts. The remaining punctuation was arranged in a spiral starting at the top center with markings for each chapter and classic illustrations at the centre.”

Among other things he also uses musical staves, colour palettes of illustrations in the New Yorker magazine, and sonnet signatures, which are visualisations of Shakespeare’s sonnets as signatures based their letters.

His says he is fascinated by data visualisation and fractal artwork, which I assume means it is done on a computer, and I dare say purists will claim it is not ‘real art’, but I like his work – it’s a very different way of looking at things, and makes you think.


Saturday Snapshot: King John’s Tomb

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King John’s tomb, in Worcester Cathedral.

This week’s Saturday Snapshot photos were taken during a recent visit to Worcester Cathedral, and show the tomb of King John – think Robin Hood (only that turns out to be just a story), Magna Carta, and Crown Jewels lost in the Wash.

These days there’s a tendency for historians to take a revisionist view of the past, so figures once considered bad turn out out to be good (and vice versa). King John, however, remains an unreconstructed villain. He had few supporters in his own time, and the general view of him as a thoroughly bad lot and very unpleasant person has stayed largely unaltered in the 800 years since his death.

I’ve always been interested in him because when I was a child we lived at Egham, and that’s where Runnymede is – the meadow by the River Thames where Magna Carta was sealed on June 15, 1215.

John’s face, on the stone statue on his tomb. It is the oldest royal effigy in England, and the image is always described as ‘life-like’,  though I’m not sure if that means he really did look like this.

I have to say that the tomb is not as grand as I expected, but I guess that’s because it’s got a little worn over the centuries. Originally, I think it would have been painted with bright colours and would have shone with gold. However, some of the gilding is still there, and there are red and gold shield-like plaques showing the royal lions of England, so you get a sense of what it must have been like, and you know the body of a king is buried here.

The royal lions of England.

The tomb is in front of the High Altar, and there some excellent information plaques in the cathedral, but I am a little confused as to which bits were installed when. There must have been an earlier tomb, because the effigy and a new sarcophagus were ordered by John’s son Henry III in 1232, but it was opened in 1529 when, according to the cathedral website, the box part was added (there is a stone coffin inside it). And it was opened again in 1797 for an ‘antiquarian study’ of the body, which sounds grisly. On that occasion someone took a thumb bone and two teeth from the body. I saw the teeth at Worcester Museum, and was surprised at how large they were, and how yellow, but I couldn’t get a picture. Like I just said, grisly!

Anyway, I digress. On his tomb King John is shown carrying a drawn sword which apparently, is very unusual, since swords on tombs are normally sheathed. And the tip of the sword is in the mouth of an animal at the the king’s feet. Now I thought this was a dog, but when I got home I watched a repeat of the BBC programme The Last Journey of the Magna Carta King (first broadcast last year), and the experts on that said it’s a lion, which is not common on tombs, and they got terribly excited,  and said it’s all very symbolic, and I  just wish I had taken a few notes so  I could understand what they were talking about!

The lion on the tomb.

And there’s more symbolism at the other end of the tomb, because there’s a small carved head on each side of John’s crowned head. And I must be some kind of Philistine, because as I looked at them all I could think of was Zaphod Beeblebrox! If you’ve never come across him, he’s the former President of the Universe in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide the Galaxy, and he has two heads…

Anyway, I digress (again). One of the little heads at John’s side is St Wulfstan, and the other is St Oswald, but I have no idea which is which. They look as if they are perched on John’s shoulders, so their heads are taller than him, although they are smaller. I’m not sure if saints take precedence over kings, which puts them on a higher level than John, or whether they are simply offering protection as they gaze down from heaven. Personally I find them a bit spooky, but there we are. Everyone has different tastes. Apparently Wulfstan and Oswald were John’s favourite saints, with major shrines in Worcester, which may explain why he chose to be buried there.

One Saint …

John died unexpectedly, and was buried in a hurry. Events during the final few days of his life seem confusing. By October 1516 civil war had broken out and the rebel barons, who held huge swathes of the country, had invited Louis of France to take the throne of England. John marched east towards rebel strongholds in Lincolnshire and East Anglia, but was taken ill, probably with dysentery. As his condition worsened he turned towards Nottinghamshire, taking a longer, safer route, while his baggage train – reputedly carrying royal treasure which included the crown jewels – followed a shorter route across the treacherous sands of the Wash… And I’m sure you all know what happened next…

Precise details are unclear, but men, animals, wagons and treasure all disappeared, sucked beneath the quicksand, or swept away by the incoming tide. The exact location of the disaster remains a mystery, and no-one has ever found any trace of the lost treasure.

… And another saint.

John travelled as far as Newark, where he died on October 18 or 19 (accounts vary). Shortly before his death he dictated a brief will, which is kept in the library at Worcester Cathedral. It’s the oldest royal will will to survive in its original form, and is kept in the cathedral library. In it John outlined the way his kingdom should be ruled during his son’s minority (Henry was just nine years old when John died), and stated: “I will that my body be buried in the church of St. Mary and St. Wulfstan of Worcester”.

According to the cathedral information boards John died in agony, and his servants ran away, taking everything they could carry. Next day the monk John de Savigny found John’s naked, unguarded body covered with a cloth. He prayed for the dead king, and dressed him in what came to hand. A troop of mercenaries took the body to Worcester, but the king’s heart was buried at Croxton. Soon after his death rumours circulated claiming that he had either been poisoned, or had died of a ‘surfeit of peaches’ (I have no idea what constitutes a surfeit when it comes to peaches, but I dare say eating too many of them could make you very ill indeed). However, modern historians believe he died of dysentery.

Edited, 5.20pm: Realised  The Last Journey of the Magna Carta King is on BBC iPlayer, so I watched it again. Apparently the lion on the tomb represents the World, and the damaged sword is the king’s power (it hasn’t been broken by time, but was made like that), and the two things together represent the king dealing with a world in rebellion.Sometimes I wonder if people read too much into things…

*Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Melinda, at West Metro Mommy. Click on the link to see pictures from other participants.