Persephone Books very kindly sent me a copy of Making Conversation by Christine Longford to review, and I actually read it a month or two ago, but was waiting for it to be available on the website before putting down my thoughts here. And, of course, that means I’ll have to search back into the depths of my memory…
The novel follows Martha from childhood through school and into Oxford University. She is an awkward girl, and, as the Persephone website says, ‘her besetting trouble is that she talks either too much, or too little: she can never get the right balance of conversation.’ This is evident from the opening pages, where she marvels at the inexpensive price of the brooch given to Ellen, the cook-general. (“You little idiot.. Now she won’t think anything of it. People like that don’t, if you tell them the price.”) Very intelligent but equally detached, she seems to meander through school and interaction with ‘paying guests’ at home (very definitely not a hotel) – where her mother advertises as an ‘Officer’s wife’: ‘This was mostly true. The military connexion grew fainter with the years. It was some time since Major Freke had written too many cheques, and disappeared.’ Martha isn’t quite precocious, but her indifferent responses at school and habit of repeating what she doesn’t understand (“Miss Spencer pulled my hair, and said I had committed adultery”) might give that impression.
Time passes, and Martha becomes a student at Oxford University. This was the part of the novel I enjoyed most, reflecting on the ways in which things have changed. Not least, apparently, the propensity to send people down all the time, and the illicit parties at men’s colleges offer a glimpse of the past. By the time Martha gets to university, her personality seems to have completely altered – which is probably true to life, but a little off-putting in what is tantamount to a Bildungsroman. She is pretty outgoing, even vivacious; jokey, flirty and chatty.
The new introduction by Rachel Billington compares the novel to Cold Comfort Farm, at least in terms of being a classic of English humour. Well… I don’t quite agree. Making Conversation is an excellent portrait of a character not often depicted sympathetically in the early twentieth century – the female academic, the intelligent but quiet girl – but isn’t ever laugh-out-loud funny. Lots of diverting sections, and a certain amount of amusing turns of phrase (for example the quotation below) but I don’t think Longford’s priority is hyperbolic comedy, as Gibbons’ was.
‘She would renounce all the lusts of the flesh. It would save a lot of trouble, and as she wasn’t a success on the carnal side, she might as well give it up. In that case, there would be no need to marry and have a family; and she could become famous as a Homeric scholar.’
And, as always, the presentation of the book is perfect. We know what to expect from the outside, but the endpaper (yes, Col, I’m going to talk about the endpaper) is one of my favourites from Persephone yet, apparently from a 1931 dress silk.
In conclusion – another welcome inclusion in the Persephone canon, and with invaluable, and quietly amusing, insights into another aspect of a disappeared world.