The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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November 2, 2016

Making Conversation {Persephone no. 83}

      Also in the archive room is a memoir written and typed out by Christine after her husband's death, In it she describes how she started writing during the summer of 1930 when she and Edward and friends were staying at Pakenham Hall. 'At odd times I stayed indoors and wrote the first novel that anybody can write, stories of my past life ...'
      I'll come back to this quotation .... because onne of the big questions over Christine Longford as a a novelist is not why she wrote Making Conversation -- it was almost an obvious step in the literary group in which she moved -- but why, after 1933 and three further novels, she never wrote another.
from the introduced to Making Conversation, by Christine Longford

A few months ago, I discovered that a library I had just joined -- oh joy! oh rapture! -- has an enormous stash of Persephones {or in some cases, the dusty original edition of books that became Persephones}, and I immediately sat down to make a list of the ones I wanted to borrow.  Life has gotten in the way a little of my plans to obsessively check out every single one of them, but I started with Tea with Mr. Rochester (no. 44), Making Conversation is my second, and Miss Ranskill Comes Home (no. 46) is waiting on my nightstand. I was drawn to M.C. after reading a Persephone Letter about it, and also after being introduced to Christine Longford when I read Antonia Fraser's wonderful memoir. {So, I am NOT choosing which Persephones to read based on their endpaper designs. No, I am not. That would not be very literary, would it?}

Our heroine is Martha Freke {Martha also being a good sign}, first an awkward schoolgirl and then a scholarship student at Oxford.  'It was some time since Major Freke had written too many cheques and disappeared,' and Martha's mother clings to respectablity and takes in paying guests, including the elderly Miss Pilkington ('Miss Pilkington was satisfactory, since she paid in advance, in a discreet envelope, and ate very little. She brought in a net profit of ten or fifteen shillings a week.'}, a 'surplus student or two' farmed out by the vicar, and two polite Japanese gentlemen.
     'Here is a little present for you, Ellen,' said Martha Freke. 'We got in on the pier.'
     Ellen, the cook-general, undid the wrapping, which revealed a small cardboard box, and in it, on a bed of cotton wool, a brooch, which said 'Ellen,' in bright gold, written in a cursive hand, with a lie below it and a full stop after it. 'It will help her to remember,' Mrs. Freke had said; for Ellen had been christened 'Beatrice,' which was an unsuitable name for a cook-general, and had to be dropped. ...
     'Yes, it's real gold, too, and they were making them up in any name. And only sixpence each!'
     Martha could not understand why her mother was frowning and shaking her fist behind Ellen's back.
      'I'm sure I'm very much obliged,' said Ellen, 'no matter what it did cost,' and went out.
     'You little idiot,' said Mrs. Freke. 'Now she won't think anything of it. People like that don't, if you tell them the price. Never do it again.'
      This was the sort of thing that happened, thought Martha, after a really nice day. She had absorbed all the sights of Compton-on-Sea:  shopping in the morning, lunch in the Geisha Cafe, where the mock-turtle soup had a taste unknown at home, and an afternoon on the pier, where they had listened to Braun's Band. ... Anyway, the day had been delightful, and there had been no need to make conversation; but as usual, as soon as she had opened her mouth unnecessarily, there had been a disaster.
      'You should encourage Martha to talk more,' said Miss Pilkington, their permanent paying-guest, 'or she will be at a disadvantage when she goes out into the world. Of course, it is difficult with an only child.'  Her manner suggested that if she had been married she would have found it her duty to have at least ten. ... She had an extensive knowledge of Switzerland; and to Martha she was an interpreter of the outside world, which was evidently an unpleasant place.
At home, Martha is bullied by her mother and her headmistress, and befriended by Cecil, one of the vicar's students; when she goes up to Springfield College, she comes into her own with her fellow students, and has her first romances.  There are awkward adventures, and the kind of gentle humor that I love best, and an odd ending where the author imagines what will happen to Martha next.  And I {being me} also enjoyed reading the introduction by novelist Rachel Billington, who is Christine Longford's niece, and the connections she makes between the author's life and Martha's, and the differences she hints at between them.

Do you have a favorite Persephone {possibly one with especially pretty endpapers}that I could look for next?

Making Conversation, by Christine Longford
Persephone Books, 2009 {originally published in 1931}
Borrowed from The Boston Athenaeum


JoAnn said...

Oh, to have so many Persephones in such easy reach!! Have you read Dorothy Whipple? Someone at a Distance and They Were Sisters are both wonderful, and The Priory is waiting on my shelf.

Karen K. said...

I agree with Joann, the Whipples are always wonderful. I myself didn't care much for Making Conversation, but it was one of the first Persephones I ever read -- maybe I would appreciate it more now having read more of that type of novel. I did love Tea with Mr. Rochester and Miss Ranskill both. There are a lot of good Persephone short story collections (especially Dimanche and Other Stories and Midsummer Night in the Workhouse). I also loved Doreen by Barbara Noble and The Village by Marghanita Laski. So jealous of all the Persephones available to you!

Gabriella said...

I love the books you suggest, and one thing that makes me choose a book from another is what it looks like ... I will definitely order my first Persephone book, thank you for the hint!!
But I need more help: which one? Is there a 1940’s domestic fiction that you can recommend?

Thank you for visiting!

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