Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Making Conversation by Christine Longford

This coming-of-age story, reprinted by Persephone, is both witty and touching. We meet Martha Freke, a schoolgirl during the first World War, and follow her through adolescence and on to Oxford. Martha is continually beset by the problems of making conversation: a misunderstanding of the meaning of "adultery", caused in part by her headmistress, leads to her eventual expulsion from school; it is never clear whether she should argue with adults or simply agree with everything they say. The narrative is slightly episodic, and we see Martha take up and drop religious, philosophical and romantic interests, greatly influenced by her peers. She has the advantage of a rather glamourous mother, separated from her father and taking in interesting, sometimes foreign, lodgers; the local Vicar supplies a number of camp young aesthetes and pacifists; and at Oxford she is distracted from her studies by the pleasures of new frocks and hats, and hamfisted flirtations. Unsuprisingly, this ends badly, and Martha is dispatched to Prague as an au pair, her Oxford place given to "the better woman" Martha was keeping out.

The book is slight, but funny; the scene in which Martha, parroting uncomprehendingly the hints given by her mother, suggests that her Headmistress is pursuing a lesbian affair with a fellow teacher, is highly amusing, with Martha mystified by the outrage her comment generates. The depiction of Martha's interview at Oxford will make anyone who has been through this process cringe with recognition. Martha's various useless suitors and her fellow students are wryly observed. It's not quite up there with Nancy Mitford in the humour stakes, as the introduction suggests, but it's good fun all the same.

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