Sunday, May 9, 2010

Making Conversation – Christine Longford

Appropriate in many ways for today (Saturday when I started writing...) I’ve been to London to meet some other book bloggers, an experience that was every bit as enjoyable as I hoped (it seems book bloggers are charming and interesting people), but as with any such gathering a lot of it is about making conversation and trying to get the balance right between talking too much and not talking at all. Oh, and as we met in the Persephone book shop, during Persephone reading week, hw could I have been reading anything but Persephone's? 

Fortunately meeting people who all have a shared interest makes conversation easy, but most of growing up is rendered hideous by getting it wrong and not really understanding why. ‘Making Conversation’ flummoxed me a bit because it was described as a funny book, and in all fairness, apart from one moment when I laughed that’s not how I found it. I’m wondering if I would have found it funnier if I wasn’t waiting to be amused – maybe I would, or perhaps the memory of so many excruciating conversations in my own past haven’t been dulled enough yet.

Making Conversation’ is a history of Martha Freke from childhood to the untimely end of her university career and her first steps out into the world. I found the details of university life for women students just after the First World War (bit of a mouthful that) the most interesting part of the book. A combination of absolutely recognisable situations, or more accurately, conversations (especially regarding joining societies), and an insight into a world that was so desperately prescriptive for women that wearing the wrong hat could ruin your reputation and to be seen talking to male students in public could lead to being sent down in disgrace.

The limited Christine Longford bio I read makes her sound thoroughly fascinating; that’s what made me want to read ‘Making Conversation’ but I can’t escape a nagging feeling that the books I really want to read by her are the Irish novels that came later, or maybe even a good biography. I’m assuming that a lot of ‘Making Conversation’ is autobiographical but I couldn’t help but feel I only had a part of the picture, and background at that. Very little sense of Martha as a person emerged from the book – understandable given that she’s so young and her behaviour is so carefully monitored – how much personality could emerge in a young woman watched so carefully at home, school, and university? It’s only in the last few pages when she sets off having been cut loose from most of her ties (hopefully not too much of a spoiler) that I could imagine a story about what she does rather than what happens to her.


  1. You'r eright - I'm intrigued as to what was autobiographical, and also by what else she has written. This was one of the bookmarks that I picked up yesterday!

  2. Very apt to be writing this after yesterday; I worry that I talk too much when meeting new people (or just in general) and that what I am conversing about is banal.

    It was thoroughly lovely to meet you and I enjoyed our walk to the Lamb, discussing Infernal Desires.

    I started to read Making Conversation last Persephone Reading Week and it wasn't working for me so I set it aside and read another instead. I'll pick it up again but not currently ins

  3. The way you've written about her time at university makes this book very appealing to read. It is duly added to the list.

  4. Verity, the bookmark is lovely isn't it, I really like that end paper. Reading this I kept thinking this is a writer I could really love - I'm imagining her writing got better and better...

    Paperback Reader, you make excellent conversation, and I could have talked about Angela Carter for many more miles (sadly it was only a few hundred yards)

    Joan Hunter Dunn, it's an interesting book, my initial reaction to it was a bit cool, but as the days pass since I read it I find it's still sticking with me, so it clearly got under my skin far more than I thought.

  5. I'd like to learn more of the early days of women at uni so will definitely add this one to my list thanks to your intriguing review! Sometimes books can be spoilt can't they if you're expecting them to be laugh out loud funny and for you they're more a gentle smile type?

  6. High expectations are the devil! I always think Dorothy L Sayers 'Gausy Night' is good for background on women's education - if you don't know it, it's a murder mystery set in a women's college in the 1930's. It always amazes (and depresses) me how long it took for women's education to gain any sort of parity. I believe Cambridge still had Male only colleges into the 1980's!

  7. It was so lovely to meet you Hayley! Sorry we didn't have much chance to chat - next time!
    This hasn't really appealed to me I must say - I've read a lot of negative reviews about it not actually being that funny. I'm interested in what you say about her having written some other, better, books - I'm off to find out more on wikipedia!

  8. I'm actually kind of relieved to find out that I'm not the only one who thought this wasn't the wonderfully funny book it was made out to be.

    I was a bit saddened that there was so little done with Martha at Oxford, and that what was painted of her time there was so disparaging of the entire female experience of university life. Forgivable if it had been humorous, but again, not so much.