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Making Conversation

Rachel Billington’s preface to Making Conversation by Christine Longford

A few months ago I sat in the archive room in Tullynally Castle, County Westmeath, Ireland and read the letters my aunt, Christine Trew wrote to her future husband, Edward Longford, the 6th Earl of Longford.

It was 1923. During the university terms, they were both in Oxford, Christine, two years older than Edward, had already taken her degree in Greats, he was just setting out on his. During the holidays he was often at Pakenham Hall (now called Tullynally Castle). He had inherited a title, large estates and land, mostly in Ireland, when his father was killed at Gallipoli in 1915. She was Christine Trew, whose mother lost her husband first on his departure from home when his daughter was three and finally when he, a navy man, was drowned in World War One.

A father dying in the Great War was the least of the bonds between Christine and Edward.

In the archive room, a large airy chamber, originally the nursery, the lovers’ letters are bundled up in separate stacks, all written before they were married, since afterwards they never spent a day apart.

Edward removed Christine from a modest home in Oxford where the only income came from paying-guests (not ‘lodgers’ as Martha Freke insists) to a 130-room crenellated and turreted castle. At that time the inside staff included a butler, six house maids and many under-staff plus a dozen or so outside who cared for, among other areas, an eight-acre walled fruit and vegetable garden.

If this sounds like the story of King Cophetua and the Beggar-maid the reality was very different – at least from the hero and heroine’s point of view. Christine Trew was no pretty little thing but a strong-minded ‘twenties blue-stocking whose mother had moved to Oxford to make sure her clever daughter won a scholarship to Oxford which, just like Martha, in Making Conversation, Christine duly did.

Much of the novel closely reflects Christine’s own early life. Like Martha she had grown up in the West Country, a single child with an absent father, precociously clever and educated in part by the student lodgers who lived in her home.

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 and the line ‘the first novel that anybody can write,’ because one of the big questions over Christine Longford as 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 1935 and three further novels, she never wrote another.

In the early 1920’s, Christine Trew was an undergraduate who made friends with writers like Harold Acton and Sinclair Lewis and went up to London for tea parties with Rose Macauley, Michael Arlen and Noel Coward. Sinclair Lewis, Christine tells us in her memoir, became enough of a friend to slide down the banisters on a tray - whose banisters she doesn’t make clear. He also visited Christine at home where ‘we went for a country walk in the Oxfordshire mud and talked about literature. He regretted the absence of fundamentals in modern fiction, Love and Hate, Joy and Sorrow, Hunger and Thirst.’ To which Christine adds, with her usual briskness, ‘Now they have come back with a vengeance.’

She was also welcomed at Garsington Manor by Lady Ottoline Morrell. ‘Garsington’, Christine writes, ‘was my education on Sundays.’ She describes a typical visit: ‘Tea at a long table, China tea and cress sandwiches. Then Turkish cigarettes and bull’s-eyes, wood smoke and incense in a room with Venetian mirrors and Omega Workshop lampshades. Or we might sit in the garden among peacocks and statues, and listen to Bertrand Russell, Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster or W.B. Yeats. My favourite was Bertrand Russell. We did not interrupt them, or ask them for jobs, but we knew it was the kind of conversation we liked.’

Christine several times notes her plan to write so that when she takes a disappointing third class degree, possibly due to her mother’s illness, she and her friend Flora Grierson (daughter of Professor Grierson) consoled each other by agreeing they wanted to write not teach or become academics. As Christine commented, ‘I was prepared to become the secretary of a man of genius, preferably a writer; or if I went to work in an office, it must be a publisher’s office. Writing was my line, so I had decided when I edited the school magazine; and in time I would write books myself.’

All this Christine perceived as happening in London. Nevertheless, to Flora’s disappointment, she decided to learn shorthand and typing in Oxford. Edward had three more years of his degree there and Edward avoided London.

Indeed he did not immediately appreciate Christine because he thought she was ‘a London woman’. Their first proper meeting was not a success. ‘I talked too much and he talked too little. He thought me formidable and I thought him unsociable.’

Despite this faltering start, the age difference, the class barrier and fairly general surprise and sometimes disapproval, they were soon inseparable. Christine had met her ‘man of genius’. Bidding farewell to her early superiority in matters of literature and the world, she ceded to him greater knowledge in everything or everything that truly mattered. She admitted she could never could make him a tidy man or teach him to dance.

She wrote about him after their marriage when he was searching for an occupation, ‘He was not meant to be an extra, a walk-on like me.’ Class, money and even Edward’s relative good looks may have had something to do with her sense of inferiority. Christine was small, with a jolie-laide face at best, combining very large mouth with largish nose and small eyes while Edward had golden curls and handsome Greek god features. Several times in the memoir she refutes any idea that class differences mattered to her and she quotes Edward as saying that Ireland was a republic now and such things as class had become irrelevant.

Christine’s description of the first time she saw Edward is too charming and revealing to resist quoting in full: ‘In the autumn of 1921, I was just twenty-one and beginning my last year at Oxford. One dark, wet evening I was walking around the big quadrangle of Christchurch with my friend Charles, an accomplished classical scholar. We had been to a lecture on Roman Gaul. In front of us loomed the shape of a boy in one of those Etonian overcoats now extinct, which were baggy, with velvet collars. Charles said, “That’s Lord Longford.” I said “Oh, is it?” I had no special feelings about lords, for or against. I knew some who were intelligent, and it was the only class-distinction I recognised. I was an intellectual snob. Charles said “I hear he has come up with quite a good reputation from Eton.” I said “oh, really?” and we discussed Roman remains in Provence.’

Money is always important and Christine regretted that she could not be an heiress as Edward’s bride. They were something more important: soul-mates. Aftter initial hesitations, they were recognised as such by Edward’s widowed mother and his five brothers and sisters, including my father, Frank Pakenham (later Longford).

They were married in a family-only affair, in July 1925 immediately after Edward finished his final examinations. A year or so later they came to live permanently in Ireland. Ireland was Edward’s obsession – he had learned Gaelic at Eton – and soon Christine was as fervid a Republican as him.

By 1927, they had bought a house in Leinster Road, Dublin. According to Desmond Guinness who came to live in Leixlip Castle in the 1950s when he first met Christine Edwards, ‘It was a huge house but furnished like a monastery with a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling in their bedroom.’

The house, huge even by the standards of the owner of a castle, was entirely dwarfed by the vastness of Pakenham Hall and became an escape route from the responsibilities of running a great estate. From then on, in the words of my brother Thomas Pakenham who now lives at Tullynally, they used the castle ‘as a weekend cottage,’ and of course a place for holidays.

During this period both Edward and Christine were feeling their way towards their future. They had a passion for the classics nearly as great as all things Irish – and were both extraordinarily well read. In 1928 Christine published her first book, non-fiction: Vespasian and Some of his Contemporaries. It was typical that she felt no need to add the word ‘Emperor’. This would seem to be a far cry from Making Conversation and her later novels but she has already perfected her elliptical style, which served her so well in her humorous novels. History, in abbreviation, becomes somewhat indigestible, although her command of the facts never gets in the way of a lively anecdote.

Other enthusiasms kept them very active: Chinese artefacts and design of every sort – hangings, pots and carpets – had a magnetic attraction for them both. Tullynally is still filled with evidence of their buying sprees in European and in Dublin shops. They bought for the sheer pleasure of owning an object they admired, not caring about cracks or inferior quality. They loved Chinese colourings and like naughty children let loose, painted the dark brown panelling of the castle in brilliant red, blue and green. Even the gates to the walled garden became (and remain) a Chinese red.

But it was Edward’s next great enthusiasm which was finally to transform their lives and eventually change Christine’s direction as a writer. In 1930 Edward joined Michael MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards on the board of the newly formed Gate Theatre. In fact Edward saved the theatre from closure by writing a very large cheque. He continued to do so for the rest of his life, easily overlooking occasional warnings from his trustees. In her memoirs, Christine writes, ‘Edward, we know, thought inherited wealth was a crime…’ Now he had found a noble cause which gave him intense pleasure and where the money could be directed. Christine’s last words in her memoir summarised this, ‘We were stage-struck for life, and our stages were all over Ireland, south of the border.’ In the early 1930s, their stage was usually in Dublin. It was only in 1938 when Edward split with Hilton and MacLiammoir to set up Longford Productions (a touring company for half the year), that the theatre completely enveloped Edward and Christine’s life. Nevertheless Edward’s direction was set and Christine’s only wish was to follow and serve him.

Her four novels, therefore, Making Conversation, Country Places, Jiggins of Jigginstown (originally a play) and Printed Cotton were all written and published between 1930 and 1935. Extraordinarily, there is very little mention of them in her memoir even though she was describing the period up to 1939. There is no mention of the last two novels at all and no suggestion that the first two were published or that they, in particular, Making Conversation, received incredibly good reviews. Towards her death she told her friend, the Irish writer and editor, Terence de Vere White, who noted it, that ‘she had abandoned the idea of writing about herself and the book [memoir] was to be about her late husband.’ Despite good offers, sight unseen, from three publishers, she never allowed it to be published.

The references to her writing that remain in the memoir nevertheless describe the circumstances and her mood as she took up her pen - at least with the first two novels. Both were written at Pakenham Hall during the summer holidays. ‘Friends and family stayed, neighbours were visited, a rock garden created, a pure-bred Hereford bull called Johnston Robin purchased.’ In Christine’s words, ‘At odd times I stayed indoors and wrote the first novel that anybody can write, stories of my past life; and here I must say in praise of Edward that he neither stopped it nor censored it. I showed it to him in sections and waited to see if he laughed at the jokes, but I didn’t ask for advice and he gave me none, and I showed it to no one else.’

At this point feminists or others who have enjoyed Making Conversation may be grinding their teeth. But it would be to misunderstand the strength of Christine’s modesty. She goes on to report tranquilly how a friend guesses ‘her secret’ and tells her ‘to persevere’, ‘I was doing no harm, and I liked doing it, didn’t I? Yes, I certainly did.’

During the summer that she wrote her second novel, Country Places, new visitors came to stay, young men some like Anthony Powell (her future brother-in-law) and Evelyn Waugh already highly regarded writers. Others, like John Betjeman, soon to become famous. Another brother-in-law was the painter of Lytton Strachey, Henry Lamb. The atmosphere was intensely literary and artistic.

Christine paints a vivid picture of this scene and her own modest role in it, ‘None of us seemed to be working except Henry [he was painting portraits of the family]. We were on holiday. Still it was easy to disappear at odd times, and we wouldn’t know if John was writing a ‘pome’ in his room. Evelyn would come down to breakfast with a determined face and enquire “Who’s got any funny letters this morning?” That was the professional writer, keen on the scent, and we handed them over as a solemn duty. He read rapidly and handed them back, the material was stored for the future. We were all glad to make Evelyn laugh. He was kind about my first novel, and now I was doing a second one set in this country, Ireland for ever, as England was off my mind.’

Set against the ‘professional’ Waugh who was ‘kind’ about Making Conversation, it is easy to see how Christine’s sense of her second place category was confirmed. Her own needlepoint wit was outfaced by Waugh’s rapier thrusts or Powell’s weightier characterisation.

All the same, it seems strange that the reception of Making Conversation made so little impression on her. Nine reviews are quoted in the preliminary pages of Country Places which followed it. Here are a few: ‘One of the wittiest books published for a very long time.’ James Agate. ‘A first novel of exceptional wit and originality.’ Harold Nicholson. ‘As funny as anything I’ve read in a very long time.’ L.P. Hartley. ‘I have been going about lately reading extracts from this delicious book to anybody who would lend me his ears.’ Compton Mackenzie. For most writers, these were reviews to last a lifetime.

It is true that after Making Conversation Christine permanently shifted background of her novels to Ireland but the same keen eye for human foibles and even keener ear for dialogue dissects the Anglo-Irish landed gentry. It is the area inhabited by Molly Keane who was rediscovered in the 1970s after being modestly published as M. J. Farrell in the 1930s. Clever women wrote novels – Pansy Lamb, Christine’s sister-in-law wrote novels – but they did not make a big thing of it.

John Cowell, a later friend of Christine wrote a biography of the Longfords called No profit but the Name. In it, he quotes Martha Freke’s line, ‘Men can enjoy themselves without women but women can’t enjoy themselves without men’, and comments that Christine thought men more intellectual than women. More important still, she had found an intellectual man she adored and deeply admired.

Compton Mackenzie, one of her biggest fans, reviewed Country Places in the Daily Mail. ‘She is a kind of Jane Austen with shingled hair and a cigarette between her lips…The possibilities of her future as a writer seems to me immense, and I shall open every new book of hers that come my way with the confident hope that she will never make me regret that so early in her career as a novelist I have rashly mentioned her name in the same sentence as Jane Austen’s.’

But Jane Austen wasn’t married. Edward’s demands on Christine were total and she was his willing acolyte. When Edward started writing plays, she too began a play. ‘I copied Edward. When I had finished my novel, I had to write a play too.’ It was set in Rome and, according to Christine herself, ‘mildly funny and not very good.’ But Edward wanted plays for the Gate and she obligingly produced over twenty, all performed, none that I have read much better than the first, some worse. Her attempt at a ‘commercial play’ as she described it, was quite a lot worse.
Many of the plays were adaptations; one, for example, of Maria Edgeworth’s novel, The Absentee. (Maria Edgeworth had lived near Pakenham Hall and had been friends of the family.) Another, ironically, was of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Some were history plays. None have lasted. Most probably the form did not encourage her wonderfully sardonic sense of humour which makes the novels such a delight.

Repertory theatre had a voracious appetite for new work. Both Edward and Christine were always working at top speed, not only writing, but in later years managing the company. Edward did the designs and costumes, Christine did everything. Their winter touring programme took them to small towns like Cavan, Mullingar, Athlone, Cork, Waterford, Carlow, Drogheda, Kilkenny, Clonmel, Sligo, in the worst of the weather.

Contemporaries describe watching productions back at the Gate summer season. Christine sat with the glazed look of someone who would rather be somewhere else. Edward sat on the edge of his seat, eyes shining, enthusiasm undiminished. Certainly there was no time for novels. Nor, sadly, was there any sign of the two children that, in her memoir, Christine admits that they hoped for.

Still, Christine remained utterly devoted to Edward, a minister to his every need. Unfortunately one of his needs was to consume a mountainous amount of food. By the late 1950s, the handsome, golden-haired youth she’d fallen in love with had become spectacularly overweight. Indulgent at first, too late she tried to call a halt to the deadly intake. But any reduction in the potato mountain on his plate caused a major tantrum. In 1961 when Edward was fifty-nine years old he died from a massive stroke. Christine, still curiously unchanged in appearance from her 1920s days, the cigarette always in her hand, the ‘huge’ mouth producing amusing and clever conversation, lived till 1980. At first her days were very busy. She worked still at the Gate, now once again with Edwards and MacLiammoir, where she became a familiar figure in the box office and ran the accounts, according to Desmond Guinness, who was a trustee, on the back of a Christmas card. She became a distinguished reviewer for the Irish Times; among the Tullynally archives are thank you notes from writers such as Patrick Leigh Fermor. But she never wrote another novel.

As time passed, she became prone to depression and spent time in hospital. In her obituary in the Irish Times, Hilton Edwards who had seriously fallen out with Edward, wrote ‘Her adoration of her husband, Lord Longford, was unmistakable. He appeared to be both husband and child, and the fulfilment of ambition.’

Some time later, Valerie Pakenham found herself talking about Christine with Michael MacLiammoir. ‘If Christine hadn’t married that dreadful man, she’d have been the Jane Austen of Ireland,’ hissed MacLiammoir.

But ‘that dreadful man’ was Christine’s idol. She deeply admired his life-long commitment to promoting Irish theatre and to supporting everything Irish, including freedom and hand-woven tweeds. In her view and the view of many Irishmen – at his funeral, the mourners stretched out of the church and down the streets – he was a great man.

As a novelist myself, I regret that she allowed her talent to be diverted, but at least we have Making Conversation – reprinted once before in 1971 after Pamela Hansford Johnson raved about it in the TLS. In the rather grim atmosphere of early twenty-first-century fiction, even Christine’s last three novels provide a refreshingly light-hearted alternative. I laughed out loud more during my third reading of Making Conversation than I have reading any comic novel written over the last thirty years.

In its comment on youth and growing up, it goes far further than providing a witty picture of the times. Martha Freke with her combination of romantic yearnings and sharp-eyed, cold sober criticism is a brilliant portrait of a young woman whose life is about to change.

The novelist with whom Christine Longford can most easily be compared is Nancy Mitford who continues to be read and admired. This new publication of Making Conversation will give another generation a chance to enjoy a truly original and mostly forgotten talent.