Curly-haired Martha and her etiquette-aware mother live in a house called Hillview. They earn an income by taking in paying guests from near and far with various political stances.
'Hillview was a square house with six bedrooms, one bathroom, a dining-room, and a smoking-room where no one smoked. When there were male visitors, they smoked, according to the advanced custom of the period, in the drawing-room'.
Martha's father, Major Freke, hasn't been in the picture for quite some time after writing 'too many cheques'. Mother and daughter do have a constant resident though in Miss Pilkington who applied to an ever so slightly embellished advertisement. Martha is in no danger of being short on advice with several women offering advice on how to navigate through life's obstacles as exhibited by her teacher, Miss Spencer...
'"Now, I want to tell you that you are in danger of becoming a very unhappy little girl. Owing to unfortunate circumstances, you are brought up for the most part among grown-up people, and you are losing your childhood."' "Yes, Miss Spencer." Martha was beginning to feel tearful from self-pity. "You are lacking in community spirit. The best means of counteracting your mode of life would be net-ball. Tell your mother that one day you will regret the opportunities you have missed."'
If you're in the mood for it, there is nothing quite so entertaining as the observations of a young girl. Written prior to the days of political correctness there are many instances of racial and religious stereotyping but I must confess to laughing out loud a few times. I think mostly due to the absurdity of writing such things for publication, as in making cocoa the same colour as an Indian guest's skin. If you are quite at home with the writings of Nancy Mitford you know what I mean.
Christine Longford began this novel during the summer of 1930, echoing various episodes in her young life so it's quite autobiographical. The time Martha spends at Oxford is entertaining but also filled with more thoughts on Greek classics and psychology than I could absorb so at times I felt out of the loop. The moments I thoroughly relished were the ones filled with humour and domesticity.
'She was making for a plate of scrambled eggs, when a hand was pressed on her shoulder. It was Miss Stubbs, who said, "Don't! They are not what they seem!" "Oh, really?" "No, they are Farm Eggs, which means Egg Powder, which means Custard Powder, which mean Custard Pudding." The thought of custard pudding can curdle one's blood at ten minutes past eight in the morning...'
The book ends all too soon, just as Martha is coming into her own. Perhaps it's a bit dramatic to compare that statement with Longford's life once she married but reading Rachel Billington's preface it would appear so.
While this book, No. 83 in the Persephone line-up, isn't quite a shining star it was definitely more fun than I was expecting. And the endpapers are lovely.