Martha is an intelligent young girl who does well (she receives a scholarship to Oxford without having attended the best school). Her main problem is social: she can’t seem to make conversation as is expected of young women as part of pleasantries and general manners.
It seemed to me that the issue was not that Martha was incapable of making conversation with people but that she did not care for it much because she did not see the value. Or maybe it is that conversation presents a threat. The narrator tells us “It seemed that conversation was desirable, but conversation often meant contradiction”. We see Martha often seemingly trapped by the vices of conversation thinking that she has said too much, too little, or has come off as rude. There are conversations with adults, peers, and romantic interests. It could be that each type of conversation serves a particular purpose and Martha navigates these as she sees fit. What I also see in Martha is a hint of defiance and sarcasm. When she has something to say she says it, when there is someone that she wants to talk to she has no problems. I think she’s just too smart for those around her, she is observant and her commentary is often sharp, nearing comical. She is however, still growing up and finding herself. She is back and forth between wanting to be a statistician or take up a social cause. If still living in those times we may feel compelled to pity Martha and sincerely hope that she could entertain with the best of them and grow up to be a nice and respectable young lady, but I don’t, because Martha doesn’t. I don’t get the impression that she cares, she would snub her nose at us. I rather prefer the defiant ones.
According to the back flap and the introduction written by her niece, Making Conversation, originally published in 1931 closely resembles Christine’s own life. She grew up in Oxford and received a scholarship to Somerville College. Similar to Martha her mother housed paying guests.