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A LIFE’S WORK: Margaret Forster

 

We take a look over the work of the prolific Cumbrian author who has become a reading-group favourite.

 

Happily old school'?

 

Margaret Forster is not a self-promoter, 'These days publishers require an awful lot of an author because it's such a cut-throat business. The publisher has the author as a performing animal and they know I can do it because I'm not exactly a shrinking violet but I won't do it. I don't do tours, or literary lunches, or book signing sessions - I've got that written into my contract. I'm a solitary sort of person, and I'm not public spirited so I just stay in the house wherever I am.'

By doing so she has amassed a considerable body of work - without the aid of a computer. 'I believe the whole process of using a pen is part of how I think and I'm more careful with the words when changing or erasing them would not be simple. And the handwriting gives me pleasure.'

And her legacy? 'I certainly don't look as anything I've written as a kind of life's work,' she has been quoted as saying. Perhaps, but over the next four pages we hope you'll remind yourself of books of hers you've read - and discover others you'll want to seek out.

diary
DIARY OF AN ORDINARY WOMAN

by Margaret Forster

Vintage


This novel takes the form of the fictional diaries of one Millicent King, from the age of 13 until 94. The term ‘ordinary’ is used, because this is what she was, but the contents are absolutely fascinating. As soon as I read the introduction I knew that this was going to be an enjoyable read.

From the start of the diary Millicent comes across as a defiant and strong character, continually trying to do something with her life but not sure what. She actually does accomplish quite a lot; no shrinking violet was Millicent. I also liked the fact that she was an avid reader and library user.

This book gives a unique insight into ‘ordinary’ life from almost one hundred years ago, supplemented by Margaret Forster who has added useful comments throughout her ‘editing’ of the diaries.

A most engrossing and inspirational read.

Anne Rampton

Personal Read: Five Stars

Group Read: Five Stars

 

DID YOU KNOW?


The day after she finished her final exams for her History degree at Oxford, Margaret married Hunter davis, whom she met and fell in love with at the age of 17.

georgyGEORGY GIRL

by Margaret Forster

Vintage


Forster peels back the façade of the swinging sixties to reveal self- seeking, amoral characters bent on satiating their own desires. Ted and Doris Paulson keep house for James and Ellen Leamington. They enjoy an uneasy upstairs/downstairs relationship where the women are peripheral to the men’s needs. Georgina, the eponymous heroine plays pig-in-the-middle.

The novel tracks Georgy’s sexual awakening but this is no formulaic, breathless romance. As a personal read I enjoyed the playful narrative voice, which meandered in and out of the different characters and gave their different reactions to the same event. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and Forster keeps us guessing whether Georgy is truly ugly or really happy.

There’s a wealth of material for book groups to contemplate too, such as, whether it’s a novel of its time or still relevant. And the provocative yet fun tone that skips lightly over sensitive issues like abortion/adoption will no doubt lead to heated debates on the ‘rightness’ of Georgy’s ultimate decision.

Janette Currie 

Personal Read: Three Stars 

Group Read: Four Stars

goodGOOD WIVES?

by Margaret Forster

Vintage


An interesting read and in true Margaret Forster style beautifully written. Margaret Forster can make anyone interesting and this book is no exception. All three biographies are stunningly told. Mary, wife of the explorer David Livingstone, Fanny, the American wife of RL Stevenson, and Jennie Lee, wife of Aneurin Bevan, were obviously meticulously researched and worthy of a book in themselves.

Also the details of Margaret Forster’s marriage to Hunter Davies and the comparisons she makes with these earlier marriages contained just enough detail to keep you interested but not enough to take over the whole story.

I would recommend this for groups and also to anyone who enjoys a good read.

Demelda Penkitty 

Personal Read: Five Stars

Group Read: Five Stars

 

DID YOU KNOW?


Spends half her time in the Lake District with writer and husband Hunter Davis, and the rest at their house in London - the best of all worlds.

keepingKEEPING THE WORLD AWAY
by Margaret Forster

Vintage


This book presents snapshots of six female artists’ lives, as they come into possession of treasure, and lose an unsigned painting and it is another Forster masterpiece. Written as six connecting short stories there is no single heroine, yet each chapter connects to the last through characters, clothing and locations. Spanning from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century, Forster brings a swathe of history and emotion to life.

My sole criticism is that, whilst the detail paints beautiful pictures of the different eras, the writing style requires extensive and continued effort. Nevertheless, it is a satisfying read. An excellent read for both individuals and book clubs, with many topics to discuss.

Freya Russell-Hobson 

Personal Read: Four Stars

Group Read: Five Stars

maidLADY’S MAID

by Margaret Forster

Vintage


This is the fictionalised story of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s lady’s maid Wilson, from the time she entered the Barretts’ employ in 1844 to the poet’s death in 1861. These years covered not only Wilson’s life with her lady, and the growing friendship (albeit an unequal one) between the two women, but also the momentous events of EBB’s life – marriage to Browning, elopement to Italy and the birth of their son.

Since the author was also EBB’s biographer, readers can be sure that the background is accurate. Following the intertwined lives of the two women not only gives a fascinating glimpse into how life was lived then, but also deals with perennial ‘women’s issues’ in a rather less cosy way than Forster’s more recent work. There is plenty for a group to discuss, and they could also read the poetry!

I thoroughly enjoyed it and believe it to be one of Forster's best.

Clare Turner

Personal Read: Five Stars

Group Read: Five Stars

motherMOTHER CAN YOU HEAR ME?
by Margaret Forster

Vintage


The main characters in this novel are Angela, her Mother and Father and her teenage daughter, Sadie. Angela is a teacher with a loving husband, three young sons and an unmarried sister but it is the relationships between Angela, Mother and Sadie that give this novel its focus.

Mother (always with a capital letter) is a wonderful creation, at once snobbish and self-effacing but actually a tyrant to whom Angela can never say ‘No’. Her Father is a bully with the best of intentions, and Angela is intent on making Sadie’s upbringing very different from her own.

I admire Margaret Forster’s writing as she can make the reader care so much for these characters and sympathise with their predicaments. The book is as fresh and involving as when it was written. If you like books about people; you will love this.

Dorothy Anderson 

Personal Read: Five Stars

Group Read: Five Stars

 

DID YOU KNOW?


Forster writes by hand with a fountain pen. 'I like the action of writing, I like the look of the letters and words as they form themselves on the page.'

privatePRIVATE PAPERS

by Margaret Forster

Vintage


Penelope, abandoned as a baby, spent her childhood in an institution. She married Oliver, had three daughters and adopted one. Oliver went off to war and was reported ‘missing, presumed dead’ so Penelope brought up the girls herself. Family was everything to her and she wrote the family memoirs from her point of view. Her eldest, Rosemary, found these memoirs much later and started to read them secretly.

We read Penelope’s memoirs interspersed with Rosemary’s views of the same events; invariably very different! Unusually, both narrators are very strong characters and the few men featured in the book are rather inconsequential, but this doesn’t spoil the book. I found myself wondering what the truth actually was!

A fascinating insight into the complexities of family relationships and a compelling read, though strangely, I didn’t particularly like or care about any of the characters! A good personal read with plenty for a book group to discuss.

Lynn Latham 

Personal Read: Four Stars 

Group Read: Four Stars

battleTHE BATTLE FOR CHRISTABEL
by Margaret Forster

Vintage


This is the story of five-year-old Christabel, orphaned when her mother Rowena dies in a climbing accident. She is the subject of a fierce struggle between her remaining family and social services over her fostering and adoption. 

The novel is heartbreaking. Although told from the viewpoint of Isobel, Rowena’s oldest friend, Forster reaches into the emotional landscape of all the characters and draws them so completely that it is
impossible to have neutral feelings about any of them: the ambivalent Isobel, the 
overbearing grandmother, the difficult foster mother, and the rule-bound social workers. The reader is left wishing she could take control of this situation in which a little girl is tugged between all the differing opinions over her future.

This is the perfect reading group novel with enough themes and layers to keep any discussion going. A wonderful novel, and one that stays with you long after it’s finished.

Willow Thomas 

Personal Read: Five Stars

Group Read: Five Stars

margaret forster

 

DID YOU KNOW?


Born 25 May 1938 and grew up on the Raffles council estate in Carlisle before escaping to Oxford University.

menHAVE THE MEN HAD ENOUGH?

by Margaret Forster

Vintage


Grandma is failing: old age and dementia mean that she can no longer fend for herself. The harrowing

episode of her decline from matriarch to ‘inmate’ of a hospital ward for the senile is told in alternating chapters by Jenny, grandma’s daughter-in-law, and Hannah, her granddaughter. It is brilliant in its detailed and acute perception of a family unit under strain, and the internecine conflict, which often results when an elderly relative becomes dependent. Here, daughter Bridget’s virtuous stand to

keep her mum in her own home is quite at odds with the glaring evidence of accidents and incontinence which propel Jenny and husband Charlie to do a recce of care homes. This is a sensitive and highly accomplished portrayal of a social phenomenon on the increase, and rich in potential for discussion, yet might be too close to the bone for many readers.

Catherine Meek 

Personal Read: Three Stars 

Group Read: Four Stars

anythingIS THERE ANYTHING YOU WANT?
by Margaret Forster

Vintage


This novel brings together the lives and feelings of seven very different women, who are bound together by their experiences of breast cancer. The characters are all different and are introduced succinctly and convincingly. Each is dealing, in her own way, with trauma and pain, and while their thoughts and actions are not always admirable, they are above all human. As usual Margaret Forster writes insightfully and with great warmth.

Despite the topic, it is not only a book about cancer. It asks ‘Is there anything you want?’ and that question applies to all its readers. Ultimately it is about how we cope with difficulty.

Overall, although I found it (of course) well written and the people in it appealing, this is not my favourite Forster book. The number of characters can be confusing and it felt a bit rambling at times. However, these are small criticisms of a book that is well worth reading.

Jane Bell 

Personal Read: Three Stars 

Group Read: Four Stars

isaISA AND MAY

by Margaret Forster

Vintage


Isamay is the granddaughter of Isa and May. Approaching thirty years of age, Isamay is writing a thesis on grandmothers, and their influence or otherwise on their grandchildren. She knows all about her own grandmothers. Isa is ‘well to do’; May has struggled all of her life to ‘make ends meet’. But she is about to discover that she knows nothing at all, and through her ‘meddling’ in the past will uncover unpleasant family secrets.

This was an unusual book, but one which I enjoyed reading. Family secrets are exposed or threatened to be exposed, and this kept me turning the pages! I found this book made me smile rather than laugh out loud, but it was amusing. Isamay has her own personal problems of a very modern nature, which are also gripping and keep the reader enthralled until the end.

A reading group would find plenty here to provoke discussion.

Teresa O’Halloran 

Personal Read: Four Stars 

Group Read: Four Stars

boysMOTHER’S BOYS

by Margaret Forster

Vintage


The exquisite characterisation in this book makes for compulsive reading. Sheila and Harriet are mother and grandmother to two boys on opposite sides of a violent crime. The women are trying to come to terms with the impact on themselves and their families. Both women have made their love and concern for their boys the focus of their lives to the exclusion of everything and everyone else.

Forster has that rare ability to make a narrative where very little happens completely captivating. Every character is as interesting as the next and each strand of the story deserves a book in its own right. It has a grim realism to it but somehow is not a bleak book. It is about love, guilt, family, class, life and death plus many other themes besides. Each is treated with sensitivity and finesse.

Joanne Ashmore

Personal Read: Four Stars 

Group Read: Four Stars

overOVER

by Margaret Forster

Vintage


In 2007/8 I read most of Forster’s fictional work including Over. Reading it again, after the recent loss of my Mum, it resonates strongly with my feelings about loss.

Mum Louise, Dad Don, daughter Molly and son Finn are trying to come to terms with the loss of Molly’s twin sister Miranda in a sailing accident. Although Louise is the narrator, we still get a rounded viewpoint of the rest of the family’s feelings through Margaret’s clever writing. Sad, moving, heartbreaking at times, the story leaves us with hope that although life is different after losing someone close, it can perhaps move on into something worthwhile.

I am glad I read this novel again; there is something so very ordinary about the story but the telling of it is dealt with in a particularly touching way. Margaret Forster is a truly wonderful writer; her books are to be treasured and re-read!

Helen Gough 

Personal Read: Five Stars

Group Read: Five Stars

 

DID YOU KNOW?


Amongst her Desert Island Disc choices were Blackbird by The Beatles and Bob Marley's No Woman No Cry.

preciousPRECIOUS LIVES

by Margaret Forster
Vintage


A compelling account of the deaths of the author’s father and sister-in-law; this is not a morbid or sad book but humorous and truthful and it sweeps aside the embargo that everyone observes when talking about death. I loved it.

I loved it because Margaret Forster was so open about her mixed feelings about her father. I loved it because she showed how both her sister-in-law and father faced up to death with great courage. I loved it because she brought the spectre of death out into the open.

The writer is very honest about her feelings and those of her sister-in-law and father. She also bravely describes the day- to-day details of life and the journey to death. This would be a good read for any reading group.

Margaret Leigh

Personal Read: Five Stars

Group Read: Four Stars

sistersSIGNIFICANT SISTERS
by Margaret Forster

Vintage


This non-fiction book traces the lives of eight women, between 1839-1939, fighting for women’s rights

in widely differing spheres, and in very different circumstances.

It reveals the unjust and shocking treatment of women in these fields, and how the courage, tenacity and endless hard work of the ‘sisters’ brought about change although not always in their lifetime. 

I found these eight biographies as riveting as any bestseller novel. The historical details, as well as the women’s personal lives with their conflicts and ambiguities, make fascinating reading. We are not spared access to their faults and failings but it is humbling to read how their dedication and compassion achieved what seemed to be the impossible.

Highly recommended for those interested in feminist issues, and reading groups will find a wealth of material within each biography to discuss.

Angela Sinden-Morris 

Personal Read: Four Stars

Group Read: Five Stars

 

DID YOU KNOW?


The book that has given Margaret the greatest satisfaction is her biography of novelist Daphne du Maurier.

daphneDAPHNE DU MAURIER
by Margaret Forster

Vintage


Like her subject, Margaret Forster is a wonderful storyteller and her fluid style makes this autobiography a satisfying read. Forster introduces us to a woman who is beautiful, talented and privileged but with an often-tormented inner life. Her childhood sounded idyllic but a possessive father and a jealous mother made for a claustrophobic adolescence. Du Maurier was obviously intelligent but her education was patchy and her mind was imaginative rather than analytical, drawn to atmosphere and psychological undercurrents. 

Du Maurier is portrayed as an intense woman, often self-absorbed but who followed her passions. It becomes clear that Du Maurier’s imagination also affected her everyday life. Her books were evidently a necessary outlet for her as well as a gift to her generations of fans.

I was impressed with what Forster achieves with this book; her subject is vividly revealed in a biography that is as readable and enjoyable as a novel by either Forster or Du Maurier.

Dee Ingram 

Personal Read: Four Stars 

Group Read: Four Stars