Margaret Forster: a life in books by Kathleen Jones

In ‘Margaret Forster: a life in books’, Kathleen Jones gets to the heart of the contradiction that is Margaret Forster. Or contradictions. Jones sets the scene in the early chapters through an account of the prolific and much loved author’s formative years, then reflects on Forster’s intellectual life and personal concerns at the time when she was writing each of her many books.

Jones portrays Forster as a thorny child and an equally stubborn adult, who refused to conform to expectations. Born to a working class family in Carlisle in 1938, Forster railed against the limitations imposed on her as a female child and young woman. Higher education, though it was disdained by her parents (or perhaps because it was), enabled her to slip loose from these constraints. Gifted with a lively intelligence, and immensely talented, Forster won an Open Scholarship to Oxford, where she studied history. She published her first novel as early as 1964.

By the seventies and eighties, Forster found herself embroiled in the feminist struggle at a personal level as she combined career aspirations (and success) with raising a family. She was all too aware she’d adopted the same attitude which her own mother had, and which she herself had vowed she’d never follow – that children always come first.

A happy, ‘successful’ marriage was another contradiction. Forster apparently hated her father for the way he circumscribed both her life and her mother’s. Yet Forster enjoyed a long and happy marriage to writer Hunter Davies. The attitude entrenched in her youth continued to niggle, though, as Jones explains. ‘She wore an antique silver ring rather than a conventional gold band and squirmed every time she was referred to as “Mrs Davies”, but is prepared to admit with the grace of hindsight that there was a certain unacknowledged pride in that title and the badge of office.’ (Ch.14)

A private person who avoided the literary circuit and could be judged on the cold side in relationships, Forster showed another contradiction in being able to draw a large, loyal and affectionate readership through her novels. These contradictions, and her experience of class and gender as a child growing up in post-war Britain, inform all her novels. Their subjects generally revolve around the challenges facing women, from the 1960s to the present. Her titles include the famous Georgy Girl, which, when made into a film starring Lynn Redgrave, assured her success. She had a prodigious output and wrote a novel, Jones tells us, in as little as six or nine weeks. (Ch.9) Most have a northern connection, with the stories either set in the north of England or featuring characters who try to leave the north behind, as if Forster herself was unable to fully shake off the tug of her Carlisle roots.

She was also a memoirist and biographer, and Jones says of her that, ‘Her instinctive handling of a narrative and her fascination with other people’s lives come together to produce a reliably good read.’ (Ch.15)

Here’s another description, by Jones, of Forster’s style. ‘Her biographies are as readable as … novels, with a strong narrative line … and her scholarship is unimpeachable.’ (Ch.6) This could equally well be applied to Kathleen Jones’s writing of this book.

This biography, then, does two things – it looks back at the makings of a writer, and serves as an ideal companion to Margaret Forster’s novels, memoirs and biographies.

It gives us glimpses of Forster, who preferred to write with a pen at her living room table or, later, at the window in her writer’s room, looking out over a sea of blossom from an old orchard.

Those who love her work will find ‘Margaret Forster: a life in books’ absorbingly readable and fascinating for the insights it gives into what formed the author’s character and the social and psychological issues Forster was grappling with each time she lifted that pen to write.

Reviewed by Carol McKay

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Find out more about Kathleen Jones

A second opinion review will also be written this month by Robert Dodds. Look out for it.