Do not adjust your sets – this is the second review of this book this month. It was a hotly contested title amongst the reviewers (at least 3 wanted to review it) so we gave our two newest reviewers the privilege of reviewing it. Carol McKay also reviewed it this month but here is Robert Dodd’s take (ed)
I downloaded this biography of Margaret Forster in an insouciant way, much as you might pick a book off the shelves in a bookshop because there was something about the colour of the spine that appealed to you. Although I had read a few heavyweight biographies of well-known literary figures (most recently Peter Ackroyd’s ‘T.S.Eliot’), I had never actually heard of Margaret Forster in spite of her prolific and successful output. The only bell that was rung by her list of titles was that ‘Georgy Girl’ had been a successful film in my youth, albeit one that I was too young to go and see!
However, Kathleen Jones’s book tweaked my curiosity mainly because it was an account of the life of a writer, and as a writer myself I am always interested in the ups and downs of the careers of more illustrious practitioners. If nothing else, one often finds that they had a miserable time of it (T.S.Eliot a good case in point), and that cheers one up over one’s own lack of fame and fortune.
So, given my casual interest at the outset, it wouldn’t have taken much to stop me reading on after the first few pages. However, Kathleen Jones’s account of Margaret Forster caught my interest immediately, and her excellent, brisk introduction to this fascinating person and writer kept me thoroughly engaged right to the end, and resolved to seek out some of her writing for myself.
With a subject who wrote extensively about her own life, including two published books of memoirs, supplemented by her husband’s published memoirs, Kathleen Jones does not lack for primary sources for her biography. She presents us primarily with Margaret Forster’s own self-judgements, which, to be fair, seem blunt to the point of self-disparagement. How many writers would refer to the book that brought them fame that ‘it was ike an albatross around my neck’? Or remark that their first published novel ‘wasn’t a good novel but at least it got me started’ and that it was now ‘mercifully out of print’? Kathleen Jones uses quotations from her subject judiciously throughout, and we get a real sense of Margaret Forster’s slightly prickly personality. This is in line with the recurring themes identified in her fiction: ‘dysfunctional families and difficult non-conforming heroines.’ If there is no sense of a hidden personality being revealed, then perhaps that to be expected of a writer who has spent so much time mining her own past, and is entirely consistent with Margaret Forster’s own remark about writing biographies: ‘a biography does not have to be controversial to be good’. Certainly this biography does not strike me as likely to be controversial, and a degree of cosiness is engendered by referring to the subject by her first name. Having said that, Kathleen Jones does not shy away from making her own value judgements about the different books. For example, of ‘Thackeray’ she remarks ‘This, for me, was not a successful foray into the twilight world of faction’.
Kathleen Jones’s synopses of the novels and biographies are highly skilled. Sometimes important plot points are revealed (such as the denouement of ‘Georgy Girl’), but presumably most readers, unlike me, will already be familiar with Margaret Forster’s work. The account of ‘The Rash Adventurer’ (a biography of Bonnie Prince Charlie) was perhaps the only time I felt the synopsis was a little over-extended. On the other hand, Kathleen Jones uses this account to demonstrate an important point: ‘Her biographies are as readable as her novels, with a strong narrative line – not scholarly compendiums bulging with irrelevant detail’.
The use of the books as a structuring device for the biography is very apt, and the reproductions of the books’ covers offer a fascinating glimpse of the evolution of book cover design over the extended period of Margaret Forster’s writing career. One very small niggle is that I would have liked to have the date of each book’s publication in brackets in the text, rather than just in a list at the end. This would have been handy for keeping tabs on the chronology, and in an e-book you can’t so easily keep flipping to the end for reference as you can in a paper book.
I especially enjoyed the chapter ‘A Very Private Life’, in which Kathleen Jones writes admiringly of Margaret Forster’s refusal to be a ‘performing animal’ to serve her publishers’ publicity efforts. Again, she is not afraid of highlighting her own preferences among the books, praising ‘Have the Men Had Enough’ as ‘by far the most interesting novel from this period’.
When I came to Kathleen Jones’s account of Margaret Forster’s biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, it struck me that I was entering the territory of the Russian doll – you are reading my review of a biographer’s account of a biographer’s account of a literary figure! Once more though, Kathleen Jones does a good job of being analytical rather than merely presenting a synopsis. She comments that ‘the emphasis in this biography…’ (Margeret Forster’s biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning) ‘… is on the person rather than the poetry’. It seems to me that Kathleen Jones, as indicated by her apposite sub-title ‘A Life in Books’, has chosen a different emphasis, equally valid, and has presented Margaret Forster primarily through the prism of her own writings. Of course in any good biography of a writer, this will be a two-way process, the books illuminating the person, while knowledge of the person’s life can illuminate the books.
The chapter which deals with her biography of Daphne du Maurier contains some amusing anecdotes which bring Margaret Forster vividly to life, especially her remark when a guest on Desert Island Discs: ‘I don’t like any music; it is just noise. I prefer total silence.’ One can only imagine Sue Lawley’s face! The account of Ringo Starr coming to supper and eating only puddings was also amusing, and a surprising glimpse of Margaret Forster moving in the circles of the ‘rich and famous’. In general, she is presented as avoiding such connections and events.
When I came to the chapter ‘The Memory Box’ I got another surprise. The introduction of Margaret Forster’s daughter Caitlin Davies, also a published novelist, gave me the first glimpse of actual detail about her family. Although Kathleen Jones is specifically using the medium of the books to reveal the person, the introduction of Margaret Forster’s daughter at this point revealed a bit of a blank about her adult family life. For example, we don’t – unless I missed it –find out how many children she has. Consequently, although her subject matter lies primarily in the sphere of family relationships, I got a sense that this was mostly backward-looking towards her childhood and youth.
Another interesting point for me is that – again, I may have missed something – all the quoted sources and reviews are written by women. The impression is given – deliberately or accidentally – that Margaret Forster is a woman writing for women, and it would have been interesting to hear her own views on her appeal to a male readership – or, failing that, Kathleen Jones’s views. Certainly, for this male reader, Kathleen Jones’s excellent biography has kindled a spark of interest, and I will be seeking out some of Margaret Forster’s work. I think I will start with ‘An Ordinary Woman’ from 2002, a fictional biography that sounds intriguing, and was reviewed in the Guardian as ‘the incredibly detailed forgery of an unlived life.’
In conclusion, Kathleen Jones has vividly encapsulated the work, and in some measure, the life, of an inspirational woman who has produced an impressive number of popular books, but still has the extraordinary modesty to reply, when asked to sum up her work, ‘she nearly gets there, but doesn’t quite.