Margaret Forster Biography
Nationality: British. Born: Carlisle, Cumberland, 1938. Education: Carlisle and County High School for Girls, 1949-56; Somerville College, Oxford (scholar), 1957-60, B.A. in modern history 1960. Career: Teacher, Barnsbury Girls' School, London, 1961-63; chief non-fiction reviewer, London Evening Standard, 1977-80. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1975. Agent: Tessa Sayle Agency, 11 Jubilee Place, London SW3 3TE.
Dames' Delight. London, Cape, 1964.
Georgy Girl. London, Secker and Warburg, 1965; New York, Berkley, 1966.
The Bogeyman. London, Secker and Warburg, 1965; New York, Putnam, 1966.
The Travels of Maudie Tipstaff. London, Secker and Warburg, andNew York, Stein and Day, 1967.
The Park. London, Secker and Warburg, 1968.
Miss Owen-Owen Is at Home. London, Secker and Warburg, 1969; as
Miss Owen-Owen, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1969.
Fenella Phizackerley. London, Secker and Warburg, 1970; NewYork, Simon and Schuster, 1971. Mr. Bone's Retreat. London, Secker and Warburg, and New York, Simon and Schuster, 1971.
The Seduction of Mrs. Pendlebury. London, Secker and Warburg, 1974.
Mother Can You Hear Me? London, Secker and Warburg, 1979.
The Bride of Lowther Fell: A Romance. London, Secker and Warburg, 1980; New York, Atheneum, 1981.
Marital Rites. London, Secker and Warburg, 1981; New York, Atheneum, 1982.
Private Papers. London, Chatto and Windus, 1986.
Have the Men Had Enough? London, Chatto and Windus, 1989.
Lady's Maid. London, Chatto and Windus, 1990; New York, Doubleday, 1991.
The Battle for Christabel. London, Chatto and Windus, 1991.
Mothers' Boys. London, Chatto and Windus, 1994.
Shadow Baby. London, Chatto & Windus, 1996.
Georgy Girl, with Peter Nichols, 1966.
The Rash Adventurer: The Rise and Fall of Charles Edward Stuart. London, Secker and Warburg, 1973; New York, Stein and Day, 1974.
William Makespeace Thackeray: Memoirs of a Victorian Gentleman. London, Secker and Warburg, 1978; as Memoirs of a Victorian Gentleman, New York, Morrow, 1979.
Significant Sisters: The Grassroots of Active Feminism 1839-1939. London, Secker and Warburg, 1984; New York, Knopf, 1985.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography. London, Chatto andWindus, 1988; New York, Doubleday, 1989.
Daphne du Maurier: A Biography. London, Chatto and Windus, andNew York, Doubleday, 1993.
Hidden Lives: A Family Memoir. New York, Viking, 1995.
Rich Desserts and Captain's Thin: A Family and Their Times, 1831-1931. London, Chatto & Windus, 1997.
Precious Lives. Thorndike, Maine, Thorndike Press, 1999.
Editor, Drawn from Life: The Journalism of William Makepeace Thackeray. London, Folio, 1984.
Editor, Selected Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. London, Chatto and Windus, and Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.
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Since the publication of her first novel, Dames' Delight, more than twenty-five years ago, Margaret Forster has written well over a dozen novels. In all of them she is preoccupied with human relationships or, to put it more precisely, with the impact of one person on another, with the possibility—or impossibility—of any real change in someone's character and outlook on life through emotional involvement with someone else. (She seems to declare her interest in character in the very choice of her titles; it is hardly an accident that so many of her novels carry someone's name, that badge of personal identity, in the title.)
Hers is a characteristically feminine preoccupation; even today love, whether within or outside marriage, or between those tied by the unbreakable blood knot, remains all-important to women, and Forster acknowledges this. Her perception of the impact of love seems to have changed somewhat, grown softer perhaps, over the years. In Georgy Girl behind all the clowning and laughter there hides a bleak, loveless little world, and George herself, so full of fierce, all-embracing love for children, has very little real lasting love to spare for her relationships with adults. In The Travels of Maudie Tipstaff Maudie, disappointed with her visits to her children, readily accepts the explanation of her disappointment offered in her son Robert's chilling words: "Two people are always two people … I'm on my own, and you, Mother, are on your own." In Mr. Bone's Retreat, however, we sense a change; Mr. Bone retreats indeed from his position of determined non-involvement, and slowly and with hesitation comes to accept the possibility of receiving graciously the love that is offered: "Love had to be accepted. The quality of the gift was what mattered."
The process of change does not, however, culminate in the happy ending of a romantic novel. In The Seduction of Mrs. Pendlebury Alice Oram nearly destroys Mrs. Pendelbury by demanding love and reassurance for her own doubts and insecurities which Rose Pendlebury cannot give. Her demands cannot be met because a personality cannot change totally without breaking in the violence of the change; the relationship between the two women sours into obsession and near madness. As in Mr. Bone's Retreat the young intruder acts as a catalyst, while remaining largely unchanged herself; her resilience and her strength in the possession of a future full of rich possibilities save her from disaster. For Mrs. Pendlebury salvation lies in flight to the isolation of a small seaside bungalow, set well back from its neighbors and screened so well by trees. However powerful human relationships are, they cannot radically alter a person's character, and tampering with people is a dangerous hobby.
In two more recent novels, The Bride of Lowther Fell and Marital Rites, the note of cautious acceptance of love is sounded more clearly. Alexandra, the liberated young woman in The Bridge of Lowther Fell, admits at the very end of her tale: "The lessons are learned. No man is an island, and no woman either." In Marital Rites, though Robert and Anna Osgood come through their marriage crisis shattered and diminished, marriage itself, the conventional and convenient symbol of lasting love, survives triumphant; the value of giving and accepting love, and being altered by it, is tacitly acknowledged. The love between mother and daughter, crippling and even destructive, is the theme of Private Papers and Have the Men Had Enough? Though the emphasis in both novels is on the negative aspects of the relationship, yet affection and love are both there, implicit or openly declared.
There is always a touch of irony in a human relationship, in its misconceptions, its wishful attempts to make others see us as we see ourselves. Forster recognizes this irony and uses it, sometimes as part of the very structure of her novels. Not always as overtly as in Mother Can You Hear Me? where Angela's struggle against the emotional demands of her elderly mother is counterpointed by italicized passages recording her vain attempts to bring up her own daughter free of the crushing burden of filial guilt. A similar device is employed in Private Papers where Mrs. Butler's written record of her family's history is mocked and contradicted by her eldest daughter's interpolations, giving a radically different version of the same events. In The Travels of Maudie Tipstaff, too, Maudie's picture of herself and her children's perception of her behavior are offered with silent irony, the mutual miscomprehensions stressing the theme of human isolation. In The Seduction of Mrs. Pendlebury and in Mr. Bone's Retreat the same technique is used more subtly, and instead of the juxtaposition of two contrasting pictures there are oblique backward glances, slowly altering a remembered incident or conversation.
In all her novels Forster's style is plain, deliberately downbeat, letting the pathos and the irony speak for themselves. The impersonal third-person narrator tells the story in short sentences, except when—as in The Seduction of Mrs. Pendelbury—she is voicing the thoughts of her characters. Then the sentences stretch and curl, following the course of thought. In her more recent novels Forster dispenses with the impersonal narrator, using instead the diary form (in Private Papers) or two first-person narrators speaking in turn (in Have the Men Had Enough?). Though in Lady's Maid the impersonal authorial voice is heard again, it is interrupted by Elizabeth Wilson's letters, the plain, bleak style matching the drab existence of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's maid.
Like so many women novelists writing today, Forster has a sharp eye for domestic detail, for the social comedy of our times. She is very much a town dweller (except in The Bride of Lowther Fell where she clearly draws on her Cumbrian memories, as well as—nostalgically—on those of North London). She can sum up in a few telling phrases the gentrification process in Islington ("large removal van, stacked with pine tables and brass bedsteads"), a council house in Cornwall ("The cheap cotton, flowered curtains had never fitted and let in too much light"), middle-class life in Highgate (instant coffee always offered with apologies, a sluttish daily help tolerated as a sop to social conscience). All this has been done often, but is done here extremely well. (It should be added that in Have the Men Had Enough?, written from personal experience of the effect of senile dementia on a family, comedy turns to tragedy in the well-observed scenes in the geriatric ward of a mental hospital.)
She reproduces variants of speech with equal accuracy. Her characters come to us with full credentials of class and educational background. It is when she moves beyond the everyday that her skill fails her. Larger-than-life characters like the eponymous Miss Owen-Owen and Fenella Phizackerley may astonish us by their behavior, but they do not convince. Over Miss Owen-Owen the shadow of Miss Jean Brodie lies very heavily indeed; Fenella, the reader of popular women's magazines imprisoned inside a creature of breath-taking beauty, remains the impossible heroine of some extravagant fairy tale. The heroine of The Bride of Lowther Fell (a book subtitled "a Romance," and boldly inviting by its very title a comparison with the Victorian novel) is no more convincing than the contrived plot. It is interesting to note here that in her recent novel Lady's Maid Forster turns from pastiche Victorian romance to a realistic, disturbing picture of that endlessly fascinating period.
Forster's skills as a biographer of William Makepeace Thackeray, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Daphne du Maurier inform her fiction, particularly in Lady's Maid, a novel centered on the relationship between the Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her maid, Elizabeth Wilson. Issues of character development and the centrality of a well-articulated point of view, especially for her female characters in the novel Shadow Baby, are important features of Forster's work. Experimentation with variations in point of view—a hallmark of her fictionalized autobiographical memoir of Thackeray—and a sympathetic treatment of the questions about sexuality in the non-fiction life of Daphne du Maurier influence the innovations and challenges Forster creates for herself as a writer of fiction. Shadow Baby is particularly intriguing in its manipulations of point of view and in its Gothic indebtedness to both du Maurier's example and to the novels of Dickens and Bronte that Forster read when she was growing up. In Lady's Maid Forster also foregrounds issues of class tensions and differences between the poor working class maid and the indulgently comfortable and cripplingly neurotic Victorian lady—concerns about class well-articulated in Dickens's novels.
In a family biography she wrote of her grandmother's life, Hidden Lives, Forster had tried to trace the life history of her grandmother's illegitimate daughter, and details of her inquiry found their way into Shadow Baby, a novel itself suffused with an air of mystery. Because of shifts in point of view between the nineteenth-century mother-daughter pair, Leah and Evie, and the twentieth-century daughter Shona and her mother, Hazel, and the narratives of why these abandoned daughters are, indeed, "shadows," the reader is actively engaged in solving a mystery. The mystery goes to the dark heart of motherhood itself, the trauma of separation for a daughter, and the madness of obsession. In this respect, the concerns of Shadow Baby are the recurrent themes of Forster's earlier work in Private Papers and Have the Men Had Enough? In Forster's work motherhood is, at best, an ambivalently experienced phenomenon.
—Hana Sambrook, updated by
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