Forster, Margaret 1938-
Forster, Margaret 1938-
PERSONAL: Born May 25, 1938, in Carlisle, Cumberland, England; daughter of Arthur G. (a mechanic) and Lilian Forster; married Hunter Davies (a journalist), June 11, 1960; children: Caitlin, Jake, Flora. Education: Somerville College, Oxford, B.A., 1960. Politics: Socialist.
ADDRESSES: Home—London, England. Agent—Sayle Literary Agency, 8b King’s Parade, Cambridge CB2 1SJ, England.
CAREER: Writer. Taught at girls’ school in London, England, 1961-63; novelist, biographer, and freelance literary critic, 1963—; literary critic for London Evening Standard, 1977-80. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), member of advisory committee on the social effects of television, 1975-78.
MEMBER: Royal Society of Literature (fellow).
AWARDS, HONORS: Heinemann Award for biography, Royal Society of Literature, 1989, for Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography; Writers’ Guild Award for best nonfiction, 1993, and Fawcett Book Prize, 1994, both for Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller; Lex Prize for best business history, 1997, for Rich Desserts and Captain’s Thin: A Family and Their Times, 1831-1931; J.K. Ackerley Prize for autobiography, 1999, for Precious Lives.
Dames’ Delight, J. Cape (London, England), 1964.
Georgy Girl (also see below), Berkley (New York, NY), 1965.
The Bogeyman, Putnam (New York, NY), 1965.
The Travels of Maudie Tipstaff, Stein & Day (New York, NY), 1967.
The Park, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1968.
Miss Owen-Owen, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1969, published in England as Miss Owen-Owen Is at Home, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1969.
Fenella Phizackerley, Simon & Schuster (New YorkNY), 1970.
Mr. Bone’s Retreat, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1971.
The Seduction of Mrs. Pendlebury, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1974.
Mother Can You Hear Me?, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1979.
The Bride of Lowther Fell: A Romance, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1980.
Marital Rites, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1981, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1982.
Private Papers, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1986.
Have the Men Had Enough?, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1989.
Lady’s Maid, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1990, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1991, Ballantine Books (New York, NY), 2007.
The Battle for Christabel, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1991.
Mothers’ Boys, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1994.
Shadow Baby, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1996.
The Memory Box, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1999.
Diary of an Ordinary Woman, 1914-1995, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 2003.
Is There Anything You Want?, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 2005.
Keeping the World Away, Ballantine Books (New York, NY), 2006.
Over, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 2007.
The Rash Adventurer: The Rise and Fall of Charles Edward Stuart, Stein & Day (New York, NY), 1973.
(Editor) Drawn from Life: The Journalism of William Makepeace Thackeray, illustrations by Thackeray, Folio Society (London, England), 1984.
Significant Sisters: The Grassroots of Active Feminism 1839-1939, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1984, Knopf (New York, NY), 1985.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Life and Loves of a Poet, St. Martin’s Press (New York, NY), 1988.
(Editor) Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Selected Poems, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1988.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1989.
Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller, Chatto & Windus and Doubleday (New York, NY), 1993.
Rich Desserts and Captain’s Thin: A Family and Their Times, 1831-1931, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1997.
Good Wives? Mary, Fanny, Jennie, and Me, 1848-2001, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 2001.
(With Peter Nichols) Georgy Girl (screenplay), Columbia (Los Angeles, CA), 1966.
Memoirs of a Victorian Gentleman: William Makepeace Thackeray (fictionalized biography), illustrations by Thackeray, Morrow (New York, NY), 1978, published in England as William Makepeace Thackeray: Memoirs of a Victorian Gentleman, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1978.
(Screenwriter, with Celia Imre) Conversations between Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Her Latest Biographer, Margaret Forster, Films for the Humanities and Sciences (Princeton, NJ), 1987.
(Screenwriter, with Jim Berrow and Catherine Collis) Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Films for the Humanities and Sciences (Princeton, NJ), 1993.
Hidden Lives: A Family Memoir, Viking (New York, NY), 1995.
Precious Lives (memoir), Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1998.
ADAPTATIONS: Georgy Girl was adapted as the musical Georgy with book by Tom Mankiewicz, lyrics by Carole Bayer, and music by George Fischoff, 1970. Audio versions of writings include Shadow Baby, Chivers Audio Books (Bath, England), 1999, and The Memory Box, Chivers Audio Books (Bath, England), 2000.
SIDELIGHTS: With a career that spans more than forty years, Margaret Forster is most noted for her novels and works of literary biography. Her novels tend to focus on family issues, some of which are loosely drawn on Forster’s own experiences. Hana Sambrook pointed out in Contemporary Novelists that in all of Forster’s novels, she “is preoccupied with human relationships… 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.” Forster has also written a number of well-received biographies. David Bordelon wrote in Dictionary of Literary Biography, “[Forster] brings to her biographies the dramatic sensibilities of a novelist as well as the analytic insight of a historian.”
Forster’s second novel, Georgy Girl, was a best seller and was adapted into a screenplay in 1966. Over the next five years, Forster wrote a series of popular-fiction novels. Forster herself referred to her earliest novels as “third rate,” but Pamela Marsh wrote in the Christian Science Monitor that Miss Owen-Owen offers “good entertainment.” “Opportunities for comedy are right at Miss Forster’s fingers and she richly exploits them,” according to Marsh. Sambrook further pointed out that in these early novels, love “remains all-important to women, and Forster acknowledges this.” She noted a change in Forster’s “perception of the impact of love” over the years as charted through her novels.
Forster believes that fiction and biography are closely interrelated, that “the similarity is more important than the differences.” In 1973 Forster published her first biography, The Rash Adventurer: The Rise and Fall of Charles Edward Stuart. Forster differed from other biographers in her focus on the prince’s character instead of on his political intrigues. Several years later, Forster turned to another format for the exploration of history: a fictional autobiography. She used this technique in William Makepeace Thackeray: Memoirs of a Victorian Gentleman to mixed critical opinion. Some objected to the work’s subjectivity, while others wondered how truthful it was. Bordelon, however, asserted that Forster’s book “proved that biography can retain its veracity yet revel in the experimental qualities of fiction and address questions of objective authority posed by contemporary literary theory.” Wrote J.I.M. Stewart in Times Literary Supplement, “Miss Forster has provided Thackeray with a colorful and entertaining autobiography on a generous scale. It is a remarkable performance and persuasive.” Later, Forster edited a collection of Thackeray’s journalism.
In the next decade, Forster continued to write several novels, as well as Significant Sisters: The Grassroots of Active Feminism 1839-1939, which explores seven influential women who contributed to feminism. Forster became interested in the subject after her mother’s death led her to question the status of women in the twentieth century. Bordelon found that in “combining historical background with her own opinions and definitions of feminism, Forster creates a new reference work while offering an additional philosophical approach.” The novel Have the Men Had Enough?, which describes an old woman’s descent into senility and the responses of her children and grandchildren to it, also arose from Forster’s personal experiences—her visits with her mother-in-law, who suffered from senile dementia and was confined in the psychiatric ward of a nursing home. Anne Duchene called this book “a work of grace and charity” in the Times Literary Supplement.
Forster published Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography in 1989, a work in which she revises the popular view of the poet’s father as a tyrant. While some critics felt that Forster does not pay enough attention to Browning’s poetry, the majority of the response was positive. Robert Martin wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that “this new biography is a daring book, for it shows us a far more complex woman than we have seen before.” Forster went on to edit a volume of Browning’s poetry. She also wrote the novel Lady’s Maid, a fictionalized account of the life of Barrett’s maid, Elizabeth Wilson. Drawn from material found in the Brownings’ correspondence, the events in this book, wrote Coral Lansbury in the New York Times Book Review, are “fully imagined and persuasive fiction.” In the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Elaine Kendall called Lady’s Maid “a remarkable book exploring a relationship unique to the 19th Century; an intimate connection between employer and employee that has virtually ceased to exist.”
Forster next turned her skills as a historian and a writer to best-selling author Daphne du Maurier. Titled Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller, Forster’s biography—composed in part from previously unknown diaries and letters and unpublished manuscripts—exposes du Maurier’s bisexuality and explores her own perception that she harbored two selves; the second was a boy who lived in a self-constructed “boy-in-the-box.” Du Maurier perceived herself not as a lesbian but as “‘a half-breed,’ someone internally male and externally female.” Forster wrote, “It may have tortured her to feel she was two distinct people, but it also fuelled her creative powers.” Upon the death of Gertrude Lawrence, with whom du Maurier may have had a physical relationship, she used her writing to lift her out of depression. “All her life,” wrote Carolyn G. Heilbrun in the New York Times Book Review, “she identified with boys and men and was infatuated with women, but she concealed these feelings and gave play to them mainly in writing, where her inner conflicts could be expressed in the fictional guises of male power and female dread.”
Forster presents a “a brilliant portrait,” wrote Heilbrun, “of a woman caught in a destiny she loathes but never openly challenges”; but Patricia Beer, writing in the London Review of Books, noted that “The emphasis throughout is on du Maurier the writer.” Forster wrote, “Daphne herself stresses how her work gave her release from thoughts, images and ideas which disturbed her…. Her whole life’s work was an attempt to defy reality.” Though a few critics maintained that du Maurier was not a significant enough literary figure to merit a literary biography, the majority welcomed this new knowledge and the way it elucidated du Maurier’s fiction. Julia Braun Kessler wrote in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, “Forster has been able to let us see a side of du Maurier until now closeted away, exposing a whole other emotional dimension to her fiction’s compelling fascination.” She added, “When we learn from Forster the whole picture… we understand the dark shadows in her work: the guilt, the terror, the unease.”
Amanda Vaill, writing in the Chicago Tribune, found the book an “extraordinarily sympathetic and compulsively readable biography,” but observed that Forster leaves certain details—such as the possibility of du Maurier’s father having molested Daphne and one of her sisters—to the source notes, or sends readers to another source. Vaill concluded that the “source notes turn out to be a kind of secret biography, where the details too hot for the text are discreetly buried.” However, Bordelon pointed to Forster’s “matter-of-fact discussion of du Maurier’s sexual ambiguity [as a] model for dealing with politically charged issues.” Heilbrun and others also commended Forster for her skill in handling the sensationalistic aspects of du Maurier’s life. Heilbrun saw in Daphne du Maurier “the rarest of marriages: the perfect subject and a gifted biographer.”
The next year Forster published Mothers’ Boys, a novel concerning the unsettling aftermath of a vicious, unprovoked attack by two teenagers on another young man. According to Spectator critic Anita Brookner, “Mothers’ Boys feeds the reader’s greed without actually satisfying it. No doubt this is a pointer to the author’s expertise and her refusal to pander to newfangled notions. This is not a game, she appears to be saying; this is what happens, and I am telling you this for your own good.” Reviewing the book in New Statesman & Society, Judy Cooke remarked that author’s “fully fleshed-out, dramatic and absorbing Mothers’ Boys shows a novelist writing at the top of her form.”
In 1995 Forster published a very personal work; in Hidden Lives: A Family Memoir, she investigates her own family history and particularly tries to find out about the illegitimate daughter of her grandmother. However, Forster’s study of three generations of women in her family is really a social history, and through her descriptions of her relationship with her mother—a woman who at her death cries, “It hasn’t amounted to much, my life,”—shows how women’s status and expectations have changed over just a few generations. Candice Rodd remarked in the Times Literary Supplement that Forster uses “personal recollection, anecdote and dogged detective work to piece together a story that [is] simultaneously commonplace and riveting.” The following year, Forster again explored the theme of the relationships between illegitimate children and the mothers who give birth to them, including actual details from her grandmother’s life, in the novel Shadow Baby.
In Precious Lives, a sequel of sorts to Hidden Lives, Forster describes the lives and deaths of her cynical, taciturn father, Arthur, who died at the age of ninety-two, and her outspoken sister-in-law, Marion, who was diagnosed with cancer in her fifties. According to Times Literary Supplement contributor Rosemary Dinnage, “Although Margaret Forster makes it clear that in a sense it was her sister-in-law she cared for most, that the loss of her was the more shocking one—indeed, she says firmly that she did not love her father, who had always been as brusque with her as with everyone else—it is Arthur’s story that stays in the mind.” Forster’s work “is a wonderful epitaph” to Arthur and Marion, wrote Cressida Connolly in the Spectator. “It manages to be completely honest without compromising the delicacy of its subjects: it is moving and funny, too.”
With Good Wives? Mary, Fanny, Jennie, and Me, 1848-2001, Forster continues to explore a number of themes familiar to her readers. The names in the title refer to three women of earlier generations: Mary Livingstone, long-suffering wife of missionary and explorer David Livingstone; Fanny Stevenson, an American divorcée who married Robert Louis Stevenson; and Jennie Lee, a member of Parliament who was married to the mid-twentieth-century British politician Aneurin “Nye” Be-van.
Then, of course, there is the author herself, the fourth woman of the title. “The star, although it is clear she didn’t write with this intention,” according to Miranda Seymour in the Times Literary Supplement, “emerges as Forster herself, likeably truculent, merciless in her confessions and gifted, to an uncommon degree, with making something relevant and memorable of prosaic events.” Teresa Waugh in the Spectator concluded that “Forster gives a fascinating and eminently readable account of these women’s lives and their marriages, and in so doing raises many questions regarding the changing relationship between the sexes. But her suggestion that a woman who nurses a sick husband is being ‘good wife’ rather than an ordinarily humane person who happens to be there, seems strange. The reader may feel slightly less comfortable with Forster’s reflections on her own marriage”—for instance, her description of how her husband, journalist and writer Hunter Davies, had to have a boil on his bottom popped by a female nurse. Wrote Frances Wilson in the London Guardian, “This is a contradictory, sometimes charming, oddly shocking book, an example of writing that shows rather than tells.”
Forster returned to fiction in 2003 with Diary of an Ordinary Woman, 1914-1995, in which she recounts the life of Millicent King, a British schoolteacher and social worker. The author presents the work as a series of King’s diary entries, which Forster edited and published after they came into her possession. “The result is a good solid narrative, which has the benefit of verifiability, and a sense of veracity which imparts an impression of a well lived life,” observed Brookner. Born into comfortable circumstances, King trains at Goldsmith’s College despite her father’s objections, suffers a number of losses during the World Wars and, though she never marries, cares for her late sister’s children. According to Brookner, “Millicent King’s story is by no means an object lesson in how to behave, although that may have been Margaret Forster’s intention. She is clearly at one with her creation, sometimes eerily so. Her ordinary woman is in fact exemplary, and her worth rather than her worthiness (usually a back-handed sort of compliment) is never in any doubt.”
A group of women in a small English town are the focus of Is There Anything You Want?, “a latterday anatomy of melancholy written with insight, wit and tremendous style,” Matthew Dennison remarked in the Spectator. The women’s lives revolve around the local cancer clinic, where each either works or receives treatment. “Forster’s small-town setting provides a model of community, and the need to embrace or escape community, on a large or domestic scale, unites all the novel’s characters,” Dennison stated. Forster offers a portrait of a shattered marriage in Over, which centers on Louise Roscoe, a schoolteacher whose teenage daughter, Miranda, dies in a boating accident. “From the very start Louise’s husband is determined that no one in the family is going to ‘get over’ Miranda’s death, and in a domestic world from which all laughter or pleasure is banned… it is only a matter of time before life—social, family, marital—is ‘over’ in a far bleaker sense,” noted Spectator critic Honor Clerk.
Based on a painting by Welsh artist Gwen John, Forster’s novel Keeping the World Away explores the history of the artwork and its effect on several generations of women. According to Sue Galsford in the London Independent, the author “taps into our curiosity over objects: who might once have lived here, loved this old picture? She takes us into her confidence, hinting at possibilities.” “Forster’s rendition of Gwen John’s life is painstakingly researched and interesting enough on its own, but the novel really gains richness when the picture leaves her attic room,” Susann Cokal remarked in the New York Times Book Review. “After all, we expect artists to be tortured; it’s their audience that’s usually a mystery, and the painting’s subsequent owners are finely drawn and complex.”
Forster’s skills and insights as a writer are seen in both her fiction and nonfiction. Sambrook found a novelistic style that is “plain, deliberately downbeat, letting the pathos and the irony speak for themselves.” According to Bordelon, Forster has expanded her talent for fiction writing to create “biographies that contain flights of literary imagination yet remain grounded in fact.” In both her fiction and her biographies, Forster experiments with character, narrative, and point of view in an effort to “catch the essence of the person and the spirit of the times.”
Although her works have enjoyed a measure of popular success, noted Merritt Moseley in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, “Forster has been seriously undervalued in critical esteem. She has never won the Booker Prize, the Orange Prize (a feminist award, open only to women authors), or the Whitbread Prize.” Moseley continued, “Despite her lack of prizes or scholarly study, her body of work is a major one. She writes brilliantly—though her work never flaunts its brilliance—about the most important matters life contains: birth, death, parenthood, aging, relations between the sexes and among the classes, memory, and the burden of the past on the present.”
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Novelists, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 155: Twentieth-Century British Literary Biographers, 1995, Volume 271: British and Irish Novelists since 1960, 2002.
Forster, Margaret, Good Wives? Mary, Fanny, Jennie, and Me, 1848-2001, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 2001.
Forster, Margaret, Hidden Lives: A Family Memoir, Viking (New York, NY), 1995.
Forster, Margaret, Precious Lives, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1998.
Booklist, April 1, 1999, Melanie Duncan, review of Lady’s Maid, p. 1391; May 1, 2007, Carolyn Kubisz, review of Keeping the World Away, p. 72.
Business History, January, 1999, T.A.B. Corley, review of Rich Desserts and Captain’s Thin: A Family and Their Times, 1831-1931, p. 123.
Chicago Tribune, November 28, 1993, Amanda Vaill, review of Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller, p. 3.
Christian Science Monitor, August 21, 1969, Pamela Marsh, review of Miss Owen-Owen.
Contemporary Review, September, 1999, review of Precious Lives, p. 165.
Cosmopolitan, April, 1981, Jane Clapperton, review of The Bride of Lowther Fell: A Romance, p. 26.
Guardian (London, England), October 20, 2001, Frances Wilson, review of Good Wives?, p. 10.
Independent (London, England), March 19, 2006, Sue Galsford, “Miss Prism, Put That Painting Down at Once!,” review of Keeping the World Away.
Industry Week, November 16, 1998, James Bredin, review of Rich Desserts and Captain’s Thin, p. 94.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2007, review of Keeping the World Away, p. 4; June 1, 2007, review of Keeping the World Away.
Library Journal, March 15, 1981, Barbara Parker, review of The Bride of Lowther Fell, p. 679; July 1, 2007, Anna M. Nelson, review of Keeping the World Away, p. 76.
London Review of Books, June 24, 1993, Patricia Beer, review of Daphne du Maurier, pp. 20-22.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 31, 1991, Elaine Kendall, “Maid’s Story Part of Browning Lore”; December 26, 1993, Julia Braun Kessler, review of Daphne du Maurier, p. 3.
New Statesman, November 7, 1980, Brian Martin, review of The Bride of Lowther Fell, p. 29; July 24, 1981, Marion Glastonbury, review of Marital Rites, p. 20; December 5, 1997, review of Rich Desserts and Captain’s Thin, p. 45.
New Statesman & Society, July 29, 1994, Judy Cooke, review of Mothers’ Boys, p. 37.
New York Times Book Review, March 17, 1991, Coral Lansbury, review of Lady’s Maid, pp. 14, 16; October 17, 1993, Carolyn G. Heilbrun, review of Daphne du Maurier, pp. 37, 46; July 29, 2007, Su-sann Coka, “Out of the Attic,” review of Keeping the World Away, p. 21.
Observer (London, England), October 4, 1998, review of Hidden Lives, p. 14.
Publishers Weekly, February 20, 1981, review of The Bride of Lowther Fell, p. 88; February 5, 1982, review of Marital Rites, p. 382; April 2, 2007, review of Keeping the World Away, p. 36.
Spectator, June 25, 1994, Anita Brookner, “Unflinching in the Face of Disaster,” review of Mothers’ Boys, p. 30; June 26, 1999, Anita Brookner, review of The Memory Box, p. 34; October 17, 1998, Cressida Connolly, “The Passing of Arthur,” review of Precious Lives, p. 41; October 13, 2001, Teresa Waugh, review of Good Wives?, p. 53; March 1, 2003, Anita Brookner, “Tale of a Survivor,” p. 52; January 15, 2005, Matthew Dennison, “The Melancholy Seven,” p. 44; March 3, 2007, Honor Clerk, “An Ever-present Absence.”
Times Literary Supplement, September 29, 1978, J.I.M. Stewart, review of Memoirs of a Victorian Gentleman: William Makepeace Thackeray, p. 1074; July 24, 1981, review of Marital Rites, p. 830; September 28, 1984, review of Significant Sisters: The Grassroots of Active Feminism 1839-1939, p. 1080; August 19, 1988, Robert Martin, review of Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography, p. 899; March 24, 1989, Anne Duchene, review of Have the Men Had Enough?, p. 300; August 26, 1994, Mark Wormald, review of Mothers’ Boys, p. 20; May 31, 1996, Candice Rodd, review of Hidden Lives, p. 24; November 7, 1997, David Kynaston, review of Rich Desserts and Captain’s Thin, p. 40; August 6, 1999, review of The Memory Box, p. 22; November 6, 1998, Rosemary Dinnage, “The Least Possible Nuisance,” review of Precious Lives, pp. 28-29; September 7, 2001, Miranda Seymour, review of Good Wives?, p. 26; March 7, 2003, Carol Birch, “The Unknown Woman,” review of Diary of an Ordinary Woman, 1914-1995, p. 22; January 14, 2005, Sarah Curtis, “A Cup of Hot Sweet Tea,” review of Is There Anything You Want?, p. 22; March 3, 2006, Judith Flanders, “Gwen John’s Room,” review of Keeping the World Away, p. 23.
Washington Post Book World, July 8, 2007, Ron Charles, “A Corner of One’s Own,” review of Keeping the World Away, p. 7.
Woman’s Journal, October, 1998, review of Precious Lives, p. 22.
Contemporary Writers in the UK, http://www.contemporarywriters.com/ (February 1, 2008), CoraLindsay, “Margaret Forster.”
Visit Cumbria,http://www.visitcumbria.com/ (February 1, 2008), “Margaret Forster.”
Conversations between Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Her Latest Biographer, Margaret Forster, written by Margaret Forster and Celia Imre, Films for the Humanities and Sciences (Princeton, NJ), 1987.*