Hidden Lives – Margaret Forster

27 April 2009
Chapters 1-8
Half-way through, and the hidden lives are those of Forster’s mother, grandmother and other working class women in Carlisle in the first half of the 20th Century. There are men in there as well, but only getting in the way or dictating why women’s lives should be so dull. I’m just past the point at which Forster’s own memories take over from the research and from her family’s recollections, and… and I’m fairly disappointed. As soon as the switch happens it’s clear where Forster is going to go with it. Margaret, as she refers to herself when she’s still just another family member in the chronicle, is an awkward but fiercely bright little girl, reading at such a young age that her mother gets her into school a year early. A chapter or so later, the ferocity is in the first person: I could see what married life had done to my mother… I wasn’t going to…. Et cetera. And this is at the age or about six or seven. She’ll be in Oxford before you know it – and believe me, you’ll know it.

I suppose it’s not Forster’s fault that Melvyn Bragg fictionalised an almost identical trajectory in The Soldier’s Return, which came out four years after Hidden Lives, and which I read some years ago. Hardworking working class parents struggle, successfully, to make their way and to do the best for their embarrassingly clever lad not a million miles from Carlisle. (About eleven miles, if I remember rightly.) On the evidence of half of Hidden Lives, Bragg’s decision to fictionalise his autobiography was the right one, and not only because he couldn’t simply repeat what Forster had already done. If the historical evidence is thin, as it often is in Hidden Lives, he can fill it in. And he can use the basic outlines of his history as the basis of as rich a narrative as a highly competent novelist can manage.

Another thing. Only an established writer would be able to get such a memoir published. These particular hidden lives are no more interesting than others – I’m always finding myself cross-referencing Forster’s memoir with elements from my own life and those of my parents – but they have an unusual outcome: feisty little Margaret who can’t get away fast enough. And now I remember that when The Solder’s Return and its sequels focuses more on the growing pains of Bragg’s alter-ego and less on his parents I felt a similar disappointment. It’s all a bit me me me – and it’s the hidden lives I’m interested in, not these literary celebs.

4 May
Chapter 9 to part-way through Chapter 16
In fact, I’ve just finished CD 7 (out of eight) of the audio-book, which is why I’m never quite sure where I am. Except where I am is not far from the end. Ever since the moment I wrote about last time, when Forster’s own memories take over from the research, she’s done exactly what I suspected she’d do: turned it into an autobiography. For most of the book since around Chapter 6, 80-90% of the text is about Forster herself. Sure, she still gets in the odd page (or paragraph) about her parents – particularly her mother – or her aunts, but now it’s all in the context of little Margaret’s painful emergence from the chrysalis of the wrong side of Carlisle to the butterfly world of Oxford and Hampstead.

And she seems less and less sympathetic to her mother’s plight. Sure, she goes on endlessly about how she wasn’t going to go through what her poor mother had put up with – it feels as though there are about 100 sentences peppered through the text expressing precisely that sentiment, usually in what feels like the same form of words – but, increasingly, it’s in the form of disagreements between Margaret and her parents in which Margaret always turns out to be right. At the point I’ve now reached – happy marriage to the bloke who writes about his collections in The Guardian – I’m feeling more and more disgusted. She’s even started name-dropping her own novels, as if to say, See? See? I told you I was different. As it happens, she’s just started having kids, and her parents and sisters think they can get their own back: she’s turned out just like them, just as they said she would. Except, of course, they’ve forgotten that this is brilliant, feisty Margaret. She knows she’s never going to be like them, And she knows we know as well.

There’s no generosity in it. Plenty of working class parents in the 50s forced their bright 16-year-old daughters to leave school and earn a living – but Forster doesn’t appear to have had any trouble like that. In the narrative, she’s 15, then she’s 18 and applying (successfully, obviously, as she feels duty-bound to tell us) to both Oxford and Cambridge. Very occasionally she will hint at what an unbearable little madam she is, or how she actually wasn’t anything like as confident as she pretended…. But, basically, this is history written by the victor. The losers, particularly her father – hardworking but terribly limited in that typical working class way – never have a chance. In fact, now I think about it, Forster presents her mother as being just as limited as her father. The bright, scholarship-standard young woman of the early chapters has mutated into a Tory-voting snob who doesn’t know how, in her own sisters’ words, to enjoy herself. By the point I’ve reached, she’s no longer just unfortunate, she’s merely worn-out and dull.

Why have I carried on reading? I’m not sure… except I’m listening, which I always find easy to justify: at least I’m getting on with other things while Forster drones on about her own serial successes.

But that’s not it. I’m interested, as I’m interested by The Soldier’s Return or David Storey’s Saville, in the ways that successful writers who have become estranged from their working class backgrounds look back on their childhoods. Are they being fair to the people they walked away from? Have they retained any of the values they were brought up with – whatever that might mean – or have they been happy to buy into the values (and culture, and lifestyle) of a middle class that once made them feel like outsiders? I’m interested because, like perhaps a million others educated beyond their parents’ experience in the last half-century, these are questions I often ask myself. I’m ok with Bragg and Storey’s fictions, which explore the parents‘ bewilderment as thoroughly (almost) as the rites of passage faced by their over-achieving offspring. I’m not ok with Forster’s memoir, in which there’s simply too much point-scoring: I won in the end, but just look at what I had to fight against.

7 May
Chapter 16 to the end
Forster writes more about her mother in these pages than in most of the rest of the book since her own appearance on the scene. Mainly, in fact, she describes the adult experiences a successful woman shares with the working-class mother she left a long way behind. So we get the awful (infrequent) visits, the holiday in Gozo and, at the very end, her mother’s decline into old age and unglamorous death. Does Forster tell us anything new about the perennial problem of what to do about parents who live hundreds of miles away, and the vague sense of guilt? I don’t think she does. We get the sad but unremarkable story of Lillian’s illnesses and growing dependency on her husband, and the (fairly limited) things that Forster does to help. This leads, eventually, to some musings on the differences between the lives of women in the two halves of the 20th Century. Forster continues to spell out the points she made, more interestingly, earlier in the book.

The idea of the ‘hidden life’ is from the final paragraph of Middlemarch. Dorothea’s is the one being described in that book, productive and worthwhile in its way but, well, hidden. Forster begins (it seems a long time ago now) by seeking to reveal some of these lives, and that’s when it’s good. After that, it seems to lose its structure. The centrality of her own life-story is there to point to the difference a generation makes but, as I’ve suggested often enough already, it ends up getting in the way. The other hidden lives, particularly those of her mother’s sisters, are only occasionally touched on, and the end of the book comes down, really, to one mother-daughter relationship. The makers of the tv series Who do you think you are? are careful to make sure that the ancestors remain the real story. Maybe Forster should have called hers Hidden Lives – except for one that isn‘t hidden at all.

I’m not even all that impressed by the most fundamental point she makes at the end, about the opportunities that working-class women can have now that they couldn’t in her mother’s generation. It wasn’t only clever women whose lives were wasted. If marrying and having a family came at too high a price for Lillian, well, working life was just as burdensome for the men these women married. And Forster can’t help mocking her mother’s old-fashioned ideas about what women should and shouldn’t do; she never tries to explore why a clever woman should end up being ultra-conservative almost to the point of silliness. This is the true tragedy of her mother‘s life, but in Forster’s hands nothing much rises far above the level of petty niggles between family members. In the end, I find it all a bit unintelligent coming from a woman who has so repeatedly reminded us of how clever she is.


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