Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Hidden Lives by Margaret Forster

The Content ReaderI first came into contact with Margaret Forster reading her biography of Daphne du Maurier. So when I ran into this book, which is a story about her own family secrets, I was thrilled. And she does not disappoint.

When Margaret Forster’s grandmother died in 1936, she took secrets with her to her grave. Just before she died there was a mysterious woman in black who visited her. She never revealed to her daughters what it was all about. At her funeral, when the daughters gather and discuss this mysterious event there is another knock on the door. Outside is an unknown woman claiming to be her daughter and asking if she left anything for her.

After Margaret Forster’s mother died in 1981, she started to look into the history of her family. She discovered that her grandmother was born out of wedlock. But what was disturbing was the fact that she found her birth certificate and then there are no traces of her life until she reappears in the official records at the age of twenty-three!

The story is the starting point for telling the lives of her own mother and her siblings. They were born in the beginning of the 20th century and Margaret Forster traces their lives through childhood, adolescence and adulthood. It is a fascinating story of three women in the beginning of the century and how they coped with the modern developments during their own life time, based on the inheritance from their mother. The three sisters are very different and have different dreams. Even if it seems that at least some of them got the life they wanted, it did not always come out as expected. The siblings were very close and the family was the most important thing in life.

It is also a century where there was a huge development for women in society. When Margaret Forsters mother married she had to give up a very good, well paid job at the local Health Departement. It was not allowed for married women to work. She was an educated and intelligent woman who was obliged to stay at home and take care of the family. That was women’s duty of the day and it seems it was done without much reflection. Margaret Forster saw the unhappiness of her mother and decided early on to not become like her. She had inherited her mother’s intelligence, loved school and educated herself. Her life became different from her mother’s and grandmother’s.

Margaret Forster has written a wonderful piece of female history during the 20th century. A century that has evolved so much and so fast that it is hard for each generation to grasp the developments and ideas of the last one. It is told with feeling and a will to understand each generation. In the end she also discovers that when you look at the basics, the women in each generation are not that different after all.

This story stayed with me a long time after finishing the book. It makes you think of how women lived before and the hardships they endured. It is also a story of how the 20th century changed and affected people in a small town.

Margaret Forster has written many books of fiction, have edited Poetry by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and biographies of Charles Edward Stuart, William Makepeace Thackeray, Elizabeth Barrett Bowning and Daphne du Maurier, as well as The Grassroots of Active Feminism 1839-1939.

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