25 May 1938|
|Died||8 February 2016
|Occupation||Novelist, biographer, literary critic|
Margaret Forster (25 May 1938 – 8 February 2016) was an English novelist, biographer, memoirist, historian and literary critic. She is best known for her 1965 novel Georgy Girl, which was made into a successful film of the same name and inspired a hit song by The Seekers, as well as her 2003 novel Diary of an Ordinary Woman; her biographies of Daphne du Maurier and Elizabeth Barrett Browning; and her memoirs Hidden Lives and Precious Lives.
Early life and education
Forster was born in the Raffles council estate in Carlisle, England. She came from a working-class background. Her father, Arthur Forster, was a mechanic or factory fitter; her mother, Lilian (née Hind), was a housewife who had worked as a clerk or secretary before her marriage. Forster attended Carlisle and County High School for Girls (1949–1956), a grammar school. She won an Open Scholarship to read history at Somerville College, Oxford, graduating in 1960.
Forster's first published novel, Dames' Delight, loosely based on her experiences in Oxford, came out in 1964, and launched her writing career. Her second novel, published in 1965, was a bestseller; Georgy Girl describes the choices open to a young working-class woman in London during the Swinging Sixties. It was adapted into a successful 1966 film starring Lynn Redgrave as Georgy, with Charlotte Rampling, Alan Bates and James Mason. Forster co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Nichols. The film features a song by The Seekers which was a contemporary hit, and later featured in the top fifty of Rolling Stone magazine's "500 Greatest Pop Songs of all time". The book was also adapted for a short-lived Broadway musical, Georgy, in 1970.
Forster wrote prolifically during the 1960s and 1970s, while bringing up three young children, but she later criticised many of her early novels as "skittery", feeling that she had not found her voice until her 1974 novel, The Seduction of Mrs Pendlebury. Her early novels are predominantly light and humorous, and driven by a strong plot. An exception was The Travels of Maudie Tipstaff (1967), which focuses on the difference in values between generations in a Glaswegian family.
The theme of family relationships became a prominent one in her later works. Mother, Can You Hear Me? (1979) and Private Papers (1986) are much darker in tone. She tackled subjects such as single mothers and young offenders. Have the Men Had Enough? (1989) examines care of the elderly and the problem of Alzheimer's disease, inspired by her mother-in-law's deterioration and death from the disease. In 1991, she and her husband Hunter Davies contributed to the BBC2 First Sight episode, "When Love Isn't Enough", which described Marion Davies' story; Forster sharply criticised government policies on care for the elderly.
The publisher Carmen Callil considers Lady's Maid (1990), a historical novel about Elizabeth Barrett Browning seen through the eyes of her maid, to be Forster's best work. Diary of an Ordinary Woman (2003), narrated in the format of a diary of a fictional woman who lives through the major events of the 20th century, is so realistic that many readers believed it to be an authentic diary. Other later novels include The Memory Box (1999) and Is There Anything You Want? (2005). Her final novel, How to Measure a Cow, was published in March 2016.
Forster published more than 25 novels. A lifelong feminist and socialist, most of her works address these themes. Callil describes Forster as having a worldview "shaped by her sense of her working-class origins: most of her stories were about women’s lives." Author Valerie Grove characterises her novels as being about "women's lives and the deceit within families".
Biographies, memoirs and other non-fiction
Forster's non-fiction was equally successful; it includes 14 biographies, historical works and memoirs. Her best-known biographies are those of the novelist Daphne du Maurier and the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Her 1993 biography of du Maurier was a groundbreaking exploration of the author's sexuality, and her association with Gertrude Lawrence. It was filmed by the BBC as Daphne in 2007. In her 1988 biography of Barrett Browning, Forster draws on recently discovered letters and papers that shed light on the poet's life before she met and eloped with Robert Browning, and rewrites the myth of the invalid poet guarded by an ogre-like father, to give a more-nuanced picture of an active, difficult woman who was complicit in her own virtual imprisonment. Forster also wrote fictionalised biographies of the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (1978) and the artist Gwen John (2006). Significant Sisters (1984) chronicled the beginning of the feminist movement through the lives of eight pioneering British and American women, Caroline Norton, Elizabeth Blackwell, Florence Nightingale, Emily Davies, Josephine Butler, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman. Good Wives (2001) was an exploration of contemporary and historical women married to famous men, including Mary Livingstone, Fanny Stevenson, Jennie Lee and herself. Her historical writings also include Rich Desserts and Captain's Thin (1997), an account of the Carr's biscuit factory in Carlisle.
She wrote two memoirs based on her family background, Hidden Lives: A Family Memoir (1995) and Precious Lives (1998), as well as the autobiographical work, My Life in Houses (2014). Hidden Lives – based on the life of her grandmother, a servant who had a secret illegitimate daughter – was praised by historian and critic Claire Tomalin, who described it as "a slice of history to be recalled whenever people lament the lovely world we have lost". Frances Osborne cites it as her inspiration for becoming a biographer, writing that "it opened my eyes to how riveting the history of real girl-next-door women could be." The sequel, Precious Lives, tackled the subject of Forster's father, whom she reportedly disliked.
Broadcasting, journalism and other roles
Forster was a member of the BBC Advisory Committee on the Social Effects of Television (1975–77) and the Arts Council Literary Panel (1978–81). She served as a Booker Prize judge in 1980. She was the main non-fiction reviewer for the Evening Standard (1977–80). She contributed frequently to programmes about literature on television and BBC Radio 4, as well as to newspapers and magazines. She was interviewed by Sue Lawley for Radio 4's Desert Island Discs in 1994.
Forster was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1975. She gained several awards for her non-fiction. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography won the Heinemann Award of the Royal Society of Literature (1988). Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller won the Writers' Guild Award for Best Non-Fiction (1993) and the Fawcett Society Book Prize (1994). Rich Desserts and Captain's Thin: A Family and Their Times 1831–1931 won the Lex Prize of The Global Business Book Award (1998). Precious Lives won the J. R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography (1999).
Forster met the writer, journalist and broadcaster Hunter Davies in Carlisle, where they both lived, as a teenager. They married in 1960, immediately after Forster had completed her finals, a marriage that lasted until Forster's death. The couple moved to London where Davies had a job, at first living in rented accommodation in Hampstead; they then bought and renovated a Victorian house on Boscastle Road in Dartmouth Park, north London, which remained their main home. After the success of Georgy Girl in the mid-1960s, Forster bought a house for her mother. The couple had three children, a son and two daughters; Caitlin Davies is an author and journalist. The family spent some time living in the Algarve in Portugal, before returning to London. They also had homes in Caldbeck and Loweswater in the Lake District.
She led a relatively reclusive life, often refusing to participate in book signings and other publicity events. Her friends included broadcaster Melvyn Bragg and playwright Dennis Potter. Forster had breast cancer in the 1970s and had two mastectomies. She was diagnosed with cancer again in 2007. By 2014 she had metastatic cancer, and she died from cancer of the back in February 2016.
- Biography and history
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- Taylor, Annie, 'The difference a day made (14 May 1957) ...Margaret Forster was on a mission', The Guardian, 6 June 1996 [Interview]
- Kathleen Jones Margaret Forster: An Introduction (Northern Lights; 2003) (ISBN 0-905404-92-0)
- Kathleen Jones, Margaret Forster: A Life in Books (The Book Mill; 2012) (ISBN 978-0-9567303-8-1)
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- Lindsay, Cora, 'Critical perspective (and biog & bibliog. on Margaret Forster)' Contemporary Writers (British Council)
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- Margaret Forster discusses her latest book Isa and May with The Interview Online
- Jones, Nigel, 'Loss is more: an interview with Margaret Forster', Daily Mail, 31 August 2007