Margaret Forster Essay - Critical Essays

Forster, Margaret

Introduction

Margaret Forster 1938-

English novelist, biographer, nonfiction writer, and memoirist.

The following entry presents an overview of Forster's career through 1999.

Forster is known for her critically acclaimed, yet controversial biographical studies of such literary figures as William Makepeace Thackeray, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Daphne du Maurier. Several critics have praised her utilization of fiction, history, and literary biography in order to explore the inner lives of important literary, political, and cultural figures. Reviewers often underscore her focus on feminist concerns and familial relationships, claiming that Forster's work aims to provide a greater understanding of feminism and the feminist movement.

Biographical Information

Forster was born into a middle-class home in Carlisle, Cumberland, England on May 25, 1938. She developed an early interest in literature, especially the work of Charles Dickens and Charlotte and Emily Brontë. A superior student, Forster was given a scholarship to attend Carlisle and County High School in 1949. Eight years later, she received a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford University, where she studied history. In 1960, she graduated from Oxford with a B.A. and relocated to London. That same year, she married Hunter Davies, a journalist, with whom she later had three children. Forster taught at the Barnsbury Girls' School in London from 1961 to 1963. She published her first novel, Dames Delight, in 1964. Georgy Girl (1965), her follow-up novel, was a commercial success and established Forster as a writer of popular fiction. Forster adapted the novel into a screenplay with Peter Nicholas and the film adaptation was released in 1966. Forster eventually became interested in the genre of biography and published her first biographical study, The Rash Adventurer: The Rise and Fall of Charles Edward Stuart, in 1973. In recent years, she returned to novel writing and composed several well-received family memoirs.

Major Works

Forster is known primarily for her biographical studies, which are distinguished by her emphasis on character, an engaging prose style, and a novelist's dramatic sensibilities. In Memoirs of a Victorian Gentleman: William Makepeace Thackeray (1978), Forster created a fictional autobiography, in which Thackeray becomes the writer of his own posthumous memoir. This experimental approach garnered critical debate, as some reviewers noted her lack of objectivity and derided her attempt to write in Thackeray's voice. In 1984, Forster published Significant Sisters, a collection of seven biographies of important feminist pioneers. The book aimed to engender a historical understanding of the feminist movement and alter misconceptions about feminism. Her 1988 biographical study, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, is perceived as a definitive reassessment of Browning's life and work. For this biography, Forster took a more traditional approach to her subject, compiling copious research, footnotes, and a full bibliography. In 1993, Forster published a controversial and highly praised biography, Daphne du Maurier, which explores the English author's confusion about her sexuality and speculates how this inner turmoil may have impacted her work. Although she is best known for her biographies, Forster also established a reputation as a popular novelist early in her career. Her second novel, Georgy Girl, which focuses on an unattractive woman who is desperate to be loved, was a commercial success. Georgy Girl inspired a series of character-driven novels from Forster, including The Bogeyman (1966), The Travels of Maudie Tipstaff (1967), The Park (1968), Miss Owen-Owen Is at Home (1969), Fenella Phizackerley (1970), and Mr. Bone's Retreat (1971). In the 1990s, Forster expanded her range and began working on a series of autobiographical works. Hidden Lives (1995) and Precious Lives (1999) are both sensitive explorations of Forster's family history. These works have been described as examples of “social history,” as they place the struggles of Forster and her family within a changing cultural and historical milieu. In 2001, Forster published Good Wives?—a mixture of memoirs and biographies that questions the definition of a “good wife” by examining the marriages of four women from different eras, including Forster's own.

Critical Reception

Forster's works of biography have garnered much critical and commercial attention. Many reviewers have applauded her clear, engaging prose style, her emphasis on the personality and psychology of her subjects, and her strong narrative skills. These qualities have been complimented for making her works more accessible to readers. Several critics have commended Forster's biographical works for being multilayered portraits of her subjects, not just simple records of events and dates. However, some commentators have maintained that Forster's work lacks objectivity and can be short on research and critical analysis. There are also scholars who have asserted that Forster's later biographical works strongly manifest her feminist concerns and are too focused on reevaluating the impact of feminist icons and female authors. While commenting on Forster's fictional works, critics have often noted her strong sense of character, clear prose, and penchant for experimentation. Although there are critics who regard her novels as cold and analytical, others have applauded the strong feminist themes of Forster's fiction, as well as her ability to portray the complex dynamics of personal and societal relationships. Her deft exploration of family relationships has been widely considered to be the dominant theme of her fictional work.

Principal Works

Dames Delight (novel) 1964

Georgy Girl (novel) 1965

The Bogeyman (novel) 1966

The Travels of Maudie Tipstaff (novel) 1967

The Park (novel) 1968

Miss Owen-Owen Is at Home (novel) 1969

Fenella Phizackerley (novel) 1970

Mr. Bone's Retreat (novel) 1971

The Rash Adventurer: The Rise and Fall of Charles Edward Stuart (biography) 1973

The Seduction of Mrs. Pendlebury (novel) 1974

Memoirs of a Victorian Gentleman: William Makepeace Thackeray (biography) 1978

Mother Can You Hear Me? (novel) 1979

The Bride of Lowther Fell: A Romance (novel) 1980

Marital Rites (novel) 1981

Significant Sisters: The Grassroots of Active Feminism, 1839–1939 (biographies) 1984

Private Papers (novel) 1986

Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography (biography) 1988

Have the Men Had Enough? (novel) 1989

Lady's Maid (novel) 1990

The Battle for Christabel (novel) 1991

Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller (biography) 1993

Mothers' Boys (novel) 1994

Hidden Lives: A Family Memoir (memoirs) 1995

Shadow Baby (novel) 1996

Rich Desserts and Captain's Thin: A Family and Their Times, 1831–1931 (history) 1997

The Memory Box (novel) 1999

Precious Lives (memoirs) 1999

Good Wives? (memoirs and biographies) 2001

Criticism

Jonathan Raban (review date 8 May 1970)

SOURCE: “Bristle & Twist,” in New Statesman, May 8, 1970, p. 667.

[In the following review, Raban discusses the female characters in Fenella Phizackerley.]

Margaret Forster has acquired a considerable reputation for constructing memorable, flat (purely in a literary sense) female characters. Fenella Phizackerley will enhance it. Where Georgy Girl was large and lovable, Fenella is sylphlike and frigidly nasty; a child so spoiled, selfish, indifferent and blank that her author deserves to be reported to the NSPCC. The novel hardly ever rises above the level of gossip, as it chronicles Fenella's icy rise from the privet-hedged respectability of lower-middle-class Durham, through gay Hampstead and evenings at the Academy cinemas, to the grand D'Arcy mansion and photos of herself in Queen and Country Life. Her progress is smoothed by Miss Forster, who steps in to dispatch Fenella's husbands and lovers with the efficiency of a gardener snipping off dead twigs. Her triumph is the surprise death of the Hon. Jonathan D'Arcy, cut off in his prime with VD, so that Fenella can get her comeuppance—a long widowhood back in Durham by way of Monte Carlo.

Anthony Bailey (review date 22 January 1971)

SOURCE: “Territories,” in New Statesman, January 22, 1971, p. 120.

[In the following review, Bailey offers a negative assessment of Mr. Bone's Retreat.]

Margaret Forster's Mr. Bone's Retreat is another cup of tea: Earl Grey, with lemon, though some Brooke Bond may have got left in the caddy. William Bone, retired civil servant and life-long bachelor, lives on the top floor of his genteel Richmond house, with an old girl friend, now in her 70s, on the ground floor. There's an empty flat in between, being fancied up, into which long-haired Alex and his pregnant Sophie intrude, and stay. Alex is one of your young, modish freaks. The book gives a dry pleasure on...

(The entire section is 254 words.)

Auberon Waugh (review date 23 January 1971)

SOURCE: “Auberon Waugh on New Novels,” in Spectator, January 23, 1971, p. 130.

[In the following review, Waugh offers a positive assessment of Mr. Bone's Retreat, calling the novel “more skillfully constructed and better written than any of its predecessors."]

The reviewer's role has always seemed to me an essentially humble one, his relationship to the reading public rather the same as that of a taster at some Renaissance court to his Prince. Our only absolute obligation is to read the book. Thereafter, if we turn green and die in great pain, prudent members of the reading public will leave the book alone. All people really require from a reviewer is that...

(The entire section is 1141 words.)

Peter Prince (review date 8 November 1974)

SOURCE: “Real Mean,” in New Statesman, Vol. 88, No. 2277, November 8, 1974, p. 659.

[In the following review, Prince offers a favorable assessment of The Seduction of Mrs. Pendlebury.]

Staying on the realism track: Margaret Forster beautifully demonstrates in The Seduction of Mrs. Pendlebury that its finest feature is a noble acceptance of the limitations of the likely. There are so many occasions in this brilliant study of the complacencies and dementias of old age when she might have tipped the whole thing into Gothic extravaganza: in the cause of ‘drama’ made a horror show out of her harrowing material. She never does. She knows her characters so well...

(The entire section is 181 words.)

Frederick Busch (review date Winter 1980)

SOURCE: A review of Memoirs of a Victorian Gentleman: William Makepeace Thackeray, in Victorian Studies, Winter, 1980, pp. 260–62.

[In the following review, Busch offers a mixed assessment of Memoirs of a Victorian Gentleman: William Makepeace Thackeray, maintaining that the book “is very well done for what it is—a salute to a decent, pained, and gifted man.”]

John Carey's study is fascinating, persuasive, and most useful—and it is written in the crisp, lucid, and pungent style that makes Carey one of the most admired of present-day writers about Victorian life and literature. His The Violent Effigy (1973) is an invaluable study of...

(The entire section is 890 words.)

Joan Smith (review date 19 October 1984)

SOURCE: “Nothing Alarming,” in New Statesman, October 19, 1984, pp. 31–32.

[In the following review, Smith offers a positive assessment of Significant Sisters.]

Half the women who appear in Margaret Forster's book Significant Sisters: The Grassroots of Active Feminism, as she herself points out, denied they were feminists. Florence Nightingale had no patience with women who wanted to do men's work: she sneered that Elizabeth Blackwell, the world's first qualified female doctor, had ‘only tried to be a man.’ Elizabeth Blackwell herself refused to speak at a Woman's Rights convention because ‘I believe that the chief source of the false position of...

(The entire section is 705 words.)

Molly Selvin (review date 17 March 1985)

SOURCE: “8 Founding Sisters of Feminism,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 17, 1985, p. 4.

[In the following negative review, Selvin derides the lack of interpretation found in Significant Sisters.]

We who cut our political teeth on feminism during the 1960s and 1970s may find it hard to remember that there was a “movement” before us. To those of us who so self-consciously went braless, to those of us who own treasured first editions of Our Bodies, Ourselves, the women's movement now seems almost middle-aged.

But the history of feminism is, in fact, quite old and rich. Margaret Forster's book, Significant Sisters, explores...

(The entire section is 916 words.)

Elisabeth Griffith (review date 28 April 1985)

SOURCE: “Fight for Feminism,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XV, No. 17, April 28, 1985, p. 10.

[In the following review, Griffith offers a negative assessment of Significant Sisters, stating that several of Forster's stylistic choices detract from the work's achievements.]

In her first foray into female biography, British novelist (Georgy Girl) and biographer (Thackeray) Margaret Forster provides an easy introduction to women's history through brief biographies of eight important and engaging English and American feminists. Significant Sisters: The Grassroots of Active Feminism, 1839–1939. The Americans include Elizabeth Blackwell, the...

(The entire section is 898 words.)

Marge Wyngaarden (review date July–August 1985)

SOURCE: “Significant Stories Told,” in New Directions for Women, Vol. 14, July–August, 1985, p. 17.

[In the following review, Wyngaarden offers a favorable assessment of Significant Sisters.]

Illuminated in this compellingly written book [Significant Sisters] is the progression of women's rights in England and America. Forster weaves together the stories of the life work of eight extraordinary women into a satisfying whole.

The book's importance lies in telling not of how radicals have always been treated—ridiculed, abused, ostracized, isolated—but how and why these sisters persevered in the fact of such treatment and, more important,...

(The entire section is 335 words.)

Sarah Deutsch (review date Autumn 1986)

SOURCE: A review of Significant Sisters: The Grassroots of Active Feminism, 1839–1939, in Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 17, No. 2, Autumn, 1986, pp. 477–79.

[In the following review, Deutsch offers a mixed assessment of Significant Sisters, asserting that Forster is “far more interested in humanizing these women … than in explicating the wider context of feminist history through them.”]

If you like romances, chances are you will enjoy reading the engagingly written biographical vignettes that comprise Forster's work. About neither grassroots nor the feminist movement, except indirectly, Significant Sisters reveals the...

(The entire section is 899 words.)

Joyce Suellentrop (review date November 1986)

SOURCE: A review of Significant Sisters: The Grassroots of Active Feminism, 1839–1939, in Historian, Vol. 49, November, 1986, pp. 109–10.

[In the following review, Suellentrop offers a positive assessment of Significant Sisters.]

Collective biographies of women written in the 19th and early 20th century had common weaknesses: biographical information with little or no analysis, weak threads of connection among the subjects and sanitized views of the subjects. Margaret Forster's Significant Sisters suffers from none of those weaknesses. Indeed it illustrates how satisfying a work can be both for the author and the reader.

No romantic...

(The entire section is 364 words.)

Carole Angier (review date 24 June 1988)

SOURCE: “Tyrants and Bullies,” in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 1, No. 3, June 24, 1988, pp. 38–39.

[In the following review, Angier describes Elizabeth Barrett Browning as a myth-dispelling biography, and speculates on Forster's attitude toward her subject.]

This is the most exciting sort of biography to read, or to write: the myth-dispelling biography, which overturns an old story, and does so most convincingly.

There are two main mythological figures here [in Elizabeth Barrett Browning]: Edward Moulton-Barrett, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's father, and Elizabeth herself. Their roles are simple, as mythical roles must be:...

(The entire section is 1062 words.)

Elizabeth Berridge (review date 23 July 1988)

SOURCE: “Since When Was Genius Found Respectable?” in Spectator, July 23, 1988, p. 26.

[In the following review, Berridge praises Forster's portrayal of the complex life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.]

It is one of the ironies of posterity that anyone who has made a considerable mark on his or her own times should be remembered for one thing only. Up to a few years ago Elizabeth Barrett Browning was cast as the invalid of Wimpole Street, prayed over by her father, as Chesterton put it, ‘with a kind of melancholy glee.’ Then brought back to life and liberty by the dashing young poet, Robert Browning, she was off to Italy to live happily ever after and write a...

(The entire section is 991 words.)

Nancy W. Ellenberger (review 19 February 1989)

SOURCE: “The Writer in the Parlor,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XIX, February 19, 1989, p. 6.

[In the following review, Ellenberger compares Forster's Elizabeth Barrett Browning with contemporary biographies of Mary Shelley and Charlotte Brontë.]

It has been said that the proper mid-Victorian household—where statues sported fig-leaves and piano legs wore petticoats—would also discreetly separate its books according to the gender of the author. In such a home it would not be surprising to see Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre occupying the same shelf. But even...

(The entire section is 1513 words.)

Anita Brookner (review date 18 March 1989)

SOURCE: “A House Is Not a Home,” in Spectator, March 18, 1989, pp. 26–27.

[In the following review, Brookner maintains that Have the Men Had Enough? is skillfully written, though difficult to read.]

Mrs. McKay is old. Not to put too fine a point on it, Mrs. McKay is senile. She is not yet incontinent, but she will become so, in the course of this novel [Have the Men Had Enough?] in fact. However, she has a loving family: sons Charlie and Stuart, daughter Bridget, daughters-in-law Jenny and Paula, and grandchildren Hannah and Adrian. There is therefore no problem about looking after her at home. Charlie rents a flat for her, and also one in the same...

(The entire section is 1043 words.)

Anne Duchêne (review date 24–30 March 1989)

SOURCE: “Woman's Work,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 24–30, 1989, p. 300.

[In the following review, Duchêne praises Have the Men Had Enough? as a work of grace and widespread interest.]

Margaret Forster's new novel Have the Men Had Enough?—her fourteenth—is based on her personal experience, and evolved in her mind while she was sitting in a geriatric psychiatric ward, where her loved and respected mother-in-law was in the last throes of senile dementia. It describes the grotesque and dreadful dying out of an ageing brain; but primarily it is concerned to follow the effects of this disintegration within a victim's family. It is a piece of...

(The entire section is 600 words.)

Merle Rubin (review date 9 June 1989)

SOURCE: “Feminist Views of a Victorian Poet,” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 81, No. 136, June 9, 1989, p. 12

[In the following review, Rubin contrasts Forster's biography of Browning with Dorothy Mermin's Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry.]

The first woman poet to establish herself in the major tradition and the first Victorian poet: Dorothy Mermin makes large claims for Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but she is also aware of the problems that make Barrett Browning's poetry unappealing, even to readers who like other Victorian poets.

Born in 1806—she was six years older than her husband, Robert Browning, and three years...

(The entire section is 972 words.)

Nicola Beauman (review date 7 July 1990)

SOURCE: “Wilson of Wimpole Street,” in Spectator, July 7, 1990, p. 31.

[In the following mixed review of Lady's Maid, Beauman cites Forster's “highly original attempt to demolish the wall between fiction and biography,” but considers the novel tedious and implausible.]

‘The life of Lily Wilson is extremely obscure and thus cries aloud for the services of a biographer. No human figure in the Browning letters, save the principals, more excites our curiosity and baffles it,’ wrote Virginia Woolf in 1933, in a six-page note at the end of her ‘life of a dog, Mrs. Browning's Flush.’

Lady's Maid is a novel about Wilson's life...

(The entire section is 881 words.)

Barbara Hardy (review date 20–26 July 1990)

SOURCE: “A Browning Version,” in Times Literary Supplement, July 20–26, 1990, p. 781.

[In the following review, Hardy offers a favorable assessment of Lady's Maid.]

The Brownings have offered rich pickings for other writers. It's hard to disentangle the spoilt Flush from Virginia Woolf's imagery, impossible to believe that Edward Barrett of Wimpole Street didn't charm and storm exactly like Charles Laughton. Margaret Forster's new novel Lady's Maid clings to the skirts of history, creating a new heroine, Wilson, Elizabeth Barrett's lady's maid, and ambitiously re-imagines the Brownings from her point of view.

In a nice ironic turn, Wilson...

(The entire section is 532 words.)

Deirdre David (review date Autumn 1990)

SOURCE: A review of Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography, in Victorian Studies, Vol. 34, No. 1, Autumn, 1990, pp. 112–13.

[In the following review, David offers a positive assessment of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, calling it an “exemplary biography.”]

In Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's self-termed “novel-poem,” the misogynistic hero, Romney Leigh, observes that women “So sympathetic to the personal pang” are incapable “Of deepening, widening a large lap of life / To hold the world-full woe.” Therefore, he concludes, “this same world, / Uncomprehended by you, must remain / Uninfluenced by you.” In the world of the...

(The entire section is 669 words.)

Jan Dalley (review date 10 May 1991)

SOURCE: “Fighting Motherhood,” in Times Literary Supplement, May 10, 1991, p. 20.

[In the following review, Dalley asserts that The Battle for Christabel is more of a case-study than a novel, and applauds the impact of the work.]

Isobel, the narrator of Margaret Forster's new novel, The Battle for Christabel, has a problem. Her closest and dottiest friend, Rowena, although without job, husband, and anything that convention or good sense dictates, decides to have a baby. For such an ineffectual character, she organizes it rather carefully, choosing for the father a man who is sure to absent himself, who will never know about the child, and—this for...

(The entire section is 739 words.)

Anita Brookner (review date 11 May 1991)

SOURCE: “The Battle of All Mothers,” in Spectator, May 11, 1991, p. 38.

[In the following review, Brookner offers a negative assessment of The Battle for Christabel.]

The tone of Margaret Forster's last novel, Have the Men Had Enough?, was justifiably angry, since the wrong which she so ardently desired to have righted was, alas, irreversible: Alzheimer's disease may come to any of us, and there is little we can do about it. In the present novel The Battle for Christabel the tone is even angrier, yet the cause may seem slender and even unjustifiable. In any event it begins on an intemperate note and never wavers, which is regrettable, for here is a...

(The entire section is 1004 words.)

Elaine Kendall (review date 31 May 1991)

SOURCE: “Maid's Story Part of Browning Lore,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 31, 1991.

[In the following positive review, Kendall praises the wry iconoclasm of Lady's Maid.]

In Lady's Maid the lady is Elizabeth Barrett Browning; the maid a timid young woman from Newcastle who served her devotedly from 1844 until the poet's death in 1861. During those 17 years, Elizabeth Wilson outgrew her early shyness to become strong and resourceful, not only coping with her invalid employer's capricious moods but managing a marriage and family of her own under conditions that would utterly defeat a less resilient woman.

After the author's...

(The entire section is 651 words.)

Peter Kemp (review date 9 April 1993)

SOURCE: “Born to Be a Boy,” in Times Literary Supplement, April 9, 1993, p. 23.

[In the following review, Kemp provides an overview of Daphne du Maurier's life and commends Forster's biography of the author as perceptive and revealing.]

On a French walking holiday with Daphne du Maurier in 1952, a friend fascinatedly noted her habit of wearing “a zip linen skirt on top of white cotton shorts.” Out in the countryside, she unzipped the skirt and “strode forward like a boy.” Whenever villages were near, she zipped it back into place so that she “was feminine.” This outfit and her use of it could be seen—Margaret Forster's perceptive and revealing...

(The entire section is 1962 words.)

Patricia Beer (review date 24 June 1993)

SOURCE: “Something about Her Eyes,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 12, June 24, 1993, pp. 20–22.

[In the following positive review, Beer finds Daphne du Maurier to be a well-organized and thorough biography of the writer.]

If in doubt start with the weather. This is a piece of advice that has long been followed by biographers who have mixed feelings about the claims of their subjects to the extensive treatment they are about to apply: subjects, perhaps, whose rank or connections would certainly sell the book but who in any meritocracy would themselves have sunk without trace. Interestingly, the opening paragraph of Margaret Forster's Daphne du...

(The entire section is 2780 words.)

Jonathan Yardley (review date 3 October 1993)

SOURCE: “On the Road to Manderley,” in Washington Post Book World, October 3, 1993, p. 3.

[In the following review, Yardley examines du Maurier's place in literary history, asserting that the “sense of du Maurier as popular writer and public presence is largely absent in Forster's biography.”]

Writing in the current issue of the American Scholar about Carol Brightman's life of Mary McCarthy, the British novelist John Wain makes a salient point about literary biography as currently practiced: “When a writer who once had a considerable readership, and whose books earned a steady royalty, finally runs out and ceases to be hot property, he or she is...

(The entire section is 1075 words.)

Sally Beauman (review date 8 November 1993)

SOURCE: “Rereading Rebecca,” in New Yorker, November 8, 1993, pp. 127–38.

[In the following review of Daphne du Maurier, Beauman urges a reconsideration of Daphne du Maurier's oeuvre and place in English literature.]

Rebecca, first published in 1938, was Daphne du Maurier's fifth novel. She began planning it at a difficult point in her life: it was only a few years after the death of her adored but dominating father, the actor-manager Gerald du Maurier, she was pregnant with her second child; and by the time she actually began writing, at the age of thirty, she was in Egypt, where her husband, Frederick A. M. (Boy) Browning, an officer in the...

(The entire section is 5419 words.)

Julia Braun Kessler (review date 26 December 1993)

SOURCE: “A Hidden Struggle,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 26, 1993, pp. 3, 5.

[In the following review, Kessler explores the revelations found in Daphne du Maurier and discusses how they shed light on du Maurier's fiction.]

In recent years, biography as a genre has been callously transformed. We have come to recognize its unwillingness to leave any page unturned in a life: no place remains private: we must be privy to every transgression of the learned, the talented or famous, no matter what—alcoholism, marital violence, perverse sexual proclivities.

Readers will lap up such intelligence, whether it be Freud's cocaine...

(The entire section is 1064 words.)

Merle Rubin (review date 12 January 1994)

SOURCE: “Du Maurier and Rebecca Revisited,” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 86, No. 34, January 12, 1994, p. 17.

[In the following review, Rubin offers a mixed assessment of Daphne du Maurier.]

For much of her professional life, British writer Daphne du Maurier was dogged by feelings of disappointment at not being considered a serious artist.

Rebecca, du Maurier's most celebrated novel, published in 1938 and shortly thereafter made into a classic Hitchcock film, is still widely read today. But its fame overshadowed her subsequent work, including such novels as My Cousin Rachel (1951), The Scapegoat (1957), and The House...

(The entire section is 896 words.)

Anita Brookner (review date 25 June 1994)

SOURCE: “Unflinching in the Face of Disaster,” in Spectator, June 25, 1994, pp. 30–31.

[In the following favorable review, Brookner describes Forster's novel Mothers' Boys as “less like a novel than a documentary.”]

In the annals of contemporary fiction Margaret Forster scores a comfortable beta plus. She deals firmly with contemporary dilemmas, lonely old ladies, senile mothers-in-law, relatives battling over motherless children, and contrives to make them all interesting. She is on the side of the angels, and writes an effortless, no-nonsense English. She can also escape, memorably, into the Gothic, and there is much to admire in her steadfast...

(The entire section is 766 words.)

Judy Cooke (review date 29 July 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Mother's Boys, Vol. 7, No. 313, July 29, 1994, p. 37.

[In the following laudatory review, Cooke praises Mother's Boys as “an impressive achievement.”]

Margaret Forster's fully fleshed-out, dramatic and absorbing Mother's Boys shows a novelist writing at the top of her form. Her subject is dark enough: the unprovoked violence and degradation visited upon a 15-year-old boy, Joe, by two teenagers who select their target quite at random. Leo confesses to having taken LSD before the assault; his accomplice, Gary, a sadist pure and simple, is tracked down by the police some time after the incident.

Their victim is...

(The entire section is 322 words.)

Isabel Colegate (review date 23 September 1995)

SOURCE: “The Stranger after the Funeral,” in Spectator, September 23, 1995, pp. 38–39.

[In the following review, Colegate contends that Forster's Hidden Lives is a well-researched and highly readable family memoir.]

Guilt is a common legacy of parents. We remember their last sad years and forget the earlier happier ones, we tell ourselves we failed to show them how much we loved them and made it all too obvious how much they irritated us, we understand too late that children too can be exasperating and obtuse. Margaret Forster's family memoir Hidden Lives: A Family Memoir is half investigation, half expurgation. She had long been intrigued—more...

(The entire section is 782 words.)

Blake Morrison (review date 29 September 1995)

SOURCE: “Margaret's Mystery,” in Times Literary Supplement, September 29, 1995, p. 28.

[In the following review, Morrison offers a favorable assessment of Hidden Lives.]

One of the major endeavours of social historians over the past thirty years has been the recovery—through letters, diaries, parish registers and oral accounts—of “hidden” or “missing” lives: the lives, that is, of those too insignificant to figure in the history of great men and warring nations. Margaret Forster's study of three generations of working-class women from a Carlisle family [Hidden Lives] is written in this spirit of recovery, and among the sources it draws on is the...

(The entire section is 1109 words.)

Melissa Benn (review date 6 October 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Hidden Lives: A Family Memoir, in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 8, No. 373, October 6, 1995, pp. 38–39.

[In the following positive review, Benn questions the genre classification of Hidden Lives, asserting that the study “is most easily classified as social history.”]

This book began when Margaret Forster's publisher asked her to refute the claims by some feminists that women's lives have not significantly improved over the past century. While Hidden Lives amounts to a powerful argument against such a claim, it is not a general or sociological book but a specific inquiry into the moral, emotional and material lives of...

(The entire section is 631 words.)

Candice Rodd (review date 31 May 1996)

SOURCE: “Family Secrets,” in Times Literary Supplement, May 31, 1996, p. 24.

[In the following mixed review, Rodd explores the dominant themes of Shadow Baby.]

The most persistent theme in Margaret Forster's fiction is family relationships, in all their difficult, idiosyncratic ordinariness. In Hidden Lives, the engrossing memoir-cum-biography she published last year, she traced the maternal line of her own family back to turn-of-the century northern England, using personal recollection, anecdote and dogged detective work to piece together a story that was simultaneously commonplace and riveting. In describing her female forebears' lives of poverty, domestic...

(The entire section is 1125 words.)

Anita Brookner (review date 15 June 1996)

SOURCE: “Mothers and Daughters,” in Spectator, June 15, 1996, pp. 40–41.

[In the following review, Brookner commends Forster's enthusiasm and feminist perspective in Shadow Baby.]

Readers of this enthralling chronicle entitled Shadow Baby are advised to have a pencil and paper handy and to spend a few minutes in establishing a family tree. Leah Messenger, parents unknown, gives birth to Evie in Carlisle in the 1880s. In 1956 Hazel Walmesley gives birth to a baby, later called Shona, who is adopted by Archie and Catriona. Leah marries Henry and has two daughters, Rose and Polly. Rose grows up and gives birth to Josephine who marries Gerald Walmesley who is...

(The entire section is 838 words.)

David Kynaston (review date 7 November 1997)

SOURCE: “Quakers and Bakers,” in Times Literary Supplement, November 7, 1997, p. 40.

[In the following review, Kynaston offers a mixed assessment of Rich Desserts and Captain's Thin, noting that the work contains “a reasonable amount of business matter, all sensibly deployed.”]

Two years ago, Margaret Forster published Hidden Lives, a justly acclaimed account of the Carlisle-based lives of her grandmother, her mother and her early self. A mixture of history and memoir, it deserves to become a classic. Rich Desserts and Captain's Thin, also set in Carlisle, is implicitly a companion volume.

In essence, it tells the story of...

(The entire section is 974 words.)

Cressida Connolly (review date 17 October 1998)

SOURCE: “The Passing of Arthur,” in Spectator, October 17, 1998, p. 41.

[In the following review, Connolly offers a favorable assessment of Precious Lives.]

Ours is not to reason why, ours but to do and die, is about as unfashionable an idea as hot Bovril. In the current climate of frenzied investigation, ours is to question every aspect of life and death, including the minutest workings of our bodies. The birth-room, the operating theatre, the deathbed, are not hidden any longer. Soon no one will remember a time when genitals were euphemistically referred to as ‘privates'—there are no private parts any more. As Robert McCrum has suggested, despatches from the...

(The entire section is 764 words.)

Rosemary Dinnage (review date 6 November 1998)

SOURCE: “The Least Possible Nuisance,” in Times Literary Supplement, November 6, 1998, pp. 28–29.

[In the following positive review, Dinnage applauds the lucidity and honesty of Forster's writing in Precious Lives.]

Why need the annals of the poor be short and simple? If they are short, it is because (in Thomas Gray's time and often in ours) they live less long; if simple, because they leave little record, and have no one to write it for them. No family trees, obituaries, heirlooms, or even wills worth mentioning—certainly no biographies. But that the lives of the unrecorded are any less rich than those of their betters I have always doubted. Mayhew's London...

(The entire section is 1392 words.)

T. A. B. Corley (review date January 1999)

SOURCE: A review of Rich Desserts and Captain's Thin: A Family and Their Times, 1831–1931, in Business History, Vol. 41, January, 1999, pp. 123–24.

[In the following mixed review, Corley suggests that Rich Desserts and Captain's Thin would have benefited from more of a business history perspective.]

Many gaps remain in the ranks of full-length business histories, and one of especial value would be a history of United Biscuits (UB): from 1948 onwards the leadership of Hector (now Lord) Laing tamed this combine into one of the country's major forward-looking enterprises.

Among the units in UB, which to the author's surprise is still...

(The entire section is 648 words.)

Anita Brookner (review date 26 June 1999)

SOURCE: “Digging up Mummy,” in Spectator, June 26, 1999, p. 34.

[In the following negative review, Brookner describes Forster's The Memory Box as disappointing and formulaic.]

Most women would claim to be experts on their own mothers, but not perhaps on their mothers' prehistory, unless those mothers were unreservedly expansive. Catherine, the heroine and narrator of Margaret Forster's novel The Memory Box, is not in that position, since her mother, Susannah, died at the age of 31, leaving the six-month-old Catherine to be cared for by others. Those others were circumspect and benign, in particular her father's second wife, Charlotte, whom Catherine...

(The entire section is 824 words.)