Margaret Forster Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.