Margaret Forster

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Jonathan Raban (review date 8 May 1970)

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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)

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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 almost every page but in sum seems unluckily vacuous; mostly, I think, because Mr. Bone's territorial claims are supposedly violated, but Mr. Bone himself never seems particularly unhappy about it—perhaps because Alex isn't on the scene very often and Sophie comes across as another old lady, which makes three of them. Though disturbed by sounds of love-making and the toilet being flushed past the hour of 10 pm, the usual curfew in the Bone retreat, Mr. Bone enacts no original displacement activities. One character—Germaine, thwarted daughter of the downstairs old lady—indicates Margaret Forster's potential if pushed. The novel has the somewhat flamboyant copyright ‘© SHELTER 1971,’ but I don't think this is to blame for the feeling of claustrophobia the book induces. Living in tents isn't like living in sin, on a lease, in Richmond, but it has to be wilder and wickeder.

Auberon Waugh (review date 23 January 1971)

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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 he briefly describes what sort of book it is—whether it attempts to bloodcurdle, to amuse, to excite sexually, to provoke compassionate or romantic feelings, to stimulate the intelligence, to advance some political philosophy or to propound an entirely new one—and then flash a red or green light to indicate...

(This entire section contains 1141 words.)

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whether or not the book succeeds in what it sets out to do. In this way we reviewers save other people's time and make our own tiny contribution to the national productivity drive, to the enjoyment of leisure among the educated classes and ultimately, I suppose, to the living standards of our own beloved working class.

Just occasionally, however, in the reviewer's dim but useful life there comes a book which seems to deserve better than the sickly, relieved smile of a man who feared it might be worse. What should the reviewer do then? The language of criticism possesses its own superlatives—‘compelling,’ ‘compassionate,’ ‘life-enhancing,’ ‘delightful,’ ‘sympathetic'—but these have all been used too often on dust-jackets for them to give any impression of a book which, in the reviewer's opinion, is genuinely touched by excellence, and which merits reading by those who have lost the novel-reading habit through countless disappointments in the past. Let me just say that Miss Forster's latest novel Mr. Bone's Retreat—more skilfully constructed and better written than any of its predecessors if slightly less obtrusive in its emotional impact—is a taste of Heaven.

The emotions it attempts to excite are those of humour and pity, joined by occasional bursts of righteous anger at human stupidity, callousness etc. All highly enjoyable, and Miss Forster pulls it off magnificently. Quite suddenly, it seems to me, with this novel she has become as good as anyone now writing in the English language.

The hero, Mr. Bone, is a bachelor recluse whose bachelor eccentricities verge at times upon the insane. Those who criticise novelists for a tendency to write about eccentric rather than ‘normal’ people should reflect on how very few people are anything less than extremely eccentric, how the whole concept of a ‘normal’ person is little more than a novelist's invention in the first place, adopted afterwards by advertisement media men and politicians for their own cynical purposes. The criterion of eccentricity, in literature, must be credibility; Mr. Bone is not only credible, he is also sympathetic.

Mr. Bone's peculiarity is an extreme regard for his own privacy. He lives in a small part of his own house, a Regency gem: the basement flat is occupied by an aged woman friend, who gives no trouble. The action of the novel describes how the other flat is invaded by a young couple—he a repulsive sub-criminal, she sweet and pregnant—and Mr. Bone's adjustment to them. As a character, Mr. Bone has already shown us glimpses of himself in William Trevor's The Old Boys and in two of Muriel Spark's works—Memento Mori and The Bachelors—but this is the first time he has been revealed in all his splendour. He deserves to become a literary archetype—the fussy, hung-up English bachelor—and I should love to see a few other writers give him a try—L. P. Hartley, for instance, or A. Powell.

Readers should be warned of two things: The novel starts on Christmas Eve, with snow falling, a pregnant girl and her man seeking lodgings, no room at the inn (or at any rate no money to pay for it). For a moment, the reader thinks that this is going to be some ghastly parable about Christmas, with the face of Des Wilson (of Shelter) about to loom out of the snow and suggest that the real purpose of the Saviour's coming was to see that the provident members of the English labouring classes should be better housed in 1971 than formerly.

In fact Miss Forster is only teasing us. If there is any reason apart from this, why she introduces Christmas, it is to demonstrate how Christmas remains as the one family festival of the year in which the states of bachelorhood and homelessness are seen at their most unnatural and poignant. At other times, the virtues of rottenness and of not being tied down may be more apparent, but to be alone or without shelter on Christmas Day is still something of a rebuke in the modern world.

The second warning which, as the reading public's taster, I feel bound to give, concerns the pretty, pregnant woman's husband, called Alexander. Once again, for a terrible moment, we suspect that Miss Forster might want us to like him. He is the least successful character in the book, being everybody's pasteboard Sussex University student—Soc-Soc, hairy, drug-taking, jargon chanting etc. His conversation is utterly unconvincing. This is how he addresses his wife: ‘You're uptight all the time—like this. ‘You've too many hang-ups … spiritually, you're a drag … that's your wavelength … you never freak out … you never get up and go.’

No doubt this is an accurate enough transcription of the way some people talk, but it does not graft itself successfully on a novel about people who talk quite differently. In real life, I have no doubt, this Alexander will get himself a good job on the Sunday Times, cultivate a northern accent and be accepted in time as a highly significant member of society. But there is an important truth about the alternative culture, that it cannot usefully ever be compared with normal culture. Although there are good jokes to be derived from a confrontation of the two cultures, one cannot briefly sketch a proper hippie into a straight narrative without taking far more trouble than Miss Forster has allowed. As a result, Alexander is both incredible and irritating, but at least we do not see much of him, and at least Miss Forster does not expect us to like him, on the slight acquaintance she allows.

For the rest, Miss Forster's book is a sheer delight. Its one blemish is tiny compared to its enormous virtues, and I recommend it from the bottom of my heart as the best novel yet printed in 1971 and the best for a long time before that.

Peter Prince (review date 8 November 1974)

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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 that though they seem the most unremarkable people—an elderly North London couple, their much-younger neighbours, some children, living and dead—all she has to do to get the most surprisingly dramatic results is simply to bring their everyday activities into sharp focus. At least, a fine novelist makes it seem that easy.

Nothing is more to Ms Forster's credit than the way her ‘smaller’ characters seem as developed and full of life as any others.

Frederick Busch (review date Winter 1980)

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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 Dickens and a delight to rely upon.

I can think of no better refresher for the experienced reader of Victorian fiction, and no better introduction for the student, than Carey's first chapter, a description of the writing life of his subject. Whether he describes William Makepeace Thackeray's glorification of his awful Charterhouse career or relates the novelist's artistic decline to his social rise, Carey is charming without being coy. He is never irrelevant: his goal is to study the man's art through his life, and that goal is kept in sight. So, for example, in his discussion of Thackeray's fondness for flagellation, Carey uses this predilection as a way of enlightening us on all of Thackeray's art; we come to understand how Thackeray's inability to study this foible satirically—Thackeray seemed pleased to overlook this characteristic in himself—can represent a failing in his art in general. When he was not fully conscious of events, Carey tells us, he was incapable of artistic transformation of them.

Carey's very valuable contribution to Thackeray studies lies, first, in a willingness to consider his subject worthy of his fullest attention—which means a deep steeping in the biography, letters, and published works that for another critic might well involve decades instead of years of effort. It is such attention that made The Violent Effigy so distinctive and that does the same for Thackeray. But then comes the creative side of Carey's scholarship. He is able to get to the metaphoric heart of his author. In eight chapters, little more than two hundred pages, he isolates those themes—“Food and Drink,” “Theatre”—which, by the end of the book, add up to more than the sum of Thackeray's parts. They become a pointillistic portrait of what probably mattered most, in life as well as in efforts at art, to Thackeray. Carey offers a courageous verdict; instead of declaiming upon Thackeray as Dickens's equal and as a great writer—did Carey not invest thousands of hours at his study?—he rewards the reader by telling the truth about Thackeray as Thackeray at his best might have told it. He shows us where Thackeray was great in early occasional pieces, good in Lovel the Widower, often penetrating and delightful in his many failed works, and how truly brilliant he was in Vanity Fair.

Thackeray: Prodigal Genius leaves the reader content that he understands as much of the life, particularly in relationship to the art, as he might wish to understand. Memoirs of a Victorian Gentleman, a fictionalized autobiography of Thackeray by the English novelist Margaret Forster, is less satisfactory. Forster goes to great lengths to show that she has invented nothing—that although she has rejected Gordon Ray's biography, she has, as Carey has, relied heavily on the letters and on her own love of Thackeray, her fascination with his life, and her novelist's skill at making people live on the page. Thackeray, through passages from the letters and Forster's invention of his voice, tells us his life.

Although the result is charming—Forster's Thackeray is the bluff and self-deprecatory one—its usefulness is questionable. The Charterhouse experience is full of jolly lads and none of those years' miseries: it is Thackeray's myth—his fiction. He “had the temerity not to want to be Dickens” (p. 123); but we know too how much he wished, if not patently for Dickens's talent, at least for his command of vast numbers of readers. Surely in the tension between the statement and the wish lies much explanation of Thackeray's cheap sale of his talents, in his latter years, for his readers' and his dinner companions' affections. Forster's Thackeray is no fool, however. He does, ultimately, see the decline in his work. He does not see all of its causes, and he doesn't satisfactorily see his response to the Edmund Yates contretemps as having awfully much to do with his feelings about his own and Dickens's artistic achievements.

In Memoirs, the Thackeray persona writes charmingly but not well. For although we have much touching detail, including the sad Jane Brookfield affair, we have Thackeray at his often least analytic. Forster chose to write neither biography nor fiction; she imitated Thackeray's illusions about his life. To rely on Carey once more, “To write well he had to be fully conscious—either of his own absurdity, or of other people's, or both” (p. 29). The approach Forster has selected denies the novelist's, or biographer's, fullest consciousness, and we are left with a Thackeray who is only partly awake to himself. The book is very well done for what it is—a salute to a decent, pained, and gifted man—but because it does not attempt art, it is insufficient on Thackeray the artist.

Joan Smith (review date 19 October 1984)

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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 women is the inefficiency of women themselves—the deplorable fact that they are so often careless mothers, weak wives, poor housekeepers, ignorant nurses and frivolous human beings.’

Herein lies a conundrum. The very women who brought about significant changes in the status of women denied they were feminists. Margaret Forster has the answer. If some women seem to detest feminism, it is because feminists have scared them off by too openly expressing their resentments. She goes on to offer a definition of feminism as ‘a force for the good of both men and women,’ a soothing and all-encompassing phrase.

In fact, she says reassuringly, feminism is ‘nothing to be frightened of.’ Her book is a powerful illustration of this acceptable face of feminism—not a political belief, like socialism, not ‘a shrieking harridan obsessed with destruction,’ but ‘the most attractive and peaceful of doctrines.’ So harmless and well-bred a creature is Margaret Forster's feminist that you could safely invite her to tea at the vicarage (or write flattering articles about her in The Mail on Sunday).

This is not to say that Significant Sisters is a bad book. It sets out with the admirable object of showing how women gained improvements in the choices open to them in the 100 years between 1839 and 1939. It is a timely reminder of the enormous obstacles faced by women who had the courage to embark on difficult campaigns at a time when feminism was in its infancy. Josephine Butler, one of the eight women whose life stories are told in the book, faced physical assault during her crusade against the iniquitous Contagious Diseases Acts, which allowed any woman suspected of being a prostitute to be seized and examined for venereal disease. Margaret Sanger was imprisoned for opening a family planning clinic in Brooklyn in 1916.

In this sense, the book fills a gap. It even comes close to facing the reality which Forster finally ducks. By the 1920s, she says, all was not well with feminism. Social restrictions had loosened, more women went out to work. But ‘a wider, deeper ideology was needed and needed quickly before feminism floundered in a sea of complacency.’ It was Emma Goldman who spotted the problem, she believes. Goldman realised women were prisoners of their own notions—even though they went out to work, they still felt obliged to do the housework.

‘True emancipation begins neither at the polls nor in the courts,’ she wrote. ‘It begins in a woman's soul.’ But the crucial difference between Emma Goldman's feminism and Margaret Forster's is that the former recognised how challenging the emancipation of women would be to men.

Goldman's attempts to combine her work with her relationships with men pitched her into a series of battles with lovers who resented the changes they were expected to make in their own lives as a result of her feminism. One of them accused her of having ‘no thought for anything else—your love has no thought of me or my needs … you are simply incapable of deep feeling … you will have to choose.’

Is this a response to Margaret Forster's force which is ‘for the good of both men and women’? On the contrary, it is the strongest possible evidence that feminism is radical, challenging, difficult and dangerous. If feminism is disguised as a series of loosely-related campaigns to improve various aspects of women's lives, it comes with an unwritten guarantee that feminists won't rock the boat too much. Fortunately, the fact that they do and they will has been out of the closet for too long for Margaret Forster's genteel attempt at redefinition to force it back there.

Molly Selvin (review date 17 March 1985)

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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 careers of eight extraordinary British and American women whose lives spanned a century and a half. Many of their names are familiar but their accomplishments, courage and personal determination may not be.

Caroline Norton fought for passage of the Reform of Marriage and Divorce Laws Act, which, for the first time, legally recognized British wives as individuals apart from their husbands. Elizabeth Blackwell, an American, was the first registered and trained female physician. Florence Nightingale, who professionalized the field of nursing, asserted that woman must have the option to choose to work. Emily Davies founded Girton College for women at Cambridge. Josephine Butler lobbied for repeal of the British Contagious Diseases Act, which punished prostitutes and subjected them to degrading and often dangerous medical examinations without punishing their male customers. Elizabeth Cady Stanton helped organize the Woman's Suffrage Movement in the United States. Margaret Sanger, another American, advocated the widespread dissemination of birth control technology among women to give them control over their reproductive lives. And Emma Goldman, an American, laid the framework for the feminist ideology of the 1970s by asserting that “true emancipation begins neither at the polls nor in the courts [but] … in a woman's soul.”

Forster chose these women to demonstrate that their remarkable individual achievements were not isolated occurences. Rather, these women were part of an extraordinary flowering of feminism in law, employment, education, sexual morality, politics and ideology between the early 19th and early 20th centuries. “[T]hey had all been born,” Forster writes, “to start things off.”

But contemporary women may be hard pressed to identify them as feminists, for these women felt constrained to choose between marriage and children on the one hand and political or professional involvement on the other. Elizabeth Blackwell and Florence Nightingale rejected outright the notion of marriage. Margaret Sanger and Elizabeth Cady Stanton found that their marriages could not survive their activism. Only Josephine Butler managed to maintain both a loving marriage and her commitment to her work with prostitutes.

More important, however, Forster's feminists sound strikingly anti-feminist at times. Blackwell, Nightingale and Norton often blamed women themselves for their own plight. “I believe that the chief source of the false position of women,” Blackwell wrote, “is the inefficiency of the women themselves.” Nightingale was more sarcastic: “[T]he whole occupation of [upper-class British women] was to lie on … sofas and tell each other not to get tired by putting flowers into water.”

Forster is somewhat sympathetic to this view: “True emancipation may have begun in my childhood soul, but it did not flower as it should have done. … I have been a feeble feminist. I have gradually come round to understanding that there is … something in women which prevents them striking out as men do.”

Yet Forster argues persuasively that we cannot judge these women by contemporary standards of feminism. She shows them to be courageous women who for the most part had to battle their own families as well as the larger world for acceptance. “Without them, feminism would have been nothing.” They were the “stepping stones.” Moreover, through the use of well-selected quotations and a bit of dramatic prose, Forster casts the concerns of her subjects in a strikingly contemporary light.

To the extent these women failed, it was because they were naive about the power of legislative reform to effect social change and because they viewed themselves as anomalies. They could not envision that many women would emulate them. As a result, ultimately they did not change how most women viewed themselves and their opportunities.

Despite its several virtues, however, Significant Sisters is disappointing. Forster writes that feminism has a “long and worthy history” but fails to acknowledge that the study of women's history does also. Forster has relied on the writings of her subjects—their correspondence, autobiographies and their political tracts. She all but ignores the excellent interpretive biographies that have appeared in recent decades.

Not surprisingly then, the book is thin on interpretation. Forster asserts that each of her subjects “had her own particular brand of feminism.” In effect, however, she simply views her subjects uncritically. She largely dismisses, for example, the darker, eugenic motivations for Margaret Sanger's advocacy of birth control that other historians have seen in her writings.

She also imbues her subjects with an inappropriate sense of predestination. Of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Forster writes, “Whether she was having breakfast with Josephine Butler or tea with Elizabeth Blackwell, she would feel excited, too, by an additional sense of common destiny: They had all been born … to fight for all women.”

Significant Sisters is a tidy set of biographies about eight remarkable women. It breaks no new ground as history but does remind us that the concerted effort to improve women's lives did not begin with publication of The Feminine Mystique and that postwar attitudes on sex, marriage and careers are anything but novel.

Elisabeth Griffith (review date 28 April 1985)

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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 first woman to meet male standards to practice medicine; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who launched the woman suffrage campaign in 1848; and Margaret Sanger, the birth control pioneer. Less well known to American readers will be the British entries: Caroline Norton, who challenged English laws forbidding married women property rights, maternal custody of children, and divorce; Florence Nightingale, who established the nursing profession; Emily Davies, who founded Girton College at Cambridge and assured access to equal university education for Englishwomen; and Josephine Butler, who attempted to change laws and attitudes about prostitutes as well as the double standard of Victorian morality. The eighth woman is anarchist immigrant and exile Emma Goldman.

By calling each of these women “first in her field,” Forster has imposed on the book a construct too rigid for the reality of such lives. Each entry is supposed to represent a single sphere of activity which improved women's lives—politics, medicine, education—without allowing for the multiple interests of these women leaders. Heralding Goldman as the “first Feminist ideologue” ignores the roles of Stanton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Similarly, identifying Stanton only with suffrage overlooks the farsighted scope of her revolution against male authority in law, medicine, and religion. The omission of any black woman of comparable status, such as Mary McLeod Bethune, is also surprising.

The similarities among these heroines, although not made explicit, are intriguing. Seven of them were the daughters of dominant fathers, most of whom encouraged opportunities and achievements unusual for girls. Five of them married, but only one (Josephine Butler) made a match with a man who supported her crusade. Four had children and another, unmarried (Elizabeth Blackwell), adopted a daughter. All of them struggled to balance public and private roles. All of them evidence enormous anger rooted in the circumstances of their own lives and their empathy for the lives of other women, whether married or mothers, indigent or immigrant, prostitutes or pioneers.

Based on diaries, letters, autobiographies, and unpublished dissertations, each entry is thoroughly documented, if not always factually accurate. (The Stanton chapter contains 14 errors.) Fortunately, the colorful personalities of the subjects serve to break the repetitive pattern of presentation and differentiate each heroine. Especially memorable are the gorgeous Mrs. Norton, continuing to appear at London balls while her reputation was debated in court; the feisty Stanton, seated at her dining room table surrounded by seven children, forging thunderbolts for women's rights; the difficult Dr. Blackwell, driven by jealousy of her siblings; the free-loving Sanger, who abandoned husband and children in her fight for legal birth control.

Forster's purpose was two-fold: to use these life-stories to illustrate progress for women and to trace the development of feminist ideology. Unfortunately, her explanation is sophomoric rather than sophisticated. Forster's self-imposed format, her preference for description rather than analysis, her lack of methodology, and her failure to place her characters in a wider historical context undermine her achievement.

For example, in describing Elizabeth Blackwell's efforts to gain admittance to medical training and practice, Forster does not provide any background. She does not mention that women dominated medical care as healers, witches, midwives, and caregivers prior to the institutionalization of medical training and the legal exclusion of women by men. She notes the irony that few women entered obstetrics, yet she fails to note that women were more likely to explore new fields like pediatrics, anesthesiology, and public health than to attempt entry into areas already dominated by men.

In claiming that nursing was the first profession for women, Forster overlooks generations of teachers. Nor does she incorporate established conclusions about women and work: that women created new fields like social work, kindergarten teaching, and librarianship, rather than compete in a male-dominated sphere; and that whenever women became the majority in a profession previously occupied by men (teachers, secretaries, nurses), both their salary and status declined.

In another example of an incorrect conclusion, Forster asserts that both reformers and conservatives wanted to improve women's education. In fact, the struggle to expand educational opportunities for women epitomized the mid-19th century conflict over defining appropriate roles for women. Reformers like Emily Davies in England and Emma Willard, Mary Lyon, and M. Carey Thomas in the United States believed that women had equal mental capacity and could undertake the same curriculum offered male students. In contrast, opponents believed that studying Latin or logic or algebra would engender hysteria and render women infertile.

Recently we observed Women's History Week, celebrating the strength and viability of an academic discipline now more than 15 years old. Perhaps women's history is still in a nascent period in England, accounting for the lack of depth in Forster's narrative. Nonetheless, carried by the appeal of its subjects, Significant Sisters offers a tempting introduction to women's history and its heroines. It provokes novices and experts alike to probe further into a burgeoning, intriguing and important field of inquiry.

Marge Wyngaarden (review date July–August 1985)

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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 meaning of their accomplishments.

Divided into eight sections, the book covers eight major areas of experience and includes a brief biography of a woman who effected vital change in that area, benefitting women and men of every subsequent generation.

Forster's subjects' lives span 1808 to 1966. Caroline Norton, an Englishwoman little known to an American audience, was the first born. She succeeded in dramatically changing English law as it applied to married women. And the last to die, Margaret Sanger in 1966, whose magnificent contribution was to publicly separate sex from procreation, freed women from a seemingly implacable biological imperative.

In between, the author considers Elizabeth Blackwell's life and its impact on the professions; Florence Nightingale and employment; Emily Davies and education; Josephine Butler and sexual morality; Elizabeth Cady Stanton (whose BBC Hulton Picture Library photograph is the first this reviewer has seen which conveys Stanton's joy of life, intelligence and comeliness) and politics; Emma Goldman and ideology.

This well-written, lively book will be enjoyed even by those already familiar with the lives of the subjects. It could admirably serve as the text of a Women's History introductory course.

An interesting chart in the back of the book, applicable only to Great Britain, shows feminist progress in the context of general changes. Forster states that a comparable chart of American progress is not possible because of the varying developments from state to state. Sounds like 50 terrific research projects for students across the country.

Sarah Deutsch (review date Autumn 1986)

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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 personal trials and tribulations of eight prominent women, five of them born in England, two in the United States, and one in Russia.

Readers seeking either a comparative perspective or new information would be advised to look elsewhere. A novelist and biographer, Forster has read comprehensively in her subjects' published works, much of their correspondence, and some of the recent biographies, but she does not seem, at least for the Americans, current with the wider literature available on the women's movement or on women's history. If she were, she might place less emphasis on the purportedly isolated uniqueness of these women's contributions and the strictly episodic nature of feminism. She is, however, far more interested in humanizing these women, by giving the roots of their struggles and the personal ramifications of those struggles, than in explicating the wider context of feminist history through them.

It is the family and romantic life of these women that Forster emphasizes. Caroline Norton (1808–1877), an Englishwoman and an advocate for women's rights in divorce and property, doted on children whom she was rarely permitted to see, and struggled with her ambivalent feelings for her wife-battering husband. Elizabeth Blackwell (1821–1910), known primarily as the first female doctor in the United States, battled her unruly sensuality, resolutely rejected the one suitor who appealed to her in 1845, and adopted, eleven years later, Kitty Barry “to be of practical assistance … and to be a love object” (78). Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) tried desperately to be a dutiful daughter to the parents she loved, and tortured herself over her rejection of the man she passionately adored. The stories of Emily Davies (1830–1921), founder of Girton College, Cambridge; Josephine Butler (1828–1906), who worked to reform laws dealing with prostitutes in Britain; Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902), American suffragist; Margaret Sanger (1879–1966), birth control advocate; and Emma Goldman (1869–1940), revolutionary—all proceed in much the same way. For each woman Forster reveals the difficulties of supportive or unsupportive parents, lovers, or husbands, and the difficulties of coming to terms with a definition of femininity that their natures strove against.

Women's historians must not make plastic public figurines of prominent women as traditional historians have often made of prominent men. Women's history has, in part, served to legitimize intimate, domestic life and everyday concerns as subjects of study, and to show, as Forster does, that it is at least as much the emotional and private side of life as the public reasoning and posturing that influences action outside the home. The universality of family relationships and tensions also permits identification of the reader with the subject.

According to Forster, “this sense of identification is what the study of feminist history needs to bring to women. Women, as Norton said long ago, believe themselves to be isolated. It is up to feminist history to prove that they are not isolated” (10). Forster reveals that the women of whom she writes—not rigid superheroes beyond the sting of social retribution and emotional blackmail—themselves often felt isolated.

In her efforts to make feminism approachable and even safe to a constituency witnessing a new moral conservatism and individualism in both England and the United States, Forster makes some questionable assertions. Setting aside the absurdity of a claim to cover the “grassroots of active feminism” without more than the briefest mention of women's associations, Forster seems determined to rehabilitate feminism for the New Right at the expense of feminist lesbians. Not only does she portray all of her subjects, sometimes questionably, as energetically heterosexual, she depicts them as bereft of even the supportive sisterhood which Smith-Rosenberg and other historians have described. At most she permits them what by her pen becomes the safely maternal relationships of Blackwell and Davies. Four of the women portrayed, including Blackwell, rejected the label feminist, viewing it as linked not only to a lack of femininity but also to a hatred of men. To Forster, this attitude in itself may seem to make these women worth resurrecting, since so many women today share their feelings toward feminism. Of Goldman, Forster claims approvingly, “what she did not want was true femininity either denied or ignored. There was no place within feminism for any doctrine that dispensed with the need women had for men.” She continues, with obvious distress, “modern feminism, alarmingly, has found a place for that doctrine, but it is as yet a very small place” (5).1

It is important to recognize the fundamental significance of male-female relations for many activist women, but it is equally important to prevent homophobia from returning to haunt and distort respectable historical work. Significant Sisters makes entertaining reading and clearly reveals the feminist significance of these eight women. It should claim no more.


  1. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America,” in Nancy Cott and Elizabeth Pleck (eds.), A Heritage of Her Own: Toward a New Social History of American Women (New York, 1979), 311–342.

Joyce Suellentrop (review date November 1986)

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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 narratives, the lives of the eight English and American women chosen are lives of ambition, risk, concern and accomplishment. Forster, also a novelist, has used her narrative skill to tell the stories of these women who were “born to start things off, to fight for all women” (234). Cautioning the reader that she defines feminism not as one steadily progressing movement but as a philosophy, a way of looking at and thinking of life for all women, Forster presents the women, their individual cause and their individual approach as they acted in eight different spheres. These spheres, spheres in a woman's life where dramatic changes were made from 1839–1939, are the law, the professions, employment, education, sexual morality, politics, birth control and ideology. The domestic sphere is not included, and rightly so, because the changes occurring there were not as clearly defined and there was not a woman who was as clearly identified as an instigator of change.

Interweaving change, the changing life of the woman, the change she caused and the changing thought, provides the connecting structure for each. In addition each woman struggles with first her relationship with men and, as a result, secondly, her own nature. And the conclusions are as unique as the work.

And so each woman's story is told—Caroline Norton, Elizabeth Blackwell, Florence Nightingale, Emily Davies, Josephine Butler, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman. These courageous women acted alone, balancing what was expected of them by family and society, femininity, with what they were compelled to do because of their convictions, feminism. In doing so, they successfully laid the foundation for modern feminism. A good chronicle.

Carole Angier (review date 24 June 1988)

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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: oppressor and oppressed, tyrant and victim. Margaret Forster sets out to show that the truth is more complicated than this mythical fiction.

First she suggests that Edward Barrett was not the monster and despot he has been made out to be. She sketches his youthful exuberance (in building the Barretts' eccentric minareted home, Hope End), his tenderness and approachability as a young father. But this half of her campaign is only a limited success. It is clear that at best, when his wife was alive and his family young, Edward was a benevolent despot; with age, religion and isolation he becomes here as tyrannical a devourer of his children as myth has made him. None of them was to marry, and when they did he disinherited them; his favourite, Elizabeth, he never forgave. Margaret Forster won't change anyone's mind about Edward Barrett; she merely confirms his awfulness.

With the other mythological figure, however, she is completely successful. The legendary Elizabeth Barrett Browning is oppression incarnate: weak, ill and lonely from childhood, until she is miraculously rescued by Prince Charming, Robert Browning. Forster shows that this is almost all wrong, from its smallest detail to its largest meaning.

Elizabeth was the happy, healthy bossy eldest of 11 children until she was 15 years old; she never fell from a horse or had TB; she was the adored, admired favourite of her parents from the beginning. When she did become an invalid it was not so easy to say who suffered and who benefited. Elizabeth didn't choose to become ill, and her sufferings were real. But Margaret Forster makes it very clear that she used her illness. She exploited it—and every other aspect of her imprisonment—to get what she wanted: distinction, leisure, the chance to pursue fame and immortality.

The myth depends on inequality: the all-powerful father, the utterly powerless daughter. That was true in practical terms only. The real truth was far more interesting: two giants fought, equal in determination and deviousness; and in the end the tougher and more ruthless won. Elizabeth Barrett Browning got her fame and immortality—and freedom and a husband too.

Along the way Margaret Forster offers much interesting discussion and investigation. Victorian medicine emerges as the villain of the piece quite as ignorantly cruel as Mr. Barrett. Cupping, leeches, setons, the dreadful spine crib—Elizabeth suffered them all, quite uselessly. In general, medicine seems to have been a respectable way of keeping women down, and not just for Edward Barrett. “From the onset of menstruation, middle class women were encouraged to regard themselves as delicate creatures who must take great care of themselves,” Margaret Forster writes. The prescription for all female illness was total inactivity—which produced the weakness it was designed to cure. “Women quite literally went mad with boredom (and it was boredom which had caused half their problems in the first place).”

What were Elizabeth's illnesses? About the first one, at the age of 15, the mystery remains. The symptoms sound like anxiety, and Margaret Forster suggests periods of anorexia; as she also suggests that Mr. Barrett looked 20 years younger than he was, which was 20 years older than Elizabeth, she makes us wonder whether their love for each other might not be at the root of Elizabeth's troubles in more ways than one.

As to the later, lifelong illness, Forster suggests chronic bronchitis, made lethal by a combination of “cures”—not just inactivity but opium, to which Elizabeth became permanently addicted—and Elizabeth's own hyperintensity and depression.

She also rewrites the myths of Elizabeth's later life, as wife and mother. It's not true, we hear, that she wanted a girl and tried to turn her son, Pen, into one; she merely fought against sex stereotypes 100 years before her time. Robert's ideas were different; but he did not—Margaret Forster insists—“seize his son and brutally cut off his curls” in rebellion or revenge the moment Elizabeth was dead. (No evidence here, though, and I wasn't entirely persuaded. Elizabeth's desire to keep Pen “neuter” until he was 12 sounds pretty sick to me.)

Altogether, then, this reversal of a myth is just as dramatic as the myth itself, and—because it's truer—much more interesting. But there is one problem. I never much liked the Elizabeth Barrett Browning of legend: she was such a wimp, and (except in the moment of flight) really rather dull. It's easier to pity the real woman: to see how crippled she was by insecurity, illness, the long battle with her father. But, alas, it's no easier to like her.

Margaret Forster tries very hard to find her good points and praise them—her sensitivity, her care for the oppressed, her selflessness towards Robert in the last years. And she bravely and fully explores all the bad ones. Elizabeth reduced herself to a quivering wreck by her imaginative empathy with others, but faced with a real suffering person she could rarely produce a kind word. She preached and pontificated a theoretical republicanism, but treated her own most loyal servants with autocratic lack of compassion. She spoiled her dog and her son ludicrously; anything she identified with was perfect, and to be perfectly loved. She wouldn't let Robert help or nurse anyone but her; she had to come first, always. At the end, with her sister Arabel and her niece Mary, she became as great a bully and tyrant as her father.

At least she knew it, Forster says. But is that good enough? No. I came away from this biography disliking its subject, and guessing that Margaret Forster dislikes her too. Does she like her? Does she even like her poetry, a new edition of which—Selected Poems, Chatto & Windus—she edits? She misreads one poem (A Man's Requirements), possibly two. I have an uncomfortable feeling that the answer may be no.

Elizabeth Berridge (review date 23 July 1988)

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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 few poems.

Previous biographers, notably Alethea Hayter, Dorothy Hewlett and Gardner Taplin, went some way to setting the record straight; as did the re-publication of Aurora Leigh by the Women's Press in 1978, and a recent reassessment of her work by Angela Leighton.

In Elizabeth Barrett Browning Margaret Forster goes further. She has drawn together information from sources discovered in the last three decades, and skilfully adjusted many perspectives. Elizabeth Barrett Browning is first seen in her family background as a complex, high-spirited child, soon to become a courageous woman of near-genius: a woman mercifully with a sense of humour and not without faults.

Miss Forster pays tribute—as do all Browning scholars now limbering up for the R. B. centenary next year—to the obsession of one man, Philip Kelley, of Baylor University, Texas, who set up his own press in order to publish all known and unknown Browning correspondence. To date, five volumes have appeared in addition to Elizabeth's letters to friends, and the early diary she kept for a year at Hope End: all with impeccable notes.

Elizabeth (as Miss Forster sensibly chooses to call her) was an inveterate letter-writer. Conversation tired her, and ‘talk on paper’ was a necessary distraction for a frequently house-bound, clever woman of sensibility and wit bursting with lively ideas and literary ambition. From an early age she learned to husband her physical resources; when her mother died, she pleaded fatigue and handed over the running of the house to her sisters. Later she was to tell Robert that she had never ordered dinner in her life; indeed, it was only when she was in her forties and her maid Wilson was ill, that she arranged her own hair and dressed herself. But she never used ill-health to prevent Robert socialising in Rome or Florence, urging him to go out and bring back the latest literary and political gossip. It is evident from Casa Guidi Windows that she relished her role as spectator of history in the making.

While there are no startling revelations in these 400 pages, one legend is exploded. Elizabeth was never seriously considered for the Poet Laureateship in 1850. In fact, the Athenaeum was campaigning—not too seriously—for the abolition of what it called ‘an offensive title,’ so meaningless that any poet would do. Her name was mentioned along with the ironic remark that if she were elected ‘it would in a manner recompense two poets by a single act.’ A telling comment, for the Brownings cannot easily be assessed apart, as Betty Miller with some insight illustrated in her controversial Robert Browning: A Portrait.

What Margaret Forster emphasises is the success of the marriage, and Robert's unselfish care. That two writers could live in such close proximity and still allow each other space is what interests her, and she makes the point well, recreating ‘the happy winter’ of 1853 in Florence, when they rose early and worked in separate rooms—Elizabeth busy with Aurora Leigh and Robert working on Men and Women. ‘An artist must make a solitude to work in, if it is to be good work at all,’ she wrote. They were lucky. Despite their small income there was always someone to take care of Penini and ensure their privacy. The birth of a son, to a delicate woman of 43 with an opium habit, had been a miracle and put the seal on family life.

Elizabeth's physical courage in the face of ill-health was allied to her moral strength. She hated injustice and spoke up for women she admired; accepted sexual deviancy. Yet she was no feminist. What she wanted was recognition that a woman was as capable of a vocation as a man and should be regarded as a writer or poet without condescension or special pleading. ‘Womanliness,’ she asserted, ‘whether in life or poetry, is a positive thing and not the negative of manliness.’

They genuinely admired each other's work and Elizabeth was never in doubt that Robert was the better poet. She was shaken and angered by the poor reception of his Men and Women. Popularity can be a matter of luck and timing, and Browning had the misfortune to publish in the middle of the Crimean war, when it was Tennyson who hit the jackpot with the heroics of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade.’ In 1856, however, the war was over and people ready to buy books and be uplifted in an entertaining manner. Elizabeth, with Aurora Leigh, had her finger on the public pulse.

Her own poetry has, with the exception of Aurora Leigh—that astonishing, febrile hybrid—been neglected, and a long overdue and welcome selection Selected Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning is published alongside this biography, inviting a reassessment of such anti-male digs as ‘Lord Walter's Lady,’ which so outraged Thackeray that he refused it for the respectable Cornhill.

Alas, for me, ‘Lady Geraldine's Courtship,’ which so enthralled contemporary readers, earns its inclusion in The Stuffed Owl (see a fragment entitled Snoblesse Oblige). But there are rich pickings. Here again is Pan, ‘making a poet out of a man, down in the reeds by the river.’ Perfect, concise imagery. What better summing-up, in fact, of Elizabeth's personal struggle and those 15 hard-working, celebratory years of a fulfilling marriage?

Nancy W. Ellenberger (review 19 February 1989)

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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 modern reader can find good reasons for keeping the works of these authors together. Each of these contemporaries published at least one classic of English literature. In addition they were all three fated to live private lives of such extraordinary interest that personal biography has long rivaled literary achievement as a source of their renown.

Certainly this has proved the case with Mary Shelley. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley (1797–1851) was the daughter of two prominent radical intellectuals of the French Revolutionary era—her mother, who died when Mary was born, wrote the important feminist tract A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. When she was 16 Mary eloped to the continent with Percy Bysshe Shelley. It was a scandalous adolescent liaison only partially rectified when the suicide of Shelley's wife allowed the couple to wed. At 19 Mary published her most famous work, Frankenstein. The book achieved instant success and would have made her fortune had modern laws on copyright existed. For the next several years Mary lived in an emotionally tangled enclave of expatriate literati who flocked around the sensitive, iconoclastic Percy. This troubled period, during which three of her young children died in her presence, ended abruptly when Mary was 24. Her husband's accidental drowning left her with little money, a son and father who needed her support, and an ineradicable cloud over her reputation. Though her later efforts never won the fame of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley supported herself through her writing for much of her life. Modern feminists have found her work contains important critiques of the patriarchal values implicit in both romanticism and modern science.

In some respects the lives of Mary Shelley and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861) contain eerie similarities. Like Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Barrett forfeited her father's affection when she eloped with a poet, lost a loved one (her favorite brother) through drowning, spent most of her married life in Italy, and saw only one child survive from several tragic pregnancies. The contrasts are instructive however. Elizabeth's marriage occurred when she was 40 and intellectually, if not emotionally, self-confident. Moreover her husband was six years younger—not five years older—than she, and throughout the 15 years of this extremely happy union, it was Robert Browning whose work assumed second place as he shouldered the burdens of household management. Equally important, a small private inheritance ensured that Browning's financial position was secure. At no time did the need to accept uncongenial employment or hack writing assignments distract from her concentration on her art. In this context of leisure and private well-being Browning penned her poetic condemnations of male egotism and domination.

Though she, like Elizabeth Barrett, married late and with her fame established, Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855) experienced no event so dramatic as an elopement. Indeed her marriage to her father's curate lasted less than a year before Charlotte died of complications relating to pregnancy. What struck her contemporaries was rather the extreme harshness, monotony and isolation of her life on the Yorkshire moors. Elizabeth Barrett's decades of invalidism and seclusion were spent in the heart of literary London. Brontë had no such wider cultural horizon outside her door. The passionate and defiant heroines of her novels revealed the inner anguish of thousands of sensitive middle-class women whose options ranged the short gamut from marriage or teaching to life-long dependence on a father's support.

Informed by the perspectives of modern feminism, the new biographies of these remarkable authors seek to juxtapose their intellectual achievements with the grim realities of life for women of their class and generation. It is indeed a pity that the three never met or, it seems, corresponded, for their reactions to the similar broad influences and constraints that shaped their lives ring like changes throughout these narratives.

The most obvious of the common conditions they faced was the overwhelming dependence of women on the nuclear family. At the most basic level we see the power of the three terrible and impressive fathers, all of whom outlived their wives by many years. These men must be credited with encouraging their daughters' intellectual interests to an unusual degree. At the same time they placed demands for obedience and emotional support so extreme that they could only have been accounted a natural right of the pater familias.

The importance of siblings for peer support and approval is also clear. For more than 30 years Elizabeth Barrett's brothers and sisters provided her only social respite from a world of dreams and thought. For Charlotte Brontë, Emily, Anne and the flamboyant Branwell, before their tragic deaths in 1848–49, offered intimacy and intellectual stimulation she found nowhere else. Mary Shelley's situation provides a poignant contrast. Raised amid step-relations with whom she was not close, she seems to have spent her life seeking that sense of domestic place—whatever its accompanying drawbacks—that Browning and Brontë enjoyed first in their homes and later with their husbands.

The three authors also demonstrate the attractions and the dangers, for women especially, of that cluster of ideas and impulses known as Romanticism. The ideals of the Romantic movement legitimized their passion, intensity and belief in the truth-revealing powers of the artist. In this sense its enthusiasm and search for higher causes were liberating. But over time it became clear that the solitary Byronic hero they idolized was often a self-indulgent male whose subordination of human relationships to intense abstractions hurt the people closest to him. All three came to embrace the value of self-sacrifice and duty to family members, though within the context of an egalitarian marriage that distributed opportunities and obligations more equitably between the spouses.

Finally one cannot help being struck by an ironic contradiction in the achievements of these best-selling authors. For all the constraints placed upon them, they did find publishers, readers and reviewers; they made money; they became famous. If anything, their lives demonstrate the wonderful vitality of early-Victorian London, and the opportunities that expansion of a literate public opened to both sexes. On the other hand, there has always been a tendency to appreciate their work primarily as “women's literature,” at its best when, as in Jane Eyre or the love sonnets to Robert Browning, it spoke of the private, emotional world of their sex. (Where this emphasis was impossible, with Frankenstein, Mary Shelley's authorship was discounted and Percy given credit for the book's inspiration.) Only now is it becoming accepted that their descriptions of women's lives contained far-ranging critiques of the political and economic apparatus of bourgeois society.

All of these biographers express the hope that their books will reawaken interest in their subject's work. In this they are not uniformly successful. Elizabeth Barrett Browning is the least well-served. Margaret Forster's biography Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a sprightly account of the poet's personal life, constructed from her massive private correspondence. There are interesting discussions of her invalidism, her opium use, her sometimes enlightened child-rearing techniques and her less enlightened treatment of the unfortunate servant Wilson. The account of the Brownings' courtship and escape from Wimpole Street is genuinely gripping. Lost, however, is Browning's poetry—which is hardly quoted—and most of her intellectual world. It becomes very difficult to appreciate that Browning was a woman of wit, learning and perception, or that she could have created verse that influenced Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath.

Emily Sunstein's Mary Shelley is more ambitious. Solidly researched in journals and letters, it discusses Shelley's work and her life and ends with a wonderful essay detailing the history of Mary's reputation since her death. Sunstein is not always convincing in her depiction of this complicated personality. Her argument that Shelley's was a mature and well-integrated character constructed in the face of extremely adverse circumstance begs important questions about Mary's elitism, her long periods of depression, and the emotional demands she made upon her friends. Nevertheless, the study is more than intriguing enough to incite a run on copies of Frankenstein and The Last Man.

Rebecca Fraser's The Brontës is the most successful of these books, in part because Fraser has taken pains to integrate the massive amount of biographical and critical work done on the Brontës over the past decades. Fraser is particularly good at recreating the physical and emotional ambiance of Charlotte's different worlds: the parsonage, the school for girls in Brussels, the London publishing scene. Packed with digressions into the lives of the people closest to Brontë, the narrative is nonetheless tightly constructed and full of information that allows us to approach her novels with new insight and appreciation.

Anita Brookner (review date 18 March 1989)

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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 house for Bridget, on whom the main burden falls. Jenny and Hannah take turns in helping out, when Bridget is on duty (she is a nurse) or when she is engaged in one of her transient love affairs, or, more important, when the helpers, Lola and Susan and Mildred and later Mary, are held up. Luckily Charlie is rich, which is just as well since he calculates that providing all this support over the past five years has cost him in the region of £140,000. And the support is not even adequate, for Grandma needs to be watched 24 hours a day, fed, changed, taken to the chiropodist, and assessed by the geriatrician. She is a nice little earner for someone who can tolerate all this, such as Susan, who is also a childminder and sometimes takes a couple of her charges along with her, anchoring their push-chair in the middle of Grandma's kitchen, where Grandma can, and does, fall over it.

They are a loving family, or are they? The problem of Grandma imposes such a burden on them that they can never think of anything else. Who, in their position, could do otherwise? The one thing they never fail in is their duty, although there comes a time when the dreaded solution of a Home must be considered. This they resist. Unfortunately, senility has not improved Mrs. McKay's character or demeanour. She no longer makes sense, wanders out into the road in her nightgown, animadverts, in meaningless sentences, against everyone, recognises no one, and enquiries, from time to time, whether the men have had enough. It is, in fact, the women who have had enough, too much, in fact, as Jenny, Bridget and Hannah constantly pound along the road to feed Grandma, change her or pick her up when she falls out of bed. Charlie pays and Stuart stays out of it.

Stuart is the only one not afflicted by guilt. He loved his mother once, he says, but has not done so recently. He is all for putting her in a Home, and Charlie is forced to agree with him. But here a new problem arises: where to find a Home for such a Grandma? Most Homes will not take the senile incontinent. The only place for people such as Grandma is the psychogeriatric ward of the local hospital, if there is room. The last resort is the insane asylum, although they are not called that anymore. But that is what they are. That is where people like Grandma are allowed to die, and are not badly looked after either, provided they are too far gone to notice the blaring television, the patients clipped into their chairs, the second-hand clothing, and the smell of urine. That is where Grandma catches her fatal and beneficent pneumonia and dies, just as loving Bridget plans to bring her home, where she might last another decade.

But Grandma does not die until every permutation has been wrung out of the situation: the helpers who come and go, unable to face up to the problem that Grandma has become, the farce of family meals at which most of Grandma's food goes astray, the utter disruption of normal life, and the distorted vision of Grandma as kindly, loving, responsive and endearing. Grandma was not even very nice when she was well; now she is dirty, animated, and totally devoid of reason. What happens in old age is not childishness—the myth of second childhood is relatively benign. What happens is complete loss of everything that could once be considered lovable. And there is no guarantee that this is not recognised in lucid moments by the sufferer. What else can account for that occasional look of bewilderment, the look that undermines every rational decision taken by those nearly broken by the task of ministering to a body deserted by a mind that has become empty of all that it once contained?

Margaret Forster has written an extremely skilful and angry novel, and one which, although beautifully written, is not easy to read. She has touched on this theme before, in The Seduction of Mrs. Pendlebury, which dealt with it in rather more pathetic terms and with extraordinary insight. There is not an ounce of pathos in Have the Men Had Enough?, which carries a warning about the way we live now. If no one is prepared, or indeed able, to look after the senile elderly, how shall we ensure that they receive care at the end? Opportunistic nursing homes abound, and not much is done about them; social services are underfunded; day centres fear too much disruption. And the old do not cooperate. Grandma insists on going home and does not recognise home when she gets there.

The punishing narrative, which carries one helplessly and unwillingly along, veers cleverly into fiction in the last couple of chapters. Bridget, voluble and devoted, has quite clearly inherited many of her mother's characteristics. Swearing eternal love, yet staying away from the hospital in which her mother is dying, Bridget is half mad herself and likely to go the whole distance in due course. What then does Jenny, the daughter-in-law and thus preserved from the hereditary taint, do if she does not want to undergo the same martyrdom when she herself is old? For it is Margaret Forster's contention that the women shoulder the burden, while the men write the cheques. Hence the satirical edge to the question that forms the title. One can only applaud the author's indignation, and hope that it will not go unnoticed and unrewarded.

Anne Duchêne (review date 24–30 March 1989)

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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 very loyal, gentle but fiercely tenacious activism.

Grandma—who at first, though inclined to use her false teeth as a spoon, maintains intermittent shreds of Glaswegian identity, and can still home in on her Burns or her Scott—is cared for by her family, mainly by her daughter Bridget, an unmarried nurse in her forties, and by her daughter-in-law, Jenny. They are the ones who deal with the feeding, dressing and undressing, and, in the next phase, the incontinence and increasing wildness. They also shore up the ramshackle defences of paid workers to sit with Grandma, on day and night shifts. Hannah, Jenny's daughter, aged seventeen, helps a little too.

Charlie, Jenny's husband, is the one who pays the bills. Stuart, Charlie's brother, accepts no part in these arrangements: he stopped loving his mother when they could no longer recognize each other. He thinks she should be “put away.” Adrian, Hannah's brother, sometimes spends half an hour with Grandma, for a laugh, until laughter becomes impossible.

The title indicates a degree of unreproachful feminism. It is “woman's work”—as the men think and often say, and the women acknowledge—to deal with domestic life; to nurture relationships; and to clean up messes. That is the way things are. “Have the men had enough?” is Grandma's own invariable response when offered food or drink. It comes from the days when she was raising her own menfolk, against heavy odds. She still expects “men,” even when she cannot remember who they are, to be large and rough and greedy, and enjoys that. And it is easier for Bridget to declare total commitment to her mother, as Jenny notes, because she has no husband or family to be threatened by the disturbance.

Jenny and Hannah take up the narration alternately, and chart the family's descent from tolerant if tight-lipped exasperation through appalled disaste and so to the bedrock of exhaustion, shame and decision. Jenny's testimony is lucid, her reporting implacably exact. Hannah watches with a young and tender eye the shifts and shiftiness to which the family is reduced, and is the first to use the word “cruel.” She interpolates her countless, circular conversations with her grandmother; also those moments of silence when she sometimes sees, behind Grandma's eyes, the woman who used to be there.

The lightness of touch in Forster's writing, which sometimes in the past has verged on levity, here makes a sombre story palatable; no doubt the novel will, as she hopes, reach a wider public than her private testimony would do, and the pill is sweetened, to encourage rumination. It is a work of grace and charity, not so much angry as appalled—less a roman à thèse, as it were, than a roman à dilemme. What is to be done about this steadily increasing problem which nobody ever mentions and which it behoves us all to contemplate? Perhaps this book may nudge the question a little closer to the public domain.

Merle Rubin (review date 9 June 1989)

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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 older than Tennyson—Elizabeth Barrett Browning was determined from childhood to become a great poet: a “female Homer,” as she hoped. Mermin points out that Christina Rossetti's medievalizing ballads, Arthur Hugh Clough's verse novel, Algernon Charles Swinburne's poems of the Italian Risorgimento, were all anticipated in her works.

During her own lifetime and for some decades to come, Barrett Browning's reputation reached heights it later seemed unlikely to regain. John Ruskin proclaimed her verse novel Aurora Leigh the greatest poem of the century. Swinburne, equally enraptured, declared: “It is one of the longest poems in the world, and there is not a dead line in it.” In America, Barrett Browning was, if anything, more widely esteemed, with admirers as distinguished as Emily Dickinson and Henry James.

But even at the height of Victorian enthusiasm, there were detractors like Edward FitzGerald, whose ill-considered remark in a letter to a friend—“Mrs. Browning's death is rather a relief … no more ‘Aurora Leighs,’ thank God!” (published 27 years later, when FitzGerald, too, was dead) triggered Robert Browning's white-hot verse riposte ending, “Surely to spit there glorifies your face— / Spitting from lips once sanctified by hers.”

Her reputation declined sharply in this century—despite the enduring popularity of her “Sonnets from the Portuguese” and the approbation of so astute a critical mind as Virginia Woolf, who in 1931 (70 years after Barrett Browning's death) urged a reconsideration that was not to take place until the feminist revisions of the 1970s and '80s. The decline in Barrett Browning's standing can be traced to a variety of factors, from the Paterian-Wildean aestheticism that devalued Victorian moralism to the Modernism that shunned Victorian prolixity and shuddered at Victorian sentimentality. Irony, concentrated imagery, discontinuity, were in. Earnestness, “poetic” diction, and preachiness were out, leaving little in her poems to appeal to modern tastes.

Feminist circles attribute the Modernist elevation of the hard, lean, and tough to a “masculinist” reaction against the rising tide of feminism. Whether we choose to reevaluate our literary values or merely to try to look beyond them in order to understand those of another time and place, some kind of adjustment is necessary if we are to appreciate Barrett Browning's work.

Mermin concedes that many of the poems are embarrassing. But this embarrassment cannot always be explained away as easily as she might wish. The literal-mindedness that made even the best Victorian poets inferior to their Romantic precursors afflicted Barrett Browning to a greater degree. While Tennyson, Robert Browning, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Matthew Arnold express a struggle for religious faith or poetic vision, Barrett Browning—as Mermin admits—seems to affirm her beliefs rather than achieve them. Still, by locating these poems within the Victorian context, Mermin's sensitive and engaging study highlights what was new—even daring—about a woman acting as the subject rather than the object of love sonnets, or venturing, as Barrett Browning also did, into the masculine realm of political discourse.

In contrast to Mermin, who uses the poet's life only as background to her poems, Margaret Forster's biography [Elizabeth Barrett Browning] pays relatively slight attention to the poetry. This is a defensible approach, because Barrett Browning's greatest legacy may well have been to offer a role model. By her life and work, she triumphantly proved that a woman could be a serious poet (as distinguished from a versifying “lady” amateur) without sacrificing love, marriage, and motherhood. Indeed, the Brownings' courtship attained the status of a modern legend.

Forster, a London-based novelist and biographer (her credits include Georgy Girl and Memoirs of a Victorian Gentleman: William Makepeace Thackeray), draws on newly available letters and diaries to revise the legend without tarnishing it.

The Elizabeth Barrett who emerges here is no passive victim of paternal tyranny, but a brilliant, strong-minded young woman who at least partly connives at her own “imprisonment” to escape from tedious social obligations and immerse herself in her studies.

Forster also differs from Freudian scholars (like Robert Browning's biographer Betty Miller) in depicting the Barrett-Browning marriage as a resounding success. She does not minimize Elizabeth's foibles (a penchant for séances, a foolish idolatry of Napoleon III, a propensity for spoiling her son), and she even exposes her hypocrisy in championing the cause of unwed mothers in Aurora Leigh, while doing little to help her own loyal servant who became pregnant.

This life of Barrett Browning succeeds in transforming the pallid Victorian versifier into a resilient, touching, and believable human being.

Mermin and Forster take different approaches. They even disagree as to some of the facts. But both books should go a long way toward winning at least a second reading for Barrett Browning's work. Aurora Leigh, if not the great poem Swinburne and Ruskin believed it to be, is a surprisingly engrossing verse novel. Insight, passion, and trenchant observation can be found in poems like “A Curse for a Nation,” “Bianca among the Nightingales,” and “A Musical Instrument.”

No amount of feminist revisionism is likely to advance Elizabeth Barrett Browning into the front rank of Victorian poets or of women poets. But revisions such as these enable us to see Barrett Browning as a woman of considerable gifts engaged in—if not entirely succeeding at—a large-scale venture in poetry.

Nicola Beauman (review date 7 July 1990)

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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 from 1844 when she came from Newcastle to be Elizabeth Barrett Browning's maid at 50 Wimpole Street until 1861 when her mistress died. Some details have long been known from the Browning letters: Wilson's ‘honest, true and affectionate heart,’ her cheerful adaptation to life at Casa Guidi. Then, in her 1988 biography of Elizabeth, Margaret Forster elaborated on Wilson's marriage to the Brownings' man-servant Romagnoli, on Elizabeth's meanness about paying her more than 16 guineas a year and, saddest of all, on the Brownings' prudish refusal to allow Wilson's son Oreste to live in Italy.

Now, in a highly original attempt to demolish the wall between fiction and biography, Margaret Forster has drawn on her experience as a novelist, as a biographer, as a feminist historian and as author of Thackeray's ‘autobiography’ to write a novel where the parameters are real events and real people. Wilson's long, very long, letters, home, her endless thoughts (she seems to have a great deal of time to think) and far-from-brief conversations with other people are all ‘made up’; points of fact are (presumably) not.

The drawback is that Wilson is a maid. Unlike Nerissa or Emilia she is a passive onlooker who has no significant role in the rather familiar story of the Barretts of Wimpole Street. Of course one feels compassion when, after 534 pages, she thinks ‘never again would she tie her life to another person in quite that way but would seek to stand on her own more truly than had ever been possible'—she had, after all, to earn her living. But I could not help remembering Henry James's remarks (in his preface to The Portrait of a Lady) about the process whereby a ‘slight “personality”’ becomes ‘endowed with the high attributes of a Subject.’ There is a good reason why biography is about a Subject not a subject—the former is far more interesting.

Of course, as ‘subjects’ lack ‘papers’ they are not often written about and Lady's Maid is a wholly admirable attempt at feminist revisionism.

As Nicholas Mosley observed in his life of Julian Grenfell:

[Servants] existed as a sort of ghostly sub-world like that of atomic particles; their existence was recognised, but easily ignored. Ettie [Grenfell] for instance would have seldom dressed or travelled without her lady's maid; she would probably have spent more time morning and evening with her then anyone else; yet in all Ettie's extant letters there is only one mention of her lady's maid … (my italics)

Because Mrs. Browning mentioned her maid so often the letters are the source of almost all that is known about her; this is Wilson's story without the Browning filter.

Yet, like a phone-in programme, ordinary life ought to be interesting but so rarely is. When Wilson thinks that ‘what was even harder to accept was the measure of boredom [she] experienced each day’ the reader feels quite as bored as she does and probably more. Dailiness palls and in literature needs wit to convey it (The Diary of a Nobody, of a Provincial Lady).

Wilson is meant to think, write and speak like a maid, albeit an unusually intelligent and kindly one, because otherwise the novel would be implausible. So the style must be a maid's style—she thinks things out slowly and carefully, she knows that ‘something was up,’ that someone is ‘nothing if not correct,’ that it was ‘galling to her to observe his change in demeanour.’ These are the clichés of a maid's outlook, but their cumulative effect is leaden.

Nor is there any sensuous, physical description. I turned for contrast to Richard Holmes's Shelley where, in a page, he magnificently evokes early 19th-century Pisa; for Wilson, apparently, Pisa was not so different from Newcastle. And Margaret Forster's strengths as a novelist (cf. her brilliant Have the Men Had Enough?) have been ill-served by the form of a blockbuster without its liveliness.

In the 115 pages of Flush, Virginia Woolf used her light fantastical imagination to evoke the Brownings' life through a dog's eyes. When jealous, he was able to take part in the action by sinking his teeth into Robert's shin; Wilson, passively, ‘found the eagerness, the open hunger, with which Miss Elizabeth now waited for Mr. Browning almost unbearable.’ (Later on, when she has her own lover, she too feels hungry rather a lot.)

I think Virginia Woolf was probably right when she wrote that, although there can have been no lack of thoughts in the aging Wilson's head, nevertheless ‘nothing can be more vain than to pretend that we can guess what they were, for she was typical of the great army of her kind—the inscrutable, the all-but-silent, the all-but-invisible servant maids of history.’

Barbara Hardy (review date 20–26 July 1990)

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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 is a letter-writer, countering her employers' epistolary brilliance, and making a notation for her consciousness. Her style is a kind of compromise between standard and vernacular, veering towards a fluid conversational prose, with no pronounced solecisms. If it's not a patch on the intelligent, individual, and clearly uneducated writing of a Joan Durbeyfield or a Michael Henchard, it's a sensitive and sufficiently plausible language for innocence and experience. (The novel has some anachronisms, like “a nonsense” and “wishful thinking.”) The servant's story is thoroughly imagined, socially illustrative and psychologically individual. The narrative structure, a hybrid of the old and the new, is ingenious. We may see it spinning substance and continuity out of the brief mentions in the letters, but if we don't remember Wilson's appearances, there is the pleasurable play of expecting the famous crises and climaxes, courtship, marriage, birth and death, and finding them dramatized in the maid's version.

Wilson's own story is movingly told, as she achieves self-expression, makes choices, and asserts herself, in circumstances which inhibit utterance and freedom. She makes a timid entry to the household and to London, grows in knowledge and skills, makes friends, finds lovers, and formulates her attitudes to experience. Her pleasures, losses, and disappointments in love are complicated and excellently understated, imagined as a contrast to the grand passions she has to serve. And it is a political story, showing some of the humiliations of service, for employer as well as servant. The Brownings emerge as a little more ungenerous, callous, authoritarian and self-centred than they do in the correspondence. They are also seen as capable of generosity, sensitivity, and some measure of friendship, but the narrative displacement tips the balance in the servant's favour as far as the reader's sympathy is concerned. Such experimental investigation of the employee's point of view would condemn other great and good Victorians; George Eliot might come out worse: she wrote an obnoxious essay joking about “Servants' Logic.” But there is no doubt that Wilson is the author's pet, and the sense of favouritism softens the political analysis.

The poets' creativity is conspicuously absent, as again we might expect. Masters and mistresses are not geniuses to their servants, apart from Lord Peter Wimsey. But at an early stage Wilson does read Elizabeth's poems, and comments on her cleverness, suggesting that she wishes to learn from the learning. Nothing develops from this, which seems a pity, especially as Wilson's acclimatization to Italy, based on solid evidence, shows her abilities. Margaret Forster's useful afterword, instancing some of the facts and fictions, hints at a sequel. Perhaps Wilson will become a Browning reader.

Deirdre David (review date Autumn 1990)

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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 poem, Romney later learns the error of his patriarchal ways and in the world of Victorian publishing, Aurora Leigh established Barrett Browning as a phenomenally successful author: the first edition sold out in a week and the second in a month. Moreover, recent feminist examination of Barrett Browning's career has persuasively argued for a Victorian woman intellectual whose capacious mind ranged far beyond Wimpole Street to “hold” and to “influence” the wider social and political scene. Three of the four books under review may be said to continue the implicit rebuttal of Romney Leigh's misogynistic dismissal of woman's work.

Margaret Forster has produced an exemplary biography Elizabeth Barrett Browning, eminently readable and packed with fascinating detail. Dividing (inevitably) Barrett Browning's life into pre-Robert and post-Robert, Forster relies extensively and usefully upon the various editions of letters which have appeared since Gardner Taplin's standard biography was published in 1957 (The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning). What emerges is a two-fold revision: the despot of Wimpole Street, Edward Barrett Moulton-Barrett, is rehabilitated to emerge as a fiercely loving, if obsessive, father, and his daughter, the delicate recluse, is redrawn to appear as a neurotic, self-willed girl who dramatized unexceptional adolescent female malaise into a self-imposed confinement of almost twenty years.

According to Forster, while still in the country as a young woman, Elizabeth Barrett “relished the peace of her own room at the top of the house and the long, lazy mornings when she stayed in bed reading and writing” (39). With the move to London, this mode of life became routine: a bed-sitting room was set aside for her in the Wimpole Street house, her brothers and sisters paid regular visits, Miss Mitford provided the adored Flush, and until a May Tuesday in 1845, Elizabeth Barrett thought about little else except “reading and writing.” Her father, consciously or not, abetted her reclusion and indulged her whims, assured in this way of her continued acquiesence in his domestic tyranny. As we know, Robert Browning changed all that and what could have proved a problem for Forster (a love-story immortalized on stage, screen, and Hallmark greeting cards) becomes genuinely moving, the clear-eyed narrative of two poets who “shared a love extremely rare” (371).

Part of the pleasure of Forster's book resides in the sort of thing one always wants in biography: small telling details of a lived existence. We learn, for example, that when she left for Europe with Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett secreted at the bottom of her one piece of luggage the forty-three sonnets she had written to him during their courtship; once in Italy, she lived primarily on food from trattorie, relishing garlicky chicken and chianti after twenty years of invalid food; in Paris, she bought (what else?) a maroon satin and velvet hat trimmed with purple flowers because Robert liked the color. Less comfortably, we learn that she suffered three miscarriages, one so awful the doctor had to pack her body in ice to stop the hemorrhaging; and we also learn that she selfishly exploited her underpaid and overworked maid, Wilson, whose loyalty was repaid by dismissal of her difficulty in managing the indulged Pen, and whose heart-rending experience of sending her own baby back to England was caused by Elizabeth's refusal to have him in the Browning household. In sum, Forster's fair-minded, never sensational approach reveals an immensely intelligent and difficult woman—wife, mother, major Victorian poet—whose will to influence the world through poetry prevailed over uncontrollable and self-created obstacles.

Jan Dalley (review date 10 May 1991)

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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 reasons of her own sexual preference—who is black. Isobel's pleas, threats and dire warnings make no difference, and she herself becomes intimately involved, from the moment when she measures the drops of pregnancy-testing solution into a test-tube, to the day, some six years later, when she stands as sole witness at Rowena's cremation.

After Rowena's death, it become clear that she has made no guardianship arrangements for Christabel. The little girl's grandmother, a redoubtable ex-magistrate of the Edinburgh bourgeoisie, now aged seventy-five and living in old people's sheltered housing, cannot take on the child. Rowena's sister, Camilla, a widow whose own daughter has grown up and left home, has built up a flourishing international career as a flautist.

It is Isobel whom Rowena had repeatedly asked to take on the child, if anything happened—but even before the child's conception Isobel always and emphatically said no. She is single, and likes it that way; her job as an interpreter involves travel and irregular hours; she has positively rejected motherhood for herself. Is she to give up everything in her own life, just for her friend's whimsical piece of breeding?

What Margaret Forster has set out here is a genuine old-fashioned, moral dilemma of duty and pity at war with self-preservation. It is constructed with a deft touch, the details honed to fashion a jousting-ground for the forces of class, race, family, loyalty and all the other issues. What happens (Forster tells us the end at the beginning, so as to interest us in the process rather than the outcome) is that Christabel's aunt and grandmother decide to have her adopted, their dream being some nice middle-class family whom they could visit when they chose. The ensuing bureaucratic charivari of social workers, foster-mothers, prospective adoptive families is as full of savage ironies as one might expect. The other thing one might expect (in fiction, if not in life) also happens: Isobel grows to love Christabel and wants to adopt her, aided by the dependable, lovable Fergus. They marry, they fight for Christabel, and they lose—the court awards her to a mixed-race couple who have never even met the child.

Motherhood, in this book, is taken out, held up to the light and given a vigorous shaking. There was scatty Rowena, as greedy for a baby as a child for a special toy, but licensed for all because she was a natural, a “real” mother. There is Betty, the foster-mother whose tasteless home and ghastly grammar immediately alienate her from Rowena's family (and the reader); her husband is unemployed, and in a sense she “sells” mothering, her only commodity. She also gives sad and deserted children devoted care, even love. And there are Rowena's mother and aunt, who were mothers but didn't like it. Betty's view of these women—that she would rather live in a cardboard box than give away her own granddaughter or niece—evokes not only emotional but class reflections: is their attitude to mothering something to do with the fact that these women are flautists and interpreters, not housewives?

Questions like these are made to sound throughout this intelligent and well-made book. But it is hardly a novel at all. Margaret Forster is so fair, so thoughtful, so thorough, that it seems as if she has had deliberately to introduce some bias (caricatured social workers, cultural snobbery, irrational emotions all round) in order to save any sense of a story: her narrative is always perilously close to a case-study. Its themes and issues protrude spikily through the thinnish fictional upholstery, but—novel or not—it is a book with impact. As well as proving that the law is an ass and prevailing mores a worse beast, it will have most parents checking their wills before a hundred pages are up.

Anita Brookner (review date 11 May 1991)

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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 situation in which balance and satire are called for, never more so than because much of the anger is directed against social workers. This will give the novel additional topicality—indeed, everything in it is topical—yet at no point is it suggested that social workers are strangled by their terms of reference. A rigorous overhaul of the syllabus is required, yet no one seems to request this. Nor does it seem entirely fair to criticise their manners and physical appearance, although to judge from recent television interviews this does seem to be bizarrely uniform: can we blame the Zeitgeist of the 1970s? There is never any doubt that Margaret Forster could trounce the lot of them. Her scorn and her superior standards of truth-telling militate against the action of her story. Semantics may have something to do with it: jargon will never win adherents.

She encourages us to feel indignant on her behalf, or rather on behalf of her narrator, Isobel, yet this was something I was unable to do, although fully sympathising with her predicament. Isobel is an explosively critical character, much burdened by the disastrous nature of her friend and flatmate, Rowena. Rowena might need an entire social-work team of her own; unfortunately, no one got there in time. Rowena has charm. She is also feckless, dirty, untidy, unemployable, promiscuous, stupid, and tearful; all her lovers are black. When Rowena decides to become a single parent, Isobel is furious, as who would not be? Yet she consents to be present at the birth, surely a curious decision, and when Rowena is killed, agrees to take the child, Christabel, into her keeping. Or so she thinks.

The first flaw in Margaret Forster's argument is already apparent. Why would anyone, let alone a prig like Isobel, share a flat with a mess like Rowena? Given that some women are physically addicted to the prospect of becoming mothers, why does Rowena so hate men that she dismisses them the minute they have satisfied her requirements? There are very few men in this novel—I counted three—and they are frail, wordless creatures, no match for the energumens with whom fate has linked them. All the women, except Rowena, are furious and verbose; one imagines them to be indomitable, but this in fact is not the case.

When Rowena dies Christabel's grandmother makes the child a ward of court, since she is too old to look after her herself. Then the action begins, and, one might add, the thesis is launched. Because the grandmother decides that Christabel should be adopted she comes under the jurisdiction of the Social Services and eventually the Adoption Panel, with noisy Isobel taking charge. Christabel, a bright child, is removed from Isobel and given to Betty, a foster-mother approved by the council. Betty is a decent enough woman, but she is virtually illiterate, defiantly lower-class, and in her excellent care Christabel regresses, her speech deteriorates, and she is told that reading will hurt her eyes. This Isobel and the grandmother, Mrs. Blake, view with increasing alarm and, of course, indignation. There follows the battle for Christabel, who now calls Betty ‘Mum.’ This battle is actively engaged by Maureen, the social worker, who argues that no decision can be taken about Christabel's future until the child has done her ‘grief-work.’ The conceptual gulf is immense, and apparently unbridgeable. At this point Isobel makes a snap decision to marry her boyfriend Fergus and adopt Christabel herself. One might ask why this suggestion never presented itself in the first place, since it seems an obvious solution to Christabel's problems. Isobel, however, is too angry to be rational; besides, she has had herself sterilised, a fact which might seem irrelevant, but is not; for Isobel, as is all too obvious, has not done her own grief-work. In any event Christabel seems happy with Betty, who has grown possessive. There is another factor. Isobel and Fergus, the prospective parents, are white, while Christabel is black. It is decided, by the social services, that she must be brought up by a couple who share her own background. The Carmichaels, black father, white mother, are thought to be ideal.

There is nothing wrong with the Carmichaels. They may in fact be perfect, but there is no denying the evidence of Christabel's increasing disturbance and alienation. This is what makes Margaret Forster so angry: that Christabel, in the space of six years, has known no less than four mothers—Rowena, Isobel, Betty, and Lisa Carmichael. Here, at least, we can join in. But this reader was left with the lurking suspicion that three of these four mothers were absolutely hopeless anyway. Mrs. Carmichael remains an unknown quantity. And the future of Christabel is left in doubt, while the maddening Isobel is granted a sort of epiphany, a belated vision of motherhood which, she thinks, enriches her. The reader might point out that it was precisely Rowena's vision of motherhood which landed Christabel in trouble in the first place.

One sympathises with children having to be brought up by adults, many of them as silly as Rowena. One sympathises with Margaret Forster, on the rampage with the best of intentions. But the novel suffers from her indignation. Detachment might have served her better, and made a good novel out of one that is, in the last analysis, disappointing.

Elaine Kendall (review date 31 May 1991)

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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 distinguished biography of Browning appeared in 1988, Forster found herself haunted by the character and personality of the maid who had played so crucial a role in the poet's life.

Her research into the Barrett and Browning history had yielded tantalizing clues and hints; enough material to provide the skeleton of a novel. The rest came from Forster's imagination, and the result is a remarkable book exploring a relationship unique to the 19th Century; an intimate connection between employer and employee that has virtually ceased to exist.

Engaged to dress a woman's hair, look after her wardrobe, help her dress and accompany her on errands, the lady's maid inevitably became confidante and companion as well. In ordinary households, these duties were relatively light, and the lady's maid was envied by other members of the staff. The Barrett and, later, the Browning households, however, were anything but ordinary, and Wilson's job was far more onerous than most.

Because of Barrett's chronic illness, Wilson functioned as nurse, and after the frail poet miraculously produced a child, Wilson became his governess as well.

When she went to 50 Wimpole Street, Wilson found her employer virtually bedridden, a ghostly figure who had seldom left her darkened room since the tragic deaths of her brothers.

Although her poetry had already been published to considerable acclaim, Elizabeth Barrett lived as a recluse until she received her first letters from an admiring Robert Browning, a correspondence that soon blossomed into the celebrated romance and the astonishing elopement; an event in which Wilson's role was second only to the bridegroom's.

Once established in Italy with the Brownings, Wilson flourished, learning the language, losing her meekness and acquiring a dashing, if temporary, Italian beau.

Eventually she married another Italian, a man also in the Browning's employ, and bore two children. Although the Brownings figure largely in the novel, the story is essentially Wilson's and, by extension, a generic saga of Victorian servants and their precarious relationship to those who might profess to be their friends but who continued to be their masters.

After Wilson married and became pregnant, she was sent to England to have the child and was obliged to leave her son with her sister. By then Browning herself was a mother and, despite her protestations of affection for her maid, would not consider another child in the household.

Desperately longing for her own baby, Wilson returned to Florence to care for the poet's son and for Browning herself, increasingly fragile and demanding. When Wilson had a second son, she was set up as manager of a boardinghouse with no reduction in her duties to the Brownings; permitted only conjugal visits from the husband who still lived at the Casa Guidi, preferring the security of his job to the risks of independence.

Filled with the daily minutiae of these extraordinary exiles, Lady's Maid is enlivened by the author's wry iconoclasm. In the end, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's image as the brave and gifted sufferer loses some of its luster, and Robert Browning emerges as the more admirable of the two, although perhaps not quite the vibrant and dashing cavalier portrayed elsewhere.

Once having won Elizabeth, he seems to have been somewhat overwhelmed by the responsibilities attached to the prize; responsibilities that Wilson capably and loyally accepted for virtually all her adult life.

Peter Kemp (review date 9 April 1993)

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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 biography [Daphne du Maurier] makes clear—as a sartorial symbol of how du Maurier made her way through most of her life.

Doubleness was early impressed on her. The favourite daughter of the actor-manager, Gerald du Maurier, she soon became a surrogate for the son he thwartedly longed for: in a bizarre poem addressed to the young Daphne, he proclaims “she should have been / And, if I'd had my way, / She would have been, a boy.” As if to allay this paternal disappointment, Daphne, hair bobbed short, preferred to be togged out in boys' shorts, shirts and ties and heavy schoolboy socks and shoes. She fantasized that she had an alter ego, Eric Avon, who went to Rugby where he shone at games and became Captain of Cricket. Eventually, she convinced herself—a conviction she clung to for life—that she was really a male somehow trapped inside a female body.

Unsurprisingly, when dispatched just before her eighteenth birthday to be finished at a school near Paris, Daphne proved keenly receptive to the advances of one of the establishment's teachers, Mlle Fernande Yvon (a Colette-ish figure with slanting green eyes, sarcastic wit and a dress sense that ran to Chanel chic, according to Oriel Malet's account in her rather gushy du Maurier memoir-cum-correspondence, Letters from Menabilly). While exulting that this Sapphic instructress made love to her “in every conceivable way,” Daphne emphasized, however, that her own behaviour was not lesbian, since essentially she was “a boy.”

Like much of her life, this strange contortion—to accommodate her eagerness to appear conventional while privately being otherwise—seems traceable back to the family home, Cannon Hall, a handsome Queen Anne property overlooking Hampstead Heath. There, Forster shows, the decorous duplicity characteristic of the Edwardian era was assiduously kept up. While Gerald—the debonair theatre idol just starting to slide towards depression and the doldrums—philandered and drank, Muriel, his imperturbable wife, acquitted herself with flawless propriety as the perfect hostess. As the du Maurier daughters soon became aware, there were other contrasts between their parents' social and private demeanour: exuding charm to their guests, they were scathingly satirical about them once they had left. The lesson that unwelcome facts and other people could be kept at arm's length by resolutely impeccable manners was one Daphne thoroughly assimilated. The self-absorption that emerges from Forster's book as her central feature was sheathed in a carapace of impermeable correctness. She also readily absorbed the du Maurier custom of communicating in slangy code—to such an extent that Malet's edition of her letters requires a glossary of codewords and nicknames. Even with the aid of it, decoding the “wain” or “honky,” “See Me” or “Tell Him” doings of the likes of Doodie and Kicky, Piffy and Poonie, Moper, Gyggy, Tod, Boo and Bee soon gets wearisome.

Though the du Mauriers occupied a bohemianish branch of the upper class, they often shared the accents of its heartier circles. These are audible in Daphne's expressed desire to conform: “I may as well run the race with the rest of the pack instead of being a damned solitary hound missing the game.” There were other obstacles than her inner “boy” to her determination to embrace heterosexual orthodoxy on her return from France, though. When she and her two sisters were young, life had often seemed a theatrical wonderland where starry creatures flitted enchantingly in and out: “Uncle Jim”—J. M. Barrie—played with them in the nursery; there were backstage rendezvous with Ivor Novello and “Fondest love, darling” telegrams from Gladys Cooper. Once the girls started to attract boyfriends, however, an atmosphere of murky melodrama descended on Cannon Hall. Gerald, pathologically jealous, poured out tirades of furious abuse and pruriently spied on them: a pattern of morbid infatuation, Forster points out, that is given a heightened re-play in Daphne's lurid third novel, The Progress of Julius, where a father harasses and chokes to death his androgynously named daughter, Gabriel.

It wasn't only psychologically and emotionally that Daphne's fiction provided release. She won permission to live in the family's holiday home in Fowey if she could earn enough by her pen to support herself. This instilled an association of writing with financial autonomy that became one of her most dominant concerns (even as royalties lavishly flow in, her letters twitch with agitation about income tax and dread of “sliding into ruin”). Efficiently charting the stages by which du Maurier's career as a romantic best-selling author established itself, Forster simultaneously draws attention to the blatant motifs repetitively stamped on her early novels and stories: the recurrent juxtaposing of menaced female figures with overbearing men; heroines who routinely lament that they were not born “a boy,” but sometimes gain fleeting access to the sphere of male action and liberty.

The man Daphne married—after he sailed into Fowey harbour on his cruiser, Ygdrasil—seemed to have all the robust masculinity her fiction was fixated on. A Grenadier Guards officer decorated for bravery on the Western Front, an Olympic high-hurdler and bob-sleigher for England, Major “Tommy” Browning appeared admirably suited to her purposes. In his case as in hers, though, the exterior was deceptive. Behind his stalwart mien, Tommy was still racked with trauma from the First World War: nightmares about it regularly caused him to wake sobbing and screaming. Daphne's response to this was infused with both indignation and repulsion. When, after the Second World War, Tommy—in no small part because of their now totally intimacy-less marriage—had a breakdown, she complained severely to Oriel Malet “that someone whom I respected and loved should have no sort of backbone, and be indeed a pitiful, weak, sick figure.”

Even in earlier years when they looked a golden couple, there were tensions. As an officer's wife, Daphne was expected to share social duties, which she loathed and performed with clenched charmingness. When Tommy was posted to Egypt, things became even more irksome. Alexandria was “ghastly,” full of “horrible Manchester folk.” “Imagine the sham buildings of Wembley suddenly placed in a very dreary sea-side resort like St Leonards-on-Sea that by some unfortunate chance had been invaded by half-castes,” she reported. As for the Pyramids, “just like a couple of slag heaps, my dear.”

To add to Daphne's dismay, her first two children—treated with considerable off-handedness—were daughters. It wasn't until the birth of her son, Kits, in 1940, that true to her mystique about masculinity (“I have done it at last … a son!”), she found motherhood of much interest. In the oppressive Alexandria of 1937, though, she produced what was to be her most memorable creation. Fingers sticking to the typewriter keys in the sweltering heat, she pounded out Rebecca, the bestseller that would buy for her independence and the lease of the house, Menabilly, that she used as the book's haunting setting, Manderley.

In a letter to Oriel Malet, du Maurier confirms of the book's narrator, “Yes, the I in Rebecca was me.” But what gives this gothic imbroglio its intensity is surely that it houses both of her personas. The second Mrs. de Winter is the conventional du Maurier, conscious of acting a part, feeling almost an impostor on social occasions. Rebecca is the reason for this unease. She was “not even normal,” it's disclosed, and has had a sensualist past. Though none of this is made explicitly homosexual, Mrs. Danvers, rigid with lesbian possessiveness and obsessiveness, still passionately devoted to the dead Rebecca, derisively asserts that “She despised all men. She was above all that.” “Love-making was a game with her, only a game,” Mrs. Danvers insists: du Maurier's letters frequently liken heterosexual love-making to tennis.

With Rebecca, du Maurier most successfully deployed her chief fictional device: the jolting revelation of threat behind a pleasing exterior. It's a technique she ceaselessly recycled. In her story, “The Little Photographer,” a gracious marquise is exposed as a lustful murderess. In “The Birds,” feathered friends veer round into beaked and clawed killers. “Don't Look Now” has a little girl turning out to be a homicidal dwarf. The creepiness of Cousin Rachel, du Maurier said, would come from the reader's inability to discern “whether the woman is an angel or a devil.”

The disruptiveness which keeps bursting from behind decorous façades in her fiction also did so on one major occasion in her later life, Forster tells: a coup de foudre episode when she fell violently in love with Ellen Doubleday, the wife of her American publisher. Since Ellen was not “Venetian”—du-Maurier-speak for homosexual—the desires this aroused were assuaged by ingenious proxy. First, Daphne channelled her feelings for Ellen into a play, September Tide. Then, she embarked on an affair with the woman who played the Ellen role in it: Gertrude Lawrence who—adding a further kink—had been “the last of Daddy's actress loves.”

Drawn to Gertrude “like an alcoholic who must get to the bottle or bust,” as she not altogether happily phrased it, Daphne enjoyed an ecstatic holiday romping in Florida with her. Given this, there's something particularly unappealing in her later protestations of horror to Oriel Malet about the film industry's preoccupation with sex: “and it has to be perverted sex at that—homos, lesbians, incest etc. Honestly, what is left!” Along with such loud hypocrisy, self-deception can make itself heard. The attempted seduction of Ellen proceeded to the accompaniment of vehement assurances that what was going on was in no way lesbian: “by God and by Christ if anyone should call that sort of love by the unattractive word that begins with ‘L,’ I'd tear their guts out.” What had occurred, Daphne maintained, was that she had become “a boy of eighteen again.”

Du Maurier's urge to shut out unwelcome actualities increasingly led her to cloister herself in Menabilly, her Cornish “House of Secrets,” out of the way, screened by trees, its windows swathed with ivy. Matching this, her mind seems to have always been happiest when turned in on itself. The self-engrossment to which both of these books testify—one studiously, one inadvertently—meant that her awareness of events in the outside world could be minimal. During the General Strike, she observed, “nothing much happened beyond the fact that buses and tubes were driven by good-looking undergraduates … what is really happening and what it is about nobody has the slightest idea.” In similar vein, vacuous optimism sometimes surfaces in her correspondence: “Something will be invented to neutralise the bomb,” “everything that goes wrong in the world is through some false emotion—Hitler, strikes, anything.” In her final decades, this gives way to copious ventings of an air of grievance at the “general slackness” in the country caused by “these left-wing types and miners and so on.”

Her last years were ones of almost adamantine reclusiveness. Her death at the age of eighty-one—brought on by a refusal to eat—seems in a way the culmination of a progressive shrinking from substantial sources of human sustenance. It's this that gives both these books, despite the sharp acuteness of the one and the slightly scatty effusiveness of the other, an ultimately bleak feel.

Patricia Beer (review date 24 June 1993)

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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 Maurier makes good use of this particular technique: ‘Sheet-lightning split the sky over London on the evening of 12 May 1907 and thunder rumbled long into the night. All day it had been sultry, the trees in Regent's Park barely moving and a heat haze obscuring the new growth of leaves.’ There is almost a Bethlehem feel about this: a new light in the sky and various portents. There is certainly a Hollywood feel: a star is born. In fact the star was not born till 5.20 the next afternoon, but the right note has been struck.

What exactly the star did, or was, to deserve such a full biography never becomes quite clear. It is strange that with so much material painstakingly assembled and capably organised this should be so. Du Maurier can hardly be convincingly presented as a great novelist. She was a great storyteller, certainly, as clever Victor Gollancz spotted when he picked her out for his list as a successor to A. J. Cronin. Having said that, one hears the sad voice of E. M. Forster: ‘Yes—oh dear yes—the novel tells a story.’ He calls the story ‘a low atavistic form’ and envisages an audience of cave-persons ‘gaping round the camp-fire, fatigued with contending against the mammoth and the woolly rhinoceros,’ asking no question except ‘and then? … and then?’ and requiring no response but what that would evoke. He knows that on technical grounds a story, however mangled or concealed, is indispensable to a novel. But the novel, he maintains, has more to give than just a story and should give it. Du Maurier's novels, it seems to me, do not.

Margaret Forster singles out Rebecca as one of du Maurier's very best books, and it is probably the best-known, so it can fairly be taken as an example of her complete lack of concentration on anything other than the story. Though it was a bad sign that a determined writer should be so heedless of grammar, syntax and spelling as to be virtually illiterate, it did not matter for practical purposes: her editor at Gollancz could and did put that right, and the public knew nothing about it. There are other deficiencies, however, that cannot be ignored. The dialogue can be laughably banal, and the style undistinguished at best and cack-handed at worst. The hero, Maxim de Winter, and his wives, relatives and servants are caricatures; they deliver the immediate punch that the narrative requires but are not allowed any depth or development. What the author, being completely taken up with her story, concentrates on least is the moral; it wobbles disconcertingly. Rebecca is far from being an amoral book; we gather, for example, that sex before marriage, even in a Monte Carlo hotel, is strictly out of the question. (‘I don't know what you mean.’) Nice people behave very nicely indeed. The second Mrs. de Winter thinks that modesty has ‘something to do with minding meeting people in a passage on the way to the bathroom.’ This may be a limited interpretation of one of the great Christian virtues but it is pointing in the right direction. Yet the same person, when she hears that her husband murdered his first wife, instead of deploring the crime, rejoices that he hated the woman enough to take such a step. Maxim has no anxieties connected with the sixth commandment either but devotes himself to making sure he is not found out. He obviously feels that if a man discovers that the woman he has married is ‘vicious, damnable, rotten through and through’ he is perfectly justified in shooting her (the film sensibly tones this bit down) even though he had inklings during their courtship. ‘I had seeds of doubt at the back of my mind. There was something about her eyes.’

All this, I dare say, is true to life, and I am not worried abut the de Winter morals; I am only saying that they are not consistent with the pervasively high-minded outlook of the novel. I understand that at one point du Maurier planned that some retribution should overtake the de Winters, similar to what happened to the erring Mr. Rochester, but thought better of it. They end up idling in comparative luxury and contentment in the sun of Southern France, ‘He never complains,’ says the second Mrs. de Winter, looking proudly at the ‘dear face’ of her murderous husband. I should think not indeed.

I have no wish to seem ungrateful about Rebecca. Like thousands and thousands of other cavepersons, I can testify to its being a very nice change from the woolly rhinoceros. But if at any time we need what E. M. Forster calls ‘the finer growths’ that a novel can provide, du Maurier will not be able to supply them. She could not even recognise them in the work of others. She scornfully dismissed Compton-Burnett as unreadable, was loftily puzzled that some people thought Iris Murdoch a better novelist than herself, and expressed a fear that she might ‘turn into a writer like James Joyce’; there was little danger.

In the flurry of chatter and prophecy that preceded the publication of Daphne du Maurier the main emphasis was on the novelist's homosexuality. Chatto's handout spoke delicately of ‘her highly significant friendship with Gertrude Lawrence,’ but nobody else was anything like as refined. Du Maurier herself had avoided speaking openly about lesbians, referring to them with shudders as ‘the L people,’ but now everybody was having a great time speaking about them very openly indeed. After publication a roar broke out, the happy roar of pantomime; people who normally sat quietly in their seats started shouting: ‘Oh yes, she was,’ ‘Oh no, she wasn't.’ The quality newspapers, though they printed a few fierce letters, remained cool—‘Du Maurier affair true, says writer'—and soon veered towards compassion: ‘Du Maurier book upsets family and friends.’ But most people took sides. Things came to a head after a programme about du Maurier on TV, called The Loving Heart after one of her novels. It was unremarkable in itself but several of the participants got wound up into declaring afterwards that they hadn't said she was, they'd specifically said she wasn't, but that bit had been edited out. One of them added for good measure that in any case Gertrude Lawrence was practically a nymphomaniac.

In the book Forster keeps her head; her subject's sexual preferences are not the driving force of her narrative. In her long list of star-spangled acknowledgments (Prince Philip, Lord Carrington …) she apologises to du Maurier's children for exposing ‘events in their mother's life which were unknown to them and which have proved painful for them to discover.’ The apology is seemly, but she must have had qualms when explaining that du Maurier had wished ‘all truth’ to be told after her death, for, as she has shown, the truth as it is commonly understood is the last thing that a fantasist and escapist like du Maurier would want. Margaret Forster's treatment of the famous ‘events’ is calm, unlaboured and totally free from titillation; and in fact the relevant passages take up a comparatively small part of the book. They are vivid, however; du Maurier's passion for Ellen Doubleday, wife of her American publisher, is particularly well presented. The kindness and diplomacy with which Mrs. Doubleday tried to contain and even organise the clamorous love which she was unable to return show her to great advantage.

Over four hundred pages make a long biography, and du Maurier can be a wearisome character, but the description of her background as life goes on very seldom flags. No sooner has the weather turned cooler on the afternoon of the heroine's birth, as related in the first paragraph, than we find ourselves in theatreland, where the audience who had stayed away because of the heat were back again. ‘Marie Tempest starred in The Truth at the Comedy, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree in Julius Caesar at Her Majesty's, and at the Hicks Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue Gerald du Maurier was scoring an immense success, the night his new daughter was born, in a light comedy entitled Brewster's Millions.’ And so the influences of childhood and early youth are launched and we are well on our way to knowing all we need to know about Daphne's heredity and environment: the over-possessive father and the over-detached mother, the fluctuations of Gerald's career and the effect they had on his, and therefore the family's, moods, the wealth and the total dependence on servants, the glamorous acquaintances. Perhaps most important of all for Daphne was the inadequacy of her schooling; she was not particularly intelligent but a good education would have helped disguise the fact.

Highly significant was the family's use of nicknames and code words, in that they showed a complete lack of imagination. The only aim of those who coined them was, apparently, to be different from the rest, unless it was that they could not bear very much reality. ‘Wain’ meaning ‘embarrassing,’ for example, ‘honky’ meaning ‘common’ or ‘ill-bred,’ and ‘to nim’ meaning ‘to pee,’ do not bring out the qualities of the words they conceal; in fact they provide the wrong associations. Every proper name that Daphne du Maurier invented for her friends and relatives in the course of her life was sillier and uglier than the one it replaced: Pooch, Boo and, for her pretty and good-natured daughter-in-law, Hacker. One of these nicknames was insensitive to the point of cruelty: her ageing husband, who was suffering badly from the strains and depressions of two wars, she re-christened Moper. She referred to her menstrual periods as Robert. In the future some intuitive biographer might put forward a connection with the footman at Manderley whom she also called Robert.

The fortunes of Moper, who at this stage had risen to be Major-General Sir Frederick Browning, in fact provide some of the most interesting parts of the book. (He had other nicknames, acquired before his marriage, but they were neither strained nor foolish: one was Boy, to distinguish him from his father who was also a soldier.) His gallant career is of real historical significance. In 1944, for example, he led the Airborne Division at the Battle of Arnhem, taking part in the attempt of Eisenhower and Montgomery to capture the northern bridges over the Rhine. He was the one who famously warned Montgomery: ‘We might be going a bridge too far, sir.’ They might and they did.

His exploits, though given due importance by his wife's biographer, are skilfully used to direct light on to her. The film that Richard Attenborough made about the battle over twenty years later took the words ‘a bridge too far’ as its title. Daphne Browning had always felt unable to support her husband fully in his various postings, because they involved her in too much undesirable company. But now, after his death, from which moment he became the great love of her life, as indeed he had been in the very early years of their long marriage, she was voluble in any cause of his; and the film was one. She wrote violent letters to the director maintaining that he had portrayed her husband as a dandy who never came out of his headquarters and moreover that he had misused Boy's best line. Attenborough did all he could to accommodate her views, to the extent of restoring the prestigious line; admittedly as a piece of hindsight rather than of prescience, which weakened it (‘I always thought we went a bridge too far’), but it was the conclusive line. Lady Browning was not satisfied, however; according to her, Dirk Bogarde, playing her husband, said it in a murmur.

On his retirement from the Army Boy was appointed Comptroller of Princess Elizabeth's household and spent the rest of his working life at Court. Daphne Browning was now drawn in whether she liked it or not. Balmoral broke her snobbish spirit, and when the Queen and Prince Philip came to tea at Menabilly, her Cornish home, their visit, like hers to Balmoral, was ‘desperately wain.’ She herself behaved in an unexpectedly honky manner, agonising about whether or not as hostess she should wear a hat and gloves and what the procedure would be if the royal guests wished to nim. Had they but known it they were in real danger of having rats scamper across their path and pieces of ceiling fall on their heads.

Lively and informative as it is, Margaret Forster's account of Daphne du Maurier's world is incidental to the main thrust of the biography, in the same way that the account of her subject's bisexuality is slightly beside the point. The emphasis throughout is on du Maurier the writer. This of course is how du Maurier herself saw it; her perpetual insistence that writing was her life was literally true; when she stopped writing she died. It is as if her viewpoint infected her biographer, who otherwise, one feels, would hardly have devoted her skill and energy to so minor a talent. But yes, Daphne du Maurier is a literary biography; Forster said so herself in her contribution to The Loving Heart and vigorously defended her belief that a close examination of the life was necessary to an understanding of the work. She sounded as though she was speaking of George Eliot or Proust.

Margaret Forster can distinguish, as well as anybody and better than some, between writing which is both great and popular (Charles Dickens) and the sort that is merely popular (Monica Dickens). Yet in the general course of the biography she bypasses ideas of better or worse. From time to time, it is true, she slips in, almost inadvertently, astute remarks quite sharply critical of her subject's literary abilities; and this suggests that she is in two minds; which would account for the weather at the beginning. She may, as a matter of conviction, rather than with full commitment, be on the warpath against élitism. In due time we could have an extensive study of, say, Jeffrey Archer. In fact, as writers, Archer and du Maurier have a lot in common, apart from the side-issue that both their spouses were once publicly commended for being fastidious and well-groomed.

One of the many and diverse sequels to the publication of Daphne du Maurier has been a letter from Chatto and Windus which appeared in the TLS and is highly relevant to this question of standards. In the course of describing how Daphne's youthful relationship with Carol Reed came to an end, Margaret Forster quotes a poem on the not uncommon theme of separation, ‘when one heart flies / And the other is left in the empty hell of remembering.’ It had been found among du Maurier's papers after her death. Her biographer is following the method she herself advocates: using the life to illuminate the work. Unfortunately the poem, which Forster presents with no critical comment, is not strong enough to bear such attention, and we now know it was not intended to. It was frankly 'prentice work, sent to du Maurier for her advice and criticism; being unsigned it was naturally taken to be by her. Chatto and Windus explain that the real author has stepped forward to claim it and they vow that the mistake will be rectified in future printings of the book. Impeccable behaviour, but the tone suggests that a scroll has been discovered revealing that it was actually St. John the Baptist who fed the five thousand and that future versions of the Bible would be revised accordingly. There was, of course, no call for Chatto and Windus to proffer any evaluation in a letter of that kind but Margaret Forster could in her book have hinted that it was not a poem by which du Maurier—as she thought—or indeed anybody else should be assessed. It is characteristic of her non-judgmental approach (widely admired) that she chose not to do so; and perhaps a sign of the times.

Jonathan Yardley (review date 3 October 1993)

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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 recycled into biog-fodder. Nobody may be reading So-and-so anymore, but the punters will shell out for a detailed biography of So-and-so, especially if there is anything nasty in the woodshed.”

Thus Brightman's McCarthy and thus, now, Margaret Forster's Daphne du Maurier in Daphne du Maurier. Unlike her American counterparts Forster manages to keep her sense of scandal and indignation under control, but she delivers the raw goods all the same that Daphne du Maurier had a physical relationship with one of her school teachers who was a woman; that this was followed by a premarital affair with Carol Reed, who in time became a distinguished film director; that her marriage to the celebrated soldier Frederick Arthur Montague “Boy” Browning turned arid at the end of World War II; that she fell madly in love with Ellen Doubleday, wife of her American publisher, and that when this failed of consummation she fell into the arms of the actress Gertrude Lawrence, “the only person with whom she had truly been able to be herself.”

“I hope I haven't got Venetian tendencies,” du Maurier wrote in an early letter to her former governess, “Venetian” being her peculiar private euphemism for “lesbian,” but have them she most certainly did. As a girl she had yearned to be a boy, and for the rest of her life she struggled with only intermittent success to keep the boy “shut up in the box inside her.” Years later, in middle age, du Maurier insisted that “nobody could be more bored with all the ‘L’ people than I am” and that “my Jack-in-the-box was, and is, unique.”

Perhaps at the time it was, but it isn't now, not after being dragged through more than 400 pages of microscopic inspection at the hands of Forster, whose subdued and sympathetic tone cannot disguise the fundamentally prurient nature of this exercise. That what she tells us is inherently interesting goes without saying—only the terminally priggish would deny the appeal of the higher gossip, especially when it is lurid gossip—but whether it is important is another question altogether.

There are only two reasons why it could be so: if the fiction of Daphne du Maurier is important and if her sexual struggles were important to the making of that fiction. On the second point Forster proves her point; she makes a persuasive case that “the relationship between a man who was powerful and a woman who was not” is a recurrent theme in du Maurier's stories and novels, and that the author's treatment of the theme is directly related to her own bisexuality.

But it is the first question that really matters; this Forster only briefly and indirectly addresses. That du Maurier's suspenseful romances were hugely popular in her day, from the late '30s until the early '70s, goes without saying; she has readers even now, as is suggested by Doubleday's publication this month of a new hardcover edition of Rebecca, priced at $20. It can also be argued that within the limits of genre her novels are highly literate and unfailingly professional. Still, as the literati delight in reminding us, popularity is an inadequate measure of quality; professionalism, though admirable, is not the same as originality.

Literary judgments are as fallible and quirky as the people who make them, but one would have to look long and hard in order to find a reputable critic who would make large claims for du Maurier's work on purely literary grounds. The inescapable truth is that she was a good writer but scarcely an important one. Thus the pertinence to anything except gossip of the private information that Forster has collected is very difficult to discern. Reading about it may be amusing, but it tells us nothing that we need to know.

Be all of that as it may, it must be acknowledged that in Forster's portrait du Maurier emerges as an interesting and far from unappealing person. Her roots were distinguished and somewhat eccentric; her grandfather, George du Maurier, was the author of Trilby and other books, while her father, Gerald, was a most successful actor. She grew up in privileged circumstances but had a genuinely empathetic interest in the lives of those less fortunate. Though she was pretty and gave the impression of being malleable, “her real self was a tough, inner person, watching, absorbing and feverishly creating in her head a wildly different world from the one in which she lived.”

She may not have been a great writer, but she was a natural one; stories and characters presented themselves to her full-blown, demanding to be brought to life on paper. From the summer of 1938, when du Maurier was 31 and Rebecca was published, until the late 1970s, she worked steadily and productively at her craft. She earned a lot of money—much of which, to her fury, was consumed by Britain's punitive taxes—and she developed a large, ardently loyal following.

This sense of du Maurier as popular writer and public presence is largely absent in Forster's biography. In part this is because du Maurier was insistently private, but in larger part it is because this essential aspect of her life simply seems not to interest Forster. Thus it is that the film adaptations of du Maurier's work, through which millions first encountered that work, go virtually unmentioned beyond a casual aside to the effect that du Maurier felt that movies distorted novels; yet surely the affinity Alfred Hitchcock felt for her fiction deserves some comment, as do the performances of Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca.

The problem is that Forster is so fixated on du Maurier's life that she scants the work. In so doing she ignores, or is merely unaware of, an essential truth about literary biography: If the work doesn't matter, neither does the writer.

Sally Beauman (review date 8 November 1993)

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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 Grenadier Guards, had been posted with his battalion. Du Maurier loathed Alexandria—her longing for England, and in particular for Cornwall, was, she wrote, like “a pain under the heart continually”—and she loathed the role forced upon her in Egypt by her marriage. Shy and socially reclusive, she hated the small talk and the endless receptions she was expected to give and to attend as a commanding officer's wife. Her homesickness and her resentment of these wifely duties, together with a guilty sense of her own ineptitude when performing them, were elements she incorporated into Rebecca. She began writing it in the appalling heat of an Egyptian summer just a few months after the birth of her child and, after a false start she described as a “literary miscarriage,” finally completed it on her return to England in the spring of the following year.

Du Maurier had already had some success as an author: her biography of her father, Gerald: A Portrait, had been well received by critics, and her novel about Cornish wreckers, Jamaica Inn, had been a best-seller; her publisher, Victor Gollancz, was eager for another. On receiving Rebecca, Gollancz was jubilant; a “rollicking success” was forecast by him, by his senior editor, and by everyone to whom advance copies were sent. Prior to publication, du Maurier's was the only dissenting voice: she saw Rebecca as “psychological and rather macabre” and “a bit on the gloomy side,” and she felt the ending was “a bit grim.” Aware of the amount of money Gollancz was spending on promotion, she became anxious, fearing an “awful flop.” Gollancz dismissed her fears, and it was he who was proved correct. Rebecca, touted to booksellers for its “exquisite love-story” and its “brilliantly created atmosphere of suspense”—in short, promoted and sold as a gothic romance—became an immediate and overwhelming commercial success.

The novel went through twenty-eight printings in four years in Britain alone. It became a huge best-seller for du Maurier's United States publisher, Doubleday. It sold in vast numbers throughout Europe. And it continues to sell to this day: it has never been out of print in the fifty-five years since its publication. The scale of the novel's success in terms of sales is impossible to determine, for no cumulative figures exist, but at this level exact figures become unimportant. What is clear is that Rebecca long ago ceased to be merely a novel. Like Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (published two years earlier), Rebecca has made the strange and risky transformation from best-seller to cult to legend.

These two novels, unique in this century in popular fiction for their continuing fascination and réclame, could scarcely be more different. Gone with the Wind is a saga, painted with broad strokes on a huge canvas; Rebecca is brief, apparently narrow in focus, a nervy, dreamlike passage through the consciousness of its female narrator. Yet both novels are about women and property, Tara being the property of a father and Manderley that of a husband; and both concern themselves with female archetypes—with the polarity between the “good” and the “bad” woman (or the “Healer” and the “Destroyer,” as du Maurier termed them). There are other points of coincidence, too, in their progress to their present, mythologized status. Both novels were produced as films by David Selznick, within a year of each other, and both the films won Oscars. (Rebecca won the award for best picture; Alfred Hitchcock, its director, did not receive an Oscar, though he created a haunting, eerie, and intuitive version of the book, which he was later to dismiss as a mere “novelette.”) Both films did much to widen the readership of the novels on which they were based, and continue to do so; and both novels, as their fame increased, launched a secondary journalistic and literary industry, an avalanche of interviews, speculation, interpretation, and commentary. Neither Mitchell nor du Maurier welcomed this. Mitchell, who published only the one novel and died young, suffered the onslaught for thirteen years; du Maurier, the author of thirty-seven books, suffered it for more than fifty years, which is to say for the rest of her life.

Du Maurier died in Cornwall in 1989, shortly before her eighty-second birthday, and this brings us to the final resemblance in the history of the two novels and the two women: after du Maurier's death, as after Mitchell's, the literary industry attendant on her, far from dwindling, increased. This year sees the publication of the first authorized du Maurier biography, Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller, by the English novelist Margaret Forster, and also the publication of a sequel to Rebecca, which is entitled Mrs. de Winter and was written by another English novelist of some skill and reputation, Susan Hill. Hill took on the task—a questionable one, this literary banditry—with the approval of the du Maurier family, and completed it in a mere three months. Her book, the fruit of a seven-figure publishing deal, comes hard on the heels of the sequel to Gone with the Wind, entitled Scarlett—a novel of spectacular ineptitude, which sold on both sides of the Atlantic very nicely indeed.

It might have been hoped that together the Forster biography and the Hill sequel could provoke a reëxamination of Rebecca, by far du Maurier's best book, and a reappraisal of du Maurier as a writer. More particularly, now that feminist criticism has done much to unlock texts similar to Rebecca, it might have been hoped that these books would free du Maurier from her classification as a “romantic novelist,” a tag that is appropriate to some of her work but by no means all of it, and is singularly inapt for Rebecca, a subtle, complex, and prescient novel, which employs the techniques of romantic fiction to produce a damning and subversive attack on the very notion of romance. Perhaps it was too much to ask. Forster's discursive but tart and schoolmarmish biography grazes the rich grass of the du Maurier meadow but fails to chew, let alone digest, the cud. It pays great attention to the lesbian episodes in du Maurier's life, but insufficient attention—one and a half paragraphs of analysis in the case of Rebecca—to the rather more important question of her work. Susan Hill, struggling with the legacy of a novel expertly shaped, and structured in such a way as to defy continuation, has produced a vapid, incoherent ghost of a book, stained by infirmity of purpose on every page. All the passion, anger, and ambivalence that make Rebecca so interesting have leached out. Hill, like Forster, appears to approach du Maurier, and Rebecca, through a haze of preconceptions. Perhaps that is not surprising: the critical miasma surrounding du Maurier and her novels descended at Rebecca's publication, and has rarely lifted since.

Rebecca is the story of two women, a man, and a house. Of the four, as Hitchcock once observed, the house, Manderley, is the dominant presence. Although it is never precisely located, its setting, so minutely detailed in the novel, is clearly that of Menabilly, an empty, half-ruined house in the woods above the sea in Cornwall. Du Maurier discovered it as a young woman, and she eventually lived there for over twenty years; the house lit her imagination and obsessed her for much of her life. Du Maurier's own term for Menabilly was the House of Secrets, and when she placed it at the heart of Rebecca (five years before she lived there) she created an elliptical, shifting, and deeply secretive book. The plot hinges upon secrets; the novel's milieu is that of an era and a social class that, in the name of good manners, rarely permitted the truth to be expressed; and suppression and a fearful secretiveness are its narrator's most marked characteristics.

By the time du Maurier wrote Rebecca, she had mastered the tone and the techniques of popular fiction. Her novel came well disguised as best-seller material, an intriguing story of love and murder—a “page-turner,” in modern parlance. But examine the subtext of Rebecca and you discover a perturbing, darker construct, part Grimm's fairy tale, part Freudian family romance. At the time of publication, these aspects of Rebecca went unnoticed. Whether praising or deriding the novel, many reviewers—almost all of them male—adopted a patronizing tone. To the harsher critics, Rebecca was, as the Times of London put it, a “novelette”; to the more indulgent, it was romance “in the grand tradition” or “a grand piece of story-telling.” Many American reviewers, irritated by the echoes of Jane Eyre, used Charlotte Brontë's superior gifts as a stick with which to beat du Maurier over the head. To pigeonhole du Maurier as the female author of an undemanding tale aimed primarily at an undiscerning female readership was convenient and lazy; relegating her to the waste bin of women's fiction (a category one notch higher than “servant-girl fiction”) saved critics the bother of actually having to think. If du Maurier was surprised that the critics failed to notice the grim (or Grimm) aspects of Rebecca, she remained quiet about it. She was already becoming inured to this type of response to her work. Two of her four previous novels fell within the category of historical romance, and had been promoted as such. Her first book, The Loving Spirit, was launched in the United States with a puff from Rebecca West, who remarked, with double fatuity, that it was “a whopper of a romantic novel in the vein of Emily Brontë.” Despite the fact that du Maurier's second and third novels defied any such classification, as did her short stories and some of her post-Rebecca novels, the tag “romantic novelist” stuck and has never been dislodged.

Thus was du Maurier categorized and “named” as a writer. The question of how we name and identify—and the ironies and inexactitudes inherent in that process—is central to Rebecca. Both female characters—one dead, one alive—derive their surname, as they do their status, from their husband. The first wife, Rebecca, is vivid and vengeful and, though dead, indestructible: her name lives on in the book's title. The second wife, the drab, shadowy creature who narrates the story, remains nameless. We learn that she has a “lovely and unusual” name, and that it was bestowed upon her by her father, the only other identity she has was also bestowed by a man—she is a wife, she is Mrs. de Winter.

That a narrator perceived as a heroine should be nameless was a source of continuing fascination to du Maurier's readers. It also fascinated other writers—Agatha Christie corresponded with du Maurier on the subject—and throughout her life du Maurier was plagued with fan letters seeking an explanation. Her stock reply was that she found the device technically interesting. The question is not a trivial one, for it takes us straight to the core of Rebecca—and that may well be the reason du Maurier, a secretive woman and a secretive artist, avoided answering it.

The unnamed narrator of Rebecca begins her story with a dream, with a first sentence that has become famous: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Almost all of the brief first chapter is devoted to the details of her dream: her progress up the long, winding drive, by moonlight, to Manderley itself. The imagery, of entwined trees and encroaching undergrowth that have “mated,” is sexual; the style is scented and overwritten, that of a schoolgirl trying to speak poetically and struggling to impress. Moving forward with a sense of both anticipation and revulsion, the dream narrator first sees Manderley as intact; then, coming closer, she realizes that she is looking at a ruin, the shell of a house. With this realization, the dreamer wakes. She confirms that the dream was accurate, for Manderley no longer exists.

She can now begin to tell her story, but she begins at the end, with herself and her husband, Maximilian de Winter, living in exile in Europe for reasons as yet unclear. Their activities, as they move from hotel to hotel, sound like those of two elderly expats. They follow the cricket scores, take afternoon tea; the wife selects dull newspaper articles to read aloud to her husband, since—again for reasons unexplained—both find dullness soothing and safe. The narrator describes a routine of stifling monotony, but does so in terms that are relentlessly optimistic and trite. It comes as a considerable shock to the reader to discover, as the story loops back to the narrator's first meeting with de Winter, that she is young. The lapse of time between this present and the past events she will describe is unspecified, but it is clearly only a few years, and this makes de Winter a man of about fifty and his childless, friendless narrator-wife around twenty-five. Their life in Europe is never mentioned again, and it is easy to forget, as the drama unfolds, that the aftermath for them is exile, ennui, and putting a brave face on a living death.

The plot of the rest of Rebecca will be familiar to many readers: the narrator, working as a paid companion in Monte Carlo, meets Maxim de Winter, the owner of the legendary Manderley and a widower twice her age. She marries him, goes with him to Manderley, and there becomes progressively obsessed with Rebecca, his first wife. Patching together a portrait of Rebecca in her mind, she creates a chimera, an icon of femininity: a woman who was the perfect hostess, perfect sexual partner, perfect chatelaine, and perfect wife. This image she later perceives as false, and, in discovering the truth about Rebecca's life, she also discovers the truth about her death. Rebecca did not drown in a yachting accident in the bay below, as everyone believes; she was killed by de Winter, who from the beginning of his first marriage loathed his wife.

The narrator, once enlightened, accepts without question de Winter's version of her predecessor as a promiscuous woman who was pregnant with another man's child when he killed her, and who taunted him that she would pass off this child as his. De Winter's confession is accompanied by a declaration of love—the first he has made to the narrator despite their months of marriage. Overwhelmed by this, the narrator gives her husband immediate support. The rest of the novel, which is brilliantly plotted, concerns de Winter's efforts with his loyal wife's assistance, to suppress the truth of the murder and thus escape the hangman. This he does, but not without cost. Returning to Manderley from London, with information that gives Rebecca a motive for suicide and therefore saves him, both partners are uneasy De Winter senses impending disaster, in the back of the car, his wife is asleep-dreaming that she and Rebecca have become one, and that their hair—long and black, as Rebecca's was—is providing de Winter with a halter, or noose.

Mrs. de Winter dreams vividly twice in the novel, once at the beginning and once at the end; each time, the dream conveys a truth to her that her conscious mind cannot and will not accept. She prefers the sketchy and cliché-ridden visions she summons up when she daydreams—and she daydreams incessantly. The vision she has just had, of herself and Rebecca united, of first and second wives merged into one dangerous female avatar, she instantly pushes aside. Her husband halts the car on a crest above their home; the night sky beyond is lit with a red glow. (The color red is associated with Rebecca throughout the novel.) His wife assumes that it is the dawn, but de Winter understands at once that Manderley is burning.

This destruction of de Winter's ancestral home was prefigured in the dream with which the novel opened, and the literal agent of the destruction is far less important than its poetic agent, which is Rebecca. Like some avenging angel, Rebecca has marshalled the elements: she has risen from the sea to wreak revenge by fire—thus echoing, and not for the first time in the book, her literary ancestress the first Mrs. Rochester.

In this way, and very abruptly, the novel ends; it has come full circle. It is melodramatic in places, of course (even Jane Eyre cannot escape that criticism), but it is remarkable, given the plot, how consistently du Maurier is able to skirt melodrama. What interested her as a novelist can be summarized by the distinction Charlotte Brontë drew between writing that was “real” and writing that was “true.” There is realism in Rebecca; the mores and speech patterns of the class and the era du Maurier is describing, for instance are sharply observed. The elements that give Rebecca its force, however, owe nothing to realism; its power lies in its imagery its symmetry, its poetry—and that poetry is intensely female. The plot of Rebecca may be as unlikely as the plot of a fairy tale, but that does not alter the novel's mythic resonance and psychological truth.

One way of reading Rebecca is as a love story, in which the good woman triumphs over the bad by winning a man's love: this version, which confirms cherished conventions rather than challenges them, is the one that the nameless narrator would like us to accept, and it is a reading that undoubtedly helped make Rebecca a best-seller. Another approach is to see the novel's imaginative links not just with earlier work by female authors (Jane Eyre being, indeed, the most obvious antecedent) but also with later work, and in particular with Sylvia Plath's late poems. Rebecca is narrated by a woman masochistic and desperate to be loved—a woman seeking an authoritarian father surrogate, or, as Plath expressed it, a “man in black with a Meinkampf look.” Her search involves both effacement and abnegation, as it does for any woman who “adores a Fascist.” She duly finds such a man in de Winter, whose last name indicates sterility, coldness, an unfruitful season, and whose Christian name—Maxim, as she always abbreviates it—is a synonym for a rule of conduct and is also the name of a weapon (a machine gun).

This woman, not surprisingly, views Rebecca as a rival; what she cannot perceive is that Rebecca is also her twin, and ultimately her alter ego. The two wives have actually suffered similar fates. Both were taken as brides to Manderley—a male preserve, as the first syllable of its name (like Menabilly's) suggests. Both were marginalized within the confines of the house—Rebecca in the west wing, with its view of her symbol, the sea, and the second wife in the east wing, overlooking a rose garden, that symbol of husbandry. The difference between them is in their reactions: the second wife submits, allowing her identity to be dictated by her husband, and by the class, attitudes, and value systems he embraces; the first wife has rebelled. Rebecca has dared to be an unchaste wife, to break the “rules of conduct” that Maxim lives by; her ultimate transgression is to threaten the system of primogeniture. That sin, undermining the entire patriarchal edifice that is Manderley, cannot be forgiven, and Rebecca dies for it.

The response of the narrator to Rebecca's rebellion is deeply ambivalent, and it is this ambivalence which fuels the novel. Her apparent reaction is that of a conventional woman of her time: abhorrence. Yet there are indications throughout the text that the second Mrs. de Winter would like to emulate Rebecca, even to be her. Although Rebecca is never seen, is dead, and has in theory been forever silenced, Mrs. de Winter's obsession with her insures that Rebecca will triumph over anonymity and effacement: even a bullet through the heart and burial at sea cannot quench her vampiric power. Again, one is reminded of Plath's embodiment of amoral, anarchic female force—“I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.” Within the convention of a story, Rebecca's pallid successor is able to do what she dare not risk in everyday life: celebrate her predecessor.

The final twist of Rebecca is a covert one. De Winter kills not one wife but two. He kills the first with a gun; he kills the second by a slower, more insidious method. The second Mrs. de Winter's fate, for which she prepares herself throughout the novel, is to be subsumed by her husband. Following him into that hellish exilé glimpsed at the beginning, she becomes again what she was when she met him—a paid companion to a tyrant. For humoring his whims and obeying his dictates, her recompense this time is love, not money, and the cost is her identity. This is the final irony of the novel, and the last of its many reversals. A story that attempts to bury Rebecca, the “unwomanly” woman, in fact resurrects her, while the voice that narrates this story is that of a ghost, a true dead woman.

The themes of Rebecca—identity, doubling, the very different but intimately linked meanings of love and murder—recur again and again in du Maurier's work. That the circumstances of her own life were the source of many of those themes is unquestionable. Margaret Forster, in her biography, attempts to disentangle some of the possible influences: du Maurier's relationship with her father, who wished she had been a boy; the remoteness of her mother; the difficulties she encountered, as an unconventional and independent woman, in her marriage to a conventional and punctilious husband. Forster charts, in a dogged way, du Maurier's need to write and her simultaneous fear that to do so was somehow “unfeminine.” She lights upon the image of the “boy-in-the-box”—which du Maurier used, often confusingly, to refer both to the force that made her write and to the impulses that attracted her to women—but never examines the phrase, or its implications, very closely. That du Maurier saw creativity as masculine, and her own creativity as therefore aberrant (she described herself as a “half-breed”), explains much of the ambivalence in her texts and much of the anguish in her life. Forster does not delve very deeply into this material, and passes quickly over the work itself in favor of domestic trivia. Du Maurier's marriage is left so nearly unexplored that her husband remains faceless; little attempt is made to convey or understand Cornwall and what it signified for her; and, as for Menabilly, the house central to her identity, it is dealt with peremptorily, in a tone of puritanical disapproval. Menabilly is damp, cold, over-large; it requires servants, and is unsuitable for small children. … This nannyish tone becomes wearing indeed. At any minute, one feels, Forster will recommend a hot bath and an early night to get all this foolishness out of du Maurier's system.

Du Maurier's life was, in many respects, as filled with paradoxes as her novels. As Forster recounts, she came from a family of artists: her mother was an actress, and her grandfather was the illustrator and writer George du Maurier, the author of Trilby. She and her sisters grew up surrounded by writers and actors, who were their parents' close friends. Yet du Maurier married a career soldier in one of Britain's most élite regiments, a man who seems to have been a traditionalist to his fingertips. They met in highly charged circumstances when du Maurier was twenty-four and living in a house overlooking the Fowey River. Browning sailed his boat to Fowey in the hope of meeting her—he had read and admired her first novel. Du Maurier, already sexually experienced, was attracted to him immediately and was fully prepared to begin an affair; Browning found this proposal unthinkable and “sleazy.” But their courtship was speedy: they met in April, 1932, and married that July. They shared a love of the sea and of boats; by the time they met, du Maurier was an accomplished sailor (as, it should be noted, is Rebecca). But as their long marriage wore on, their differences became more significant than their similarities. Browning—handsome, well groomed, apparently the perfect soldier—had been traumatized by his experiences in France in the First World War; he was plagued by minor physical ailments and by nightmares. He rapidly became dependent on du Maurier for comfort and reassurance, while remaining a domestic martinet. Forster documents Browning's impatience when his wife could not hire a reliable cook or properly instruct housemaids, and notes that this intimidated du Maurier, but she fails to adequately analyze the underlying resentment—a resentment that du Maurier seems to have mostly concealed in her day-to-day life, but that clearly surfaces in her novels.

For most of her marriage to Browning, du Maurier provided the major source of income, financing their homes and the upbringing of their three children. Yet she was afflicted with guilt at her achievements, believing that women had to choose whether to “create after one's fashion, or be a woman and breed.” She maintained that the “two don't go together and never will. Maybe there should be a rule against women who work marrying.”

After the war, du Maurier's marriage became strained; there were infidelities on both sides. Browning began drinking heavily, and his moodiness increased, earning him the family nickname of Moper. For many years, he and du Maurier lived virtually separate lives, she at Menabilly and he in London. The resulting loneliness perhaps helped to propel du Maurier into a platonic affair with Ellen Doubleday (the wife of her American publisher) and then into a brief, less platonic affair with Gertrude Lawrence. Even so, throughout this postwar period, du Maurier remained essentially loyal to her husband, indulgent of his foibles, and protective of him and his reputation. In the meantime, du Maurier was becoming an immensely successful professional woman, the author of a sequence of best-sellers (of which, post-Rebecca,My Cousin Rachel, of 1951, is perhaps the most interesting). Du Maurier's books were known worldwide, yet she continued to eschew celebrity, usually refusing to make public appearances.

Browning died in 1965. Du Maurier spent the remaining twenty-four years of her life living alone in Cornwall—first at Menabilly and then at Kilmarth, its dower house. Du Maurier adapted well to widowhood at first, finding consolation in her children and later in her grandchildren. Then, in the mid-seventies, she suffered another kind of death: her ability to write began to fail her. Forster's account of these painful years, during which du Maurier closed in upon herself and in the end virtually willed her own death, makes up the strongest section of the biography. Forster writes with sympathy and understanding of that lonely decline, but the section is too brief and too long delayed to compensate for the tone that dominates earlier chapters.

Too often, one can sense a simmering class resentment in Forster's writing, it is as if she cannot bring herself to forgive du Maurier's bohemian but affluent up-bringing. Adopting a curiously dated and masculine set of values, she upbraids du Maurier for a host of tiny sins, for being unable to cook or sew, for employing nursemaids—all this unremarkable in a woman of that background and period. The portrait of du Maurier that ultimately emerges is of a self-centered, spoiled, and wayward woman. Du Maurier's lifelong generosity gets occasional grudging mention, but her freedom of spirit, her marked (and, for her era, extraordinary) independence, and the nature of her struggle as a writer are pushed to the margins.

This distortion is compounded by Forster's quasi-scholarly methodology. She was given every assistance by the du Maurier family and had extensive access to du Maurier's letters. These are duly quoted, but often with insufficient indication in the notes as to whether the quoted comments are contemporaneous with the period being discussed. Worse, du Maurier's own words are rarely quoted at any length; instead, they are chopped up, with interpolations from Forster, into the biographer's equivalent of sound bites. The effect is to silence du Maurier—and, on occasion, to turn her into a ventriloquist's dummy.

Ventriloquism, of course, was the task facing Susan Hill when she agreed to write her sequel to Rebecca. Hill is a sensitive and interesting novelist with her own voice, so it is perhaps not unkind to say that in Mrs. de Winter she has failed. By opting for the obvious choice—continuing the story where du Maurier left off—Hill has overlooked a more challenging and potentially fruitful option: to provide, through a kind of prequel, that aspect of the story which du Maurier denied us, Rebecca's version of events. This approach—used with such great effect by Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea, her account of Rochester's first marriage—has the great advantage of leaving the second author indebted to but free of the first. In the context of Rebecca, the idea is not new; Antonia Fraser, to du Maurier's amusement, published “Rebecca's Story” in brief magazine form in 1976. In rejecting that option, Hill was forced to adopt a form of ghostwriting.

Facing this basic technical problem, Hill comes unstuck. Within a very few pages, it is apparent that her pastiche is superficial. She can convey some of the narrator's traits and tics—Mrs. de Winter's propensity for fantasizing, and the refuge she finds in truisms and banalities. What Hill cannot convey is this woman's deeply suppressed inner voice. There is no counterpoint here; as there is throughout Rebecca—no irony and little contradiction, no suggestion that what we are being given is the narrator's, but not the author's, version of events.

Hill has no Manderley to anchor her text, of course, and this loss of an imaginative domain is the second factor to undermine her. For much of her sequel, the de Winters continue their European odyssey. Pursued in theory by the furies of guilt and retribution, they take off for Scotland, Italy, the Rhine, even Turkey at one point, but the furies appear to lose interest in them, as does the reader, almost at once. For an unconscionable period, virtually nothing happens, and then Hill, with an air of desperation, abandons the guide-book prose and drags the de Winters back to England. She settles them in an unconvincing spot in the Cotswolds, reunites them with some secondary characters from Rebecca, and from there squeaks through to her dénouement. The freneticism with which she changes location cannot disguise the fact that from beginning to end we are in a place far from the arena of Rebecca but only too identifiable—in stock theatre, where third-rate actors play weekly rep.

Readers interested in du Maurier would do well to ignore this travesty, and return to Rebecca and to du Maurier's other books. For those in search of a biography, Forster's account is readable enough, and until a more searching account is written this must serve as a stopgap. It is sad, and surprising, that two women, both novelists, should tangle with Rebecca yet continue to misconstrue it. Why has a reëxamination of Rebecca been delayed so long? It cannot be purely a matter of literary snobbery, for neither Forster nor Hill is a snob of that sort. Perhaps, as du Maurier herself sensed, the answer is that Rebecca is indeed a “grim” novel, raising issues about the weaknesses of their sex which women might well prefer to pass over. Feminism may have distanced modern readers from the attitudes of du Maurier's narrator and helped women to dissociate love from acquiescence, but their enfranchisement is hardly complete. The latest best-seller lists only confirm that the sly suggestion underlying Rebecca remains valid after fifty-five years: both in life and in bookstores, women continue to buy romance.

Julia Braun Kessler (review date 26 December 1993)

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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 addiction, Jack Kennedy's lust for actresses or Laurence Olivier's fling with Danny Kaye. Yet we might well question what such intimate revelations really add up to in recounting the life of a politician, an athlete, or actor, scientist, artist? Do they, we wonder, contribute anything to an understanding of their achievement?

Still, when it comes to certain novelists, it sometimes is evident that intimate, even scandalous, disclosures help to elucidate their work, often introducing a fascinating subtext to their fiction. Deep traumas or obsessions may fill in previously puzzling blanks, determine the power of haunting themes, explain the excessive, unintelligible venom of certain characters, adding a new dimension to their artistry.

This was the case, for example, with a biography of Margaret Mitchell published several years ago. The author of Gone With the Wind was revealed to have been date-raped in her belle, courting days by a man vaguely identified as “Brett.” It was an experience Mitchell herself never acknowledged publicly in her lifetime. Yet the disclosure, for this reader certainly, explained the immense force of her heroine's love-hate attachment to Rhett Butler. It made clear why it had always seemed the most thrilling feature of Mitchell's rather object, almost mindless portrait of a stereotypically flirtatious Southern belle, Scarlett O' Hara. Another striking example of the hidden power of a secret eroticism was the R. L. B. Lewis' revelations of Edith Wharton's unknown erotic life.

The same might be said now for the new Margaret Forster depiction of the “secret life of the renowned storyteller,” that unkillably popular British novelist, Daphne du Maurier entitled Daphne du Maurier.

With materials drawn from previously unknown diaries and letters, Forster has been able to let us see a side of Du Maurier until now closeted away, exposing a whole other emotional dimension to her fiction's compelling fascination.

Though the author was ever “a chameleon” to her own children, who learned of her bisexuality through these distressing new documents (only upon completion of this biography), Daphne du Maurier herself was never in doubt of her own nature. From the first, she liked to think of herself as a boy. But reflecting the prejudices of her generation, she greeted with fury any suggestion of Lesbianism. She did not, would not, see herself as homosexual.

But for her readers, how important Forster's revelation is! It shines a new light on aspects of Du Maurier that seemed mysterious and unfathomable. In the early pages of Rebecca, for instance, we come upon her nameless narrator's own view of herself in relation to the dashing Maxim De Winter “I was like a little scrubby schoolboy (!) with a passion for a sixth-form perfect. …” Or, a little later, note her narrator's puzzling statement upon being asked to marry him, “You don't understand,” … “I'm not the sort of person men marry.”

Add to that the passionate attachment of Mrs. Danver to the dead Rebecca (an echo of Daphne's earliest affair with her French governess, Ferdy, a woman she continues to correspond with, and remained loyal to all her life). And then, the presentation of Mrs. Danvers, the eerie “skull's face, parchment white, set on a skeleton's frame,” her vengeful stance toward Rebecca's replacement, bringing immediate foreboding and terror to the awkward, young (and ostensibly heterosexual) new wife.

And when we learn from Forster the whole picture, of du Maurier's strong attachment to, and curious identification with, her father, see her reserved, indifferent, cold mother, discover her struggle to contain her sexual attraction to women from childhood (what she calls Venetian tendencies), and add to it all her later determination to shut away one of her selves forever, we understand the dark shadows in her work: the guilt, the terror, the unease, even the namelessness, of her narrator.

With Daphne du Maurier's marriage to Major F. A. M. “Tommy” Browning, British war hero, and later a valued staff member in the royal household, she determined to lock away forever one of her two personae. It was her troublesome “boy” self she had decided must finally be kept “in the box”—a box never to be opened again.

She was born in 1907 to a talented upper-class family. Du Maurier's father Gerald was a well-known actor and stage manager; her grandfather George was a celebrated artist as well as an acclaimed novelist (Trilby,Peter Ibbetson). Daphne was the second of three sisters who grew up in a sophisticated, privileged London Atmosphere.

Yet her own childish fears could only have been exacerbated by her father's obsesion with having failed to produce a male heir. He wrote in a poem to her his lament that she, “who seems to live in Kingdoms all her own” could “do deeds of daring and much fame,” “if only she had been born a boy.”

Her own writing talents emerged early. They were to become more than an escape, her very salvation. But even later, when she had securely buried one part of her secret self she insisted that it was only her “No.2” self, that, “boy in the box,” who fired her creative powers. Writing made life possible and gave her “release from thoughts images and ideas which disturbed her,” observes Forster.

Unfortunately there was no denying her physical self. In what she herself felt a compulsion, No. 2 emerged in midlife. First, there was her attraction to Ellen Doubleday, the beautiful, urbane wife of her American publisher. Daphne pursued Ellen passionately: yet her love remained unrequited, and she suffered from her rebuff. It was then that she found in the actress Gertrude Lawrence the love and sexual realization she desired. The actress' early death nearly destroyed the writer altogether.

Margaret Forster's admirable biography has not only succeeded evoking a life's secret struggle, but contributes to our understanding of the hypnotic appeal of du Maurier's fiction.

Merle Rubin (review date 12 January 1994)

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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 on the Strand (1969), and her short stories, the best-known of which furnished further material for Hitchcock: The Birds.

Ironically, some of the very qualities that once relegated du Maurier to second-class literary citizenship now excite the interest of feminist scholars engaged in reexamining women's lives and writings. Romantic myths of brooding, strong-willed aristocratic men, lovelorn Cinderellas, mysterious mansions, and cruel, beauteous rivals reveal something about the ways in which women have seen themselves.

Margaret Forster, author of 16 novels and four nonfiction books, including a life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, does not make extravagant claims for du Maurier's place in the literary pantheon, but her perceptive, revealing biography, Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller, is sure to rekindle interest in du Maurier and her works.

Daphne was born in 1907 into a family of actors and writers. Her grandfather, George du Maurier, was the author of Trilby a novel that—like Rebecca—won few literary plaudits but maintained a powerful hold on the popular imagination.

Daphne was a middle child, lacking the self-assurance of her older sister, neglected by her mother, who lavished attention on her youngest “baby.” Offish and shy, Daphne was her father's favorite, but that had its costs: He was an old-fashioned philanderer whose cavalier treatment of women sent mixed messages to his impressionable daughter. For Daphne, becoming a writer was a way of establishing independence from her family as well as an avenue for exploring her internal conflicts.

Forster's account of Daphne's early life is somewhat tentative, lacking the force and power of her portrait of the writer's middle and later years, when du Maurier's marriage to career army officer Frederick “Tommy” Browning suffered and survived the strains of wartime separation, misunderstanding, boredom, and jealousy. With her husband overseas, Daphne all but succumbed to her attraction to a married, older man.

After the war it was Tommy who sought affection elsewhere. Forster's surprising discovery—the “secret life” of the subtitle—concerns another aspect of Daphne's life, kept secret from her family: what she referred to as “Venetian” love affairs with other women. Daphne discussed this side of her personality in a series of intensely personal letters to her American publisher's wife, Ellen Doubleday, who was herself the prime object of Daphne's devotion, but who had no interest in anything more than friendship.

Daphne's attempts at understanding her own feelings were frank, frantic, often confused. She repeated the mistakes her own mother had made, wildly favoring her youngest (in this case a boy) over her two older children (girls).

Her words on the importance of marriage, in a letter written at a time when her own was under great stress, show a hard-won wisdom: “For richer, for poorer doesn't mean whether you can afford TV or buy a car, but whether the person you marry grows in personality and character or falls away; and for better or worse means whether you can measure up to happiness and joy, or suffering and failure; in sickness and in health means not just cherishing someone who may get pneumonia, but someone who gets sick with longing for someone else.”

Du Maurier was constantly bombarded by requests from people wanting to write sequels to Rebecca. One wonders if she might have looked more favorably on such an attempt if it were by a novelist already established in her own right, like Susan Hill.

In her novel Mrs. de Winter, Hill deftly captures the keynotes of du Maurier's style and the intense self-conscious, impressionable sensibility of the original narrator-heroine, wisely following du Maurier's lead in never mentioning this self-effacing lady's first name.

Ten years into the future, Hill's Mrs. de Winter is convincingly the same person, but a little older and wiser. “I had gone from being a gauche, badly dressed girl to being an uninterestingly, dully dressed married woman …,” she wryly remarks. She is still vulnerable to her own active imagination. This time, however, it is guilt rather than jealousy that threatens the de Winters' marital happiness.

Hill reintroduces characters, themes, and situations from du Maurier's original novel rather as a composer might rework motifs from a symphony's earlier movements in its final one. But in another way, she undercuts the thrust of du Maurier's original work by changing from a story about jealousy to a story about guilt.

Hill's most original contribution, thus, is also the most contrary to the spirit of du Maurier's book, where it is made abundantly clear that the evil Rebecca not only deserved to die, but connived at her own shooting because she knew she had a fatal disease. Hill has replaced du Maurier's fierce, slightly over-the-top romanticism with a severe, if rather heavy-handed, moralism, which ultimately makes this accomplished and skillfully written sequel a little duller and more predictable than the remarkable novel that inspired it.

Anita Brookner (review date 25 June 1994)

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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 industry. She is in many ways the epitome of the professional writer, never growing stale, never flinching from her task, however distressing that might be.

In Mothers' Boys she is as concerned as ever. It must have taken some resolution to deal with this enigma of a meaningless assault on one boy for which another is locked up, and to trace the ramifications on the two families concerned. It is ramifications at which this author excels. Joe Kennedy, walking home one night, is attacked by two young men, one of whom is black. Joe is not a particularly nice boy: he is endlessly rude and unforgiving towards his mother, whose punishing sympathy he cannot tolerate. This mother, Harriet, is clearly as much of a problem as her son; we are dealing here with an unrequited love affair, and Harriet, with her estimable middle-class principles and her seemingly fathomless middle-class guilt, can hardly be persuaded to go back to her fabric-printing workshop and leave the boy alone. His father, an architect, would like to move on from the admittedly horrifying incident, but hardly has the energy (or the substance) to oppose his wife's agonisings. A weekend in Edinburgh, intended to cancel out some of Harriet's obsessions, which seem to proliferate, barely registers in her consciousness, busy as she is in attempting to hide her desire to rush to the telephone to see if her son, aged 17, is still safe and well at home.

One of her obsessions is that she must make contact with the mother of the accused boy, Leo Jackson. Sheila Armstrong is actually the boy's grandmother, her daughter Pat having died with her African doctor husband in a car crash. Sheila is a much more interesting character, much more sympathetically drawn. She is a stoical, uncommunicative north-country woman, already burdened with a maddening 89-year old father. (As always, Margaret Forster shows her skill at depicting the elderly, however cunning they may be). Sheila's journey to Africa to collect the boy will have the reader's heart beating in sympathy. She does not know what to do with Harriet Kennedy, does not know what to say to her. Worse, her beloved grandson refuses to speak to her when she visits him in what would be prison if he were older. She never finds out why he did what he did, why he took the LSD that fuelled the attack, or what will happen to him in the future. Of the two of them it is not Harriet Kennedy who makes a recovery. Harriet continues to wring her hands, even when her son acquires a girlfriend and a car and appears to be returning to normality. It is the stoical Sheila Armstrong, whose pain and whose dilemma are far worse, who can be trusted by the reader to behave like the mature adult she has trained herself to be.

The fact that I have given away nothing of the plot serves as a reminder that this is a cunningly constructed novel, beautifully paced, free of unconvincing peripateia. But is it art? It reads less like a novel than a documentary, or rather like a story outline for 20 episodes of Brookside. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this; Brookside maintains a convincingly high standard. But Brookside can also be relied upon for disasters: if anything can go wrong it will. This is first-class invention, but of a life-diminishing variety. In the same way Mothers' Boys feeds the reader's greed without actually satisfying it. No doubt this is a pointer to the author's expertise and her refusal to pander to newfangled notions. This is not a game, she appears to be saying; this is what happens, and I am telling you this for your own good. No doubt she is, and it would be ungrateful to berate her for being so down to earth. For it is this very characteristic which has made her so good a storyteller, even if the result, in this particular case, is bracing rather than truly cathartic.

Judy Cooke (review date 29 July 1994)

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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 portrayed in agonising close-up, slowly recovering from a degree of humiliation that he is reluctant to disclose to anyone but his mother. And here is the crux of this story about maternal guilt and male vulnerability and in-turned anger. A shared neurosis torments Harriet and Joe, mother and son, which makes a return to normality impossible for the rest of their family.

Articulate and tough, Harriet nevertheless feels herself being pulled toward a breakdown. Her husband, Sam, and their elder son, Louis, stand on the sidelines, helpless in the face of this distress. Only when she turns to another woman, the aggressor's grandmother, Sheila, does she experience a healing mutuality of grief.

All the public agonies of a police prosecution—the interviews, the identity parades, the trial, the media coverage—are well documented here. God knows, the Bulger case has made this a well-trodden path of speculation. The unresolved tensions of family life need investigation, too, before the trauma can be overcome. In Leo's case, there will always be a tempting explanation for his part in the attack: that he is disadvantaged, an orphan of mixed race. For Joe and Harriet, the nightmare may never entirely fade.

Mother's Boys is an impressive achievement. Margaret Forster's biography of Daphne du Maurier seems to have deepened her own novelist's understanding of powerful and conflicting emotions.

Isabel Colegate (review date 23 September 1995)

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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 than intrigued, fascinated—by the story told in her family of how a complete stranger had knocked on the door after her grandmother's funeral to enquire whether anything had been left for her in the will. Asked to explain herself to the three bereaved daughters who were in the house she astonished them by announcing, ‘I was her daughter too.’ In the face of their shocked disbelief she burst into tears, ran from the house and was never seen again.

No one until Margaret Forster herself, daughter of one of those sisters, Lilian, had ever tried to find out anything about this mysterious woman. Forster has traced some of the facts behind the story, but not all. Her picture is a detailed one, all the same, and it is the detail which makes the lives she found herself investigating so poignant.

Margaret Anne Jordan, Forster's grandmother, was a servant girl in Carlisle in the 1890s. She married a butcher and had three daughters. She had been treasured by the family for whom she worked, and she became an excellent wife and mother, agreed by all who knew her to be the very model of a Christian working-class woman doing her duty in the circumstances into which she had been born; she was revered by her three daughters. Her early life, parents, childhood, were never referred to. Forster discovered from parish records that Margaret Anne had had an illegitimate child, Alice, before her marriage, and that when this daughter Alice in due course married it was Thomas Hind the butcher, Margaret Anne's then husband, who was one of the witnesses. So was Alice born out of wedlock six years before her parents' marriage, or was she the daughter of some other man and if so at what stage was her existence made known to Thomas Hind? Forster's research was not able to come up with the answer, though she did discover that Alice had lived for many years just round the corner from her mother, the legitimate children having no idea of her existence.

In the course of her search Margaret Forster uncovered the hidden anxieties which haunted the lives of working-class women who dared not lose the precious respectability on which so much depended. She also describes how they lived, what their work consisted of, how high their housekeeping standards were and how hard it was to keep up those standards without the modern conveniences we take for granted.

Her own mother, Lilian, Margaret Anne's eldest daughter, was clever and did well at school and subsequently in a good job as a clerk in the Public Health Department, but she thought it right to give her life to marriage, housework and raising a family. Lilian's sisters did the same, though one, the beautiful Nan, had a racier life for a time, living with a dashing married man in Glasgow, until eventually he divorced his wife and married her. Looking at her mother's life, Margaret Forster early resolved never to marry and never to have children, recognising that her way out lay through school, which did indeed get her her scholarship to Oxford. Her second novel, Georgy Girl, was a success and was made into a famous film.

She did marry and have children and her writing career went from strength to strength; domestic machines and changing attitudes made it possible for her to do what had been virtually impossible for her mother's generation. Her relationship with her mother, particularly towards the end of the latter's life, was uneasy, and one senses a lingering soreness that the mother, proved wrong in her pessimistic predictions about her daughter's chosen way of life, still seemed to withhold her full approval.

There appears to have been a kind of perfectionism in both of them, and there must have been times when Lilian, in her spic and span house, the washing done, the mangle at rest, the dusters back in their bag behind the door, must have felt very proud of her clever, pretty, determined daughter. Perhaps she just wasn't going to let on.

Blake Morrison (review date 29 September 1995)

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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 Cumbria Council County Archive. What sets the book apart from most social history isn't so much that it's by an accomplished novelist (though that certainly helps the narrative) but that the family under the lens is Margaret Forster's own. Indeed, by the time it reaches the third generation, the book has become frankly autobiographical, an account of the childhood and young adulthood of Forster herself.

Margaret Ann Jordan, the author's grandmother, was a mystery even to her children. Though born in 1869, she never mentioned, and did her best to erase all record of, the first twenty-three years of her life—the years preceding her employment as a domestic servant and (later) her marriage to a butcher called Thomas Hind. The mystery deepened on her death in 1936, when a woman claiming to be her daughter turned up at the funeral. Margaret Ann's three children—Lilian, Jean and Nan—had never heard of any fourth daughter and sent the woman packing.

It was not until 1981, after Lilian, her mother's death, that Margaret Forster felt free to try to solve the family mystery; unlike everyone else, it seems, she “wanted to know” and thought that knowing might teach her something important about who and what she was The relevant certificates were uncovered with relative ease, and they showed that Margaret Ann, herself an illegimate child, had given birth to an illegimate daughter called Alice when she was nineteen.

Less easy, and ultimately impossible, to solve was the mystery of how Margaret Ann (whose own mother had died when she was two) could have abandoned and severed all contact with Alice, even though, for a time, she lived in the same neighbourhood; she wasn't even present at Alice's wedding, sending her husband (who was the father of her other daughters but not, it seems, of Alice) in her place. Could there have been secret meetings between mother and daughter, Forster wonders? Was Alice perhaps paid to stay away? Might she have been the product of a violent conception, even rape? Frustratingly—both for Forster and for the reader—an answer is never found. Whereas the domestic life of Margaret Ann is filled in with wonderfully cluttered detail, there remains this black hole in emotion and understanding.

More predictable, perhaps, is that Margaret Ann's secret shame should have made her harsh and censorious about women who have illegitimate babies—and fearful that this rate might overtake her own daughters. Truer than they knew to family tradition, both Jean and Nan became pregnant while unmarried, Jean to a working-class Scot called Dave, Nan to a rich, dandyish, deeply elusive Englishman called Jack. The men—breaking the mould—stuck by and married their girlfriends (for Jack, this meant first getting a divorce), vindicating Nan and Jean's belief that love, not security or respectability, is what counts. That belief made them harsh on their elder sister Lilian, the author's mother, who—successful, happy and well paid at work—chucked it all up to marry the dull, cautious and less well-paid Arthur (there was no question of women, once wed, keeping their jobs). If their early married life sounds at times similar to that of the Morels in Sons and Lovers (his dirt and physicality, her scrimping and frustration), there was at least no violence. And the arguments the sisters had—about priorities in love, marriage, work and motherhood—seem much closer to 1990 than to D. H. Lawrence.

In 1943, Lilian seems to have had some kind of nervous breakdown. At this point, the book changes direction, as Lilian's daughter Margaret (aged five) ceases to be “she” and becomes “I,” entering stage left “in a cloud of freezing ice” and “letting my own version of family lore come into play.” Like her mother, young Margaret was clever at school; unlike her, she was difficult, defiant, ambitious (to be a film star, or a writer), and determined to escape domestic drudgery. This, she decided, probably meant avoiding marriage and children.

The book having now become autobiographical, there's the danger here of some rather too easy indulgence in childhood memory (school, holidays, shopping expeditions, trips to teashops). But Forster's preoccupation isn't petites madeleines, or even chocolate eclairs; it's the task of placing herself in relation to her matriarchs, and of wondering how much misery need be handed on down the line. As a young woman, she eagerly seized freedoms and opportunities which her mother had been denied simply through having been born a generation earlier—not just an Oxford education and a writing career, but having holidays abroad, cooking for pleasure, owning a fridge and knowing you didn't need to get pregnant except by choice.

The narrative line is that of an escape story. While still in her mid-twenties, Margaret Forster had written a highly successful novel, Georgy Girl (later an even more successful film), was happily married to the journalist Hunter Davies, had a house in Hampstead, and could embark on motherhood knowing it didn't mean sacrificing her career. It was a triumph, and the author—risking triumphalism—doesn't mind telling us so. But she wants us to see it not as a personal victory but as a generational one, and one which shows how conditions have improved: “Everything, for a woman, is better now, even if it is still not as good as it could be. To forget or deny that is an insult to the women who have gone before. …”

The tone is breezy and positive. But there is much guilt and sadness in the book, too. “It hasn't amounted to much, my life,” Lilian reflects grimly on her deathbed, envying her liberated daughter. Margaret Forster consoles her that she's been a wonderful mother, wife and daughter, and that “a few skittery books” don't amount to much, either. But she knows, and we do, that Lilian is right—that her life, like millions of other women's lives, was more cramped and unhappy than it need have been. At least now in this tough, touching, never skittery memoir, a handful of those hidden lives have been properly commemorated.

Melissa Benn (review date 6 October 1995)

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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 three women within her own family, all working class in origin, but with very different fates.

The result is a fascinating, lucid but essentially hybrid work. It starts as something of a detective story, with Forster's attempt to establish the facts behind the “mystery woman in black” who visits her grandmother, Margaret Ann Jordan, towards the end of her life, and then comes knocking after the funeral. According to family legend, this was her grandmother's illegitimate daughter—the unacknowledged Alice—but family morals prohibited any further delving. Only when her mother died in 1981 did Forster finally feel free to explore this hidden part of her family history. But while the story of her hunt for the lost daughter makes for exciting reading—and incidentally, proves the crucial importance of local record-keeping—her efforts come frustratingly to nothing. Alice slips from the book as quietly and finally as she disappeared from the Jordan family house.

Hidden Lives is most easily classified as social history: an exploration of the solid detail of everyday lives, particularly women's. And it is here, in the “thick description,” that Forster most convincingly makes a case for dramatic improvement over the past century.

How, she implicitly demands, can we possibly compare her grandmother's punishing life as a domestic servant in turn-of-the-century Carlisle to her own life as a writer and mother 60 years later? For it is not just her own personal success that explains this change but the revolution in everything from labour-saving devices to sexual mores that makes life for all women of whatever class much easier.

The book shows that, while some women have always done paid work, our understanding of its psychological importance to women is new. Certainly, the saddest story is of Forster's own mother, Lily. She began life hopefully with a prestigious job in Carlisle's public health department. But after marriage and motherhood, that strange depression of those with little status in the world descended upon her. You didn't have to be living in 1950s America to suffer from the “problem that has no name.”

Forster lingers lovingly on the psychology of family relationships, the third and strongest element of Hidden Lives. By far the most poignant passages concern her relationship with her mother. Lily looks with bewilderment on a daughter who scribbles for a living and drinks white wine for lunch. She is paradoxically resentful at what Margaret has, but hasn't taken. “Given my income my mother would have been a spender. Given the chance—she would have been a lady who lunched at the Savoy Grill, the Ritz.”

“It hasn't amounted to much, my life,” Lily cries bitterly during her final illness. Such statements, and the petty but heart-rending squabbles between mother and daughter, prove—more than a thousand statistics ever will—just how much women's expectations have changed. Forster is well placed to chart the shift because she has never rejected the importance of motherhood—for herself and others. And yet, within one generation, there is a gaping psychological difference between the mother—representative of a dutiful femininity that would take nothing for itself but still felt cheated—and the daughter who had it all: work, happiness and babies.

Candice Rodd (review date 31 May 1996)

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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 servitude, halting upward mobility and slowly burgeoning opportunity, she was also representing the twentieth-century experience of anonymous millions. The dramatic highlight of the book, however, centred on Forster's grandmother, who, it emerged, had given birth to a daughter some years before she met and married a gentle and prospering Carlisle butcher. Though he apparently knew and wanted to help the child, his wife always refused to acknowledge her existence. On the day of the grandmother's funeral, this rejected daughter, by now middle-aged, made a distraught and ugly appearance on the doorstep, demanding her birthright. Turned away by Forster's incredulous mother and aunts, she never reappeared.

In the reconstruction of these events, you could positively feel the author's novelistic nerves twitching. She speculated about her grandmother's motives and about the psychological price to both mother and child of this act of gross denial, but the episode remained essentially mysterious. In Shadow Baby, Forster exploits the freedoms of fiction to explore, with her habitual combination of cool sociological overview and richly engaged detail, some of the issues raised by that intriguing fragment of family history.

Shadow Baby consists of two alternating and apparently unconnected third-person narratives, both featuring young women and their illegitimate daughters. Like Forster's grandmother, Leah is a working-class, parentless Carlisle girl who gives birth to a child in the 1880s. Hazel is a middle-class suburban seventeen-year-old who becomes pregnant in the 1950s. Though abandoned by the baby's father—an archetypal young toff with the exquisite name of Hugo Todhunter—Leah keeps little Evie, leaving her to the care of an elderly relation only when, four years later, she marries a modestly successful local tailor. Hazel, whose pregnancy is the result of a moment of idle sexual curiosity, is bundled abroad by her mother to have her baby in secret. The child is immediately given up for adoption, while Hazel returns to embark on the tidy life—university, career, marriage and family—that she and her mother had always envisaged. Evie never stops yearning for the mother she cannot even remember, while Hazel's daughter, Shona, is a self-possessed school-leaver before she learns that she is adopted. Both girls become obsessed to the point of instability with the longing to trace and know their mothers. It is Hazel, finally confronted by the child she had so easily given away, who expresses the heart of the matter: “It all came down to whether being mothered by your actual mother mattered … no, it all came down to whether being rejected by her when you had found her at last mattered.”

Hazel's no-nonsense tone mirrors Margaret Forster's own approach to her material. This is not to deny either the novel's narrative generosity—it is full of incident, dialogue and, especially in the Carlisle episodes, an acute sense of time and place—or its shamelessly mawkish strain. The portrait of the waifish Evie—consigned to a grim orphanage when her aged carer dies, clutching the two ribbons and scrap of paper which are her mother's only legacy, treated as a skivvy by the distant cousins who grudgingly rescue her, and all the while remaining docile, clean and scrupulously honest—stretches belief even as it brings an enjoyable lump to the throat. Yet elsewhere Forster is briskly unsentimental. Nowhere is there the kind of joyously tearful parent-child reunion beloved of popular journalism. When Shona bursts into her mother's orderly life, it is an act almost of aggression.

Shona at least has the opportunity to confront her mother and exorcize her rage. Leah refuses to meet her bastard child. It is her decent if bemused husband, Henry, who ensures that Evie has a job and somewhere to live, and who attends her wedding. Leah, meanwhile, learning that the grown-up Evie is living near by, becomes a hysterical semi-recluse, dreading every knock on the door. The apprehension may be justified, since the thwarted Evie has by this time become a kind of grim huntress, spectral and alarming.

Superficially at least, Shadow Baby's verdict on illegitimacy, even illegitimacy redeemed by loving adoptive parents, seems less than sanguine. All four main characters are scarred by it, Leah and Evie disastrously so, while the familial link between the two narratives, when it is finally revealed, turns out also to involve an illegitimate birth, the repercussions of which echo negatively through subsequent generations. Of course, it is secrecy and denial that do the real damage, but all the same, in a stroke which contains only a hint of irony, the novel ends with an almost indecently cheerful abortion.

Despite the book's zesty excursions into melodrama, Forster is at heart a bracingly commonsensical writer, with a down-to-earth belief in the explicability of human action, in cause and consequence. Here she is, for example, like George Eliot in unusually brisk mood, explaining precisely how Leah's refusal to agree to her husband's helping little Evie eroded their marriage: “She had outwitted him and prevented him from following his own instincts. He felt how powerful his wife was in all matters emotional and it angered him. But because he was not the sort of man in whom rage could be sustained, this anger melted down into disapproval and this in turn trickled down into feelings of detachment towards Leah.” Yet, where explanation is most needed, the novel is less than convincing.

It is true that Leah eventually offers a reason for having given up her daughter, but her straightforward account seems somehow too simple to justify the extremity and persistence of her torments. It comes besides, only long after the event. Like Henry, the reader had been taken aback when Leah agreed to marry him only on condition that they abandon her child; unlike Henry, we had been privy to Leah's life with the faultless toddler and seen little hint of the revulsion Leah later claims to have felt. It is not that her rejection and subsequent terror of her daughter are necessarily implausible only that, at the pivotal moment of the book—and despite the authorial omniscience she relishes elsewhere—Margaret Forster seems unwilling to venture too deep into those dark and messy regions of human motivation which, at their best, novels—and perhaps only novels—can illuminate.

Anita Brookner (review date 15 June 1996)

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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 either the father or the stepfather of Hazel and therefore the grandfather of Shona. But he is dead, as is Evie's father, as is Josephine's father: men have a very short expectation of life in this novel, while those who are left intact, that is to say Shona's adoptive father, Shona's stepfather, and Leah's saintly husband, may be perceived as the more honourable of the species.

For all the women, from the 1880s to the 1950s have one thing in common: they all have unwanted pregnancies and give their babies away for adoption. Shona, the survivor, is able to have an abortion and a subsequent sterilisation, since in the 1970s such things are possible. We are given to understand that hers is the more merciful resolution.

Once past this hurdle, and the confusing early chapters, readers will plunge happily into the kind of family story for which Margaret Forster is celebrated and which she executes so well. For apart from the alarming misfortunes of her characters, perhaps familiar to us from an older tradition of story-telling, she has a more serious purpose, which is to investigate the effects of adoption on the children who were given away at birth, and to examine their reactions when they trace and encounter their natural mothers.

So Evie finds Leah, and Shona finds Hazel; their stories are interwoven, but there is no doubt that Leah and Evie are the more interesting pair. They may be more interesting because they are more picturesque. They are poor, hardworking, mistreated, and both rise to easy circumstances and considerable respectability by virtue of the men they marry. Hazel and Shona, by contrast, are modern and affectless, metropolitan. Leah and Evie exist on the fringes of society before the first world war; Hazel and Shona are nicely set up to take advantage of the 1980s. None of these women appears to know anything about contraception, nor have they access to much education. A panicky desire to get rid of the unwanted child, and apparent success in this manoeuvre does not lead to any reflection, rather the opposite. Relief is registered, together with a desire to forget the whole experience.

But this is a revenge tragedy, and the daughters come looking for their ungrateful parents, only to have their own preconceptions overturned. We follow Evie's progress from unpaid servant to assistant in a high-class dressmaking establishment with enthusiasm. She is an excellent character, and Margaret Forster is at her best when describing her progress from the bottom of the social ladder to somewhere near the middle. Unfortunately, Evie wants her mother, and she knows where to find her, as does Shona nearly 100 years later, with the resources of St Catherine's House, conveniently near University College where she is studying law. Both are discomfited, disappointed, shocked—but here the game must not be given way. Readers will have ample time to assess their own reactions, as this generous novel reaches its inconclusive conclusion.

Clearly there are feminist points to be made here, or perhaps female ones. Maternity comes early to these women; at the same time it is seen to be inevitable, less than a blessing. A quite different case could be made out for, or rather against, Leah and Hazel, since their daughters barely seek to understand them. In this world of unfortunate or benighted women men could almost be seen as victims. The husbands of Leah and Hazel nevertheless shoulder the burden of these family mismatchings and do remarkably well from all points of view. Yet the women are given Margaret Forster's considerable sympathy and one may disloyally wonder whether they altogether deserve it. And the daughters? One of them comes to grief, the other soldiers on. Very little family stability results.

Margaret Forster is adept at creating a human panorama, her enthusiasm never in any doubt. She writes for women, very few of whom will refuse her their own enthusiasm. She writes well and effortlessly, equally at home in cold lodgings and petit bourgeois interiors. Evie is her heroine, and ours, or would be if she would only get on with her work. This is perhaps to pinpoint a flaw in the psychology of the novel: not enough reflection. But this is a minor cavil in a fine melodrama, in which commonplace dilemmas ramify to embarrass three generations and end in forms of sterility which the protagonists could not have foreseen.

David Kynaston (review date 7 November 1997)

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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 Carr & Co, bakers and biscuit manufacturers, between 1831 and 1931. The dominant figure, during and after his life, was Jonathan Dodgson Carr, born in 1806 into a Kendal family that ran a wholesale grocery business. The Carrs, like many of their neighbours, were Quakers, and Forster relates with sympathy, as well as insight, how the Friends provided the young J.D. with not only an ethic grounded in the twin virtues of honesty and industry, but also an invaluable network of business contacts and intelligence, particularly through the monthly and quarterly meetings that took place beyond Kendal. Physically immense, emotionally mature beyond his years, Carr decided while barely in his teens that his future lay in baking, not groceries; and following a stern apprenticeship, he made his move in June 1831, conscious that Kendal already had twenty-six bakers and that Carlisle, some forty miles away, would soon have a railway connection to Newcastle.

Forster makes it abundantly clear that, once under way, Carr was an archetypal Victorian entrepreneur of the better sort: taking the large view, above all through building a factory that produced flour and did the baking, an early example of vertical integration; publicizing his wares vigorously and imaginatively, much helped by becoming, as early as 1841, the first biscuit manufacturer to acquire a Royal Warrant; and taking a close, paternalist interest, outside as well as inside the factory, in his strictly teetotal workforce. Forster is excellent on detail, ranging from the slowly improving conditions of life in nineteenth-century Carlisle, to the mainly modest life-style of Carr and his growing family, to the biscuits themselves—whether the twenty types of Rich Desserts, of which the Iced Routs were especially popular, or the more austere ship's biscuits, such as Cabin and Captain's Thin.

The problem is J. D. himself. A paragon of a husband and a father, a considerate employer, an enthusiastic supporter of such unimpeachable causes as free trade and the emancipation of slaves (even persuading Frederick Douglass to come to Carlisle and deliver a three-hour lecture), he was simply too good to be true. Fortunately, he was beset by a spiritual crisis in the late 1860s. Two of his evangelistic sons, believing that the Quakers no longer treated every word of the Bible as the literal truth, found themselves expelled from the Society of Friends, and J. D. and his wife sadly decided they must follow them into exile. “We would ever wish to remain, with love, your friends,” their letter of resignation to the Carlisle meeting ended. J. D. did not become a broken man—he died in 1884 still in harness—but the reader's attitude changes from respectful admiration to something like empathy.

Operating in the long shadow cast by their late father, the second generation proved neither chips off the old block nor a complete disaster. Unusually, however, the third generation did provide someone special. Theodore Carr, the eldest son of J. D.'s third son Thomas, became chairman of Carr's in 1902, discovered that the company had unsuspected financial problems, and until his death in 1931 did much to ensure that the family concern (as fundamentally it remained) continued to be a significant, if no longer a premier, force in the biscuit world. He was fiercely energetic, with a mechanical bent that ensured that Carr's did not fall behind technologically; he had his grandfather's zeal for social improvement; and he responded pragmatically to the rise of trade unionism. He also, shortly after the war, induced the American President, Woodrow Wilson, to spend some hours in Carlisle. Wilson's mother had been born there, and on a bitterly cold Sunday morning, as the rain poured down outside, the great peacemaker optimistically told those huddled in Lowther Street Congregational Church that “it is from quiet places like this all over the world that the forces accumulate which presently will overpower any attempt to accomplish evil on a grand scale.”

Rich Desserts and Captain's Thin may not be the work of an accredited business historian, but nevertheless there is a reasonable amount of business matter, all sensibly deployed. Where this very worthwhile account more seriously disappoints is in the somewhat meagre ration of quotations from contemporary letters and diaries. Almost certainly they do not exist, but the result is that the reader, although never bored, is rarely fascinated. Occasionally a historical study, through its wealth and choice of documentation, portrays a world to which, however microscopic, one completely surrenders. This is not such a study.

Tellingly, the most memorable pages occur in the prologue, as Forster recalls the mid-1950s when she and the other sixteen-year-old girls in her class were given a guided tour of Carr's (not yet taken over by United Biscuits). The lure in advance was the free packet of chocolate biscuits, the reality on the day was the “overwhelmingly rich, sickly smell, more like a stench” of the chocolate room, accompanied by the nauseating sight of “melted chocolate running into a machine in thick dark globules.” From their teacher's point of view, the trip was a complete success. “We were all very quiet on the way back to school, our heads full of nightmare visions of failing O-Levels and having to become cracker-packers at Carr's.” Briefly, we are back in the authentic, seductive world of Hidden Lives.

Cressida Connolly (review date 17 October 1998)

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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 front line of illness have taken the place of war reporting. Like tales of battle, accounts of sickness thrill and frighten us, and inspire us, too: courage never goes out of style.

Margaret Forster's new book is part of this Zeitgeist. It describes the long-drawn-out deaths of two people in Forster's life, her father Arthur and her sister-in-law Marion. Forster is a terrific writer, witty and compassionate and beady-eyed, whose account of the lives of her working-class mother and grandmother, Hidden Lives, has become a deserved best-seller. Precious Lives is a sort of sequel. Arthur Forster had only a walk-on part in the earlier book, but here he takes centre stage. There is almost no subject more glee-engendering than the awfulness of other people's parents, and Arthur really was awful. He embodied—embraced, even—every cliché of the northern male. He was impatient, intolerant, stubborn, dogmatic, a slave to routine and a tyrant in his own home. He was a stranger to political correctness; it was his belief that the wheelchair-bound ‘should stop in bed in their condition, best place for them.’ When a plump nurse tried to help him up by telling him to put his arms around her waist, he shouted, ‘Where is it? I can't find any blooming waist, lass, you're that stout.’ Another nurse, this one nursing a pimple, was told that she had a barnacle on her chin.

Margaret Forster says she did not love Arthur, but I did. I loved his stoicism, his deep appreciation of landscapes, his jokes. I loved his neatness and modesty and sense of order. Best of all, of course, I loved all the maddening things about him, the flaws which his daughter has portrayed so vividly. Chief among his failings, in her eyes, was his refusal to engage with her, to discuss his feelings. Single words—‘pity,’ or ‘champion'—were as close as he came to expressing emotion. Perhaps that is why Forster adored Marion, because Marion did not flinch from any subject, however intimate: she spoke her mind, and always from the heart. It is easy to imagine Margaret and Marion as children, engaging little dark-haired girls with shining eyes, endlessly chattering, endlessly asking ‘why?’ Arthur was of a generation which had no truck with ‘why?’ ‘Can't be helped’ was one of his most worn expressions.

But with the approach of death Marion and Arthur became less different. Both of them began to take delight in the smallest things: in drinking a cup of coffee in the sun, in sitting looking at the sea. For Forster—left waving on the shore of wellness, marooned with her curiosity—their appreciation of such minutiae is baffling. She wants to know just what it's like to be terminally ill (Marion) or terribly old (Arthur), and they're not telling.

It seems to me that there's a lesson to be learned from the experience of Arthur and Marion, although it's not a conclusion that Forster herself arrives at. In our consumer society, we expect life to be composed of an inexhaustible supply of Great Moments, of images derived from advertising or holiday brochures. We expect to be copulating as we sign up for a mortgage, writhing in ecstasy when we get into a car to go and buy groceries, walking barefoot over white sand into a sunset whenever we have a day off work. We expect too much. It's only when life is ebbing away that people remember to appreciate what is around them; what is here, now. Maybe we shouldn't wait until we're dying to try and do the same.

Margaret Forster is not so sanguine: for her, death is anguish and sleepless nights and guilt and indignation and loss. But then, Marion and Arthur are her family, not ours. Precious Lives is a wonderful epitaph to them. It manages to be completely honest without compromising the delicacy of its subjects: it is moving and funny, too, Champion.

Rosemary Dinnage (review date 6 November 1998)

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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 Labour and the London Poor of 1851 was a revelation about the unimaginably poor; and, of course, there was Dickens. This century has opened up a crack through which writers can tell us about humble backgrounds they know at first hand: Lawrence in Sons and Lovers, Arnold Bennett in The Old Wives' Tale.

The more such books the better; which makes Margaret Forster's Precious Lives and her previous Hidden Lives (1995) worth any number of impermanent novels. In Precious Lives, she is writing about the deaths, and by implication the lives, of her father and her sister-in-law. One died too late, and one too early. Her sister-in-law Marion, a social worker and part-time journalist who had moved from the North down to London, might not have seen herself as one of “the poor.” But she grew up in a cramped household, her father crippled by multiple sclerosis and her mother heavily dependent on her. She was considered stupid at school, left early without qualifications and worked as a clerk. One day, she talked to her sister-in-law and good friend about the pointlessness of her life and work. As a result of the conversation, she eventually made a huge leap: qualified in social work and left her home town and husband to live in London with a lover. She was in her mid-fifties when she was found to have cancer.

The book interleaves Marion's dying with Arthur Forster's slow, slow fading-out from life at ninety-six. The former is the more brutally painful story, though Marion insisted that she had “had a life,” a reasonable slice of it, and that there was nothing special about her dying. Perhaps to have felt the bitterness of a bravely reconstructed life snatched away, a quarter of a century or so stolen, would have been unbearable. She died courageously—that is, making the least possible protest and causing the least possible nuisance to her relatives. This was the one attribute she shared with Arthur Forster.

Although Margaret Forster makes it clear that in a sense it was her sister-in-law she cared for most, that the loss of her was the more shocking one—indeed, she says firmly that she did not love her father, who had always been as brusque with her as with everyone else—it is Arthur's story that stays in the mind. Marion was a modern, one of us; she reacted to her ordeal in all the ways we can imagine ourselves doing. Arthur, who died only two years ago, was born on the cusp of the nineteenth century, and his wordless stoicism had something archaic about it. Though he was not quite of an age to fight in the First World War, he was virtually adult during those years, having left school at thirteen, in 1913, to go to work. For most of his life, he was an employee of the Metal Box factory in Carlisle. “Metal Box” sounds a good description of the rigid, restricted working life he entered at an age when most of today's boys are pre-occupied with computer games and brands of trainer. Adolescence, that time of sulks and sufferings and fearful experiments, had not been invented. Margaret Forster says that during her own adolescence she hated her father, not for anything serious but for his contempt for learning, his petty rules, his tactless criticisms.

What happened to Arthur Forster? An early photograph shows a cheerful lad, perhaps neither intellectual nor imaginative. Later ones show the man in the metal box, inconvenient edges knocked off, conventional citizen, hard worker, keeper of the rules. But when his wife died, even though since the 1930s he had been paying sixpence a week towards her funeral, he could not raise the necessary £455.12 and had to accept contributions from his children. He found this deeply humiliating, the crown of a lifetime's work. “Can't even pay for my own wife's funeral!”

He paid society back by becoming ever more taciturn (most of his quoted conversation here could be reduced to “Don't be daft,” “Champion!” and “Pity”), expressing a cynicism that hugely amused his grandchildren, though not his daughter (“Mother Teresa? She gets a rake-off somewhere along the line, likely”), and in very old age becoming something of a “character,” always an option for the working-class elderly. The outrageous opinions and rude comments that repelled his daughter, since she had grown up with them, amused the staff in the Home where he ended his days. The very old are allowed to be outrageous, because they don't matter any more; “Isn't he wonderful,” people say, relieved to see a spark of life in the worn-out body.

Arthur Forster kept a diary, in which he referred to himself as “A. F.” and recorded entries such as “Got out Bright and Sunny. Dismantled edge. Big job. Tidy up. 89 1/2 year old.” As the story of his long old age unfolds (surprisingly, it is not boring), the reader finds herself in the grip almost of a detective story: not “Who done it?” but “Who were you?” We get two clues. On his ninetieth birthday, in his best suit, with the remains of roast beef, vanilla ice-cream and iced birthday cake on the table, he cried. The family, as well as himself, were appalled, and the moment passed. On the other hand, there was his passion for “managing.” For asking for no help, for getting through the day, for keeping things trim, for making no complaint. Not a bad hook to hang a life on, when there were few hooks to choose from. “He's marvellous,” said Matron. “He just gets on with it, and the men don't usually—they moan and groan and don't settle like the women do.” Only towards the end, when his binoculars were too heavy for him to look at the sea, he said, “I don't know what's going to happen to me. It's got me beat.”

He did love the Cumbrian landscape (“Champion!”); he and Wordsworth might well have had an agreeable, silent walk (Wordsworth nevertheless preferring a blind beggar-woman to an employee of the Metal Box factory). When Margaret Forster tries to disentangle her feelings about her father, her lack of warmth but her distaste for the concept of duty, she comes up with gratitude: gratitude for the explorations of Cumbria by bicycle and on foot.

Many a child of a working man who had no car and little money never left Carlisle, never knew anything of the beautiful countryside around it. My father had made sure I did. He'd bothered. He'd shown me the glories of the Lake District without needing to say a word, and this was a gift more precious even than ensuring that I was adequately fed and clothed.

She remains, though, baffled by him; she so strongly wants to know his beliefs about life, death—but “He kept his thoughts to himself, either because he couldn't articulate them or because he thought that was where they belonged.” Before he has to move into the Home, she lies awake in his icy spare bedroom and thinks

how awful this was, a ninety-four-year-old man dragging himself round each day, trying to keep his routines going, living by them, battling all the time with the constant erosion of his strength. What kind of life was it for him? How could he stand it? But at the same time I knew this was how I thought not how he saw it. He didn't seem to look at his life as I did.

—certainly the understatement of the book. But Margaret Forster's writing is so lucid and so honest that through her own puzzlement a kind of picture emerges: the ordinary life and death of an ordinary man. Precious indeed.

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

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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 allowed to operate in remote Cumbria, is Carr & Co., a biscuit-making company which forms the subject of Margaret Forster's book entitled Rich Desserts and Captain's Thin. An attractively written and produced work by someone brought up in Carlisle, it is primarily aimed at those interested in local and family history, nostalgia and a good read. A novelist, she clearly learnt how to use original sources for her non-fiction works. However, if she had here employed a ‘business history’ approach, that would have helped to improve the book for the whole of her readership.

Her hero is the founder, Jonathan Dodgson Carr (here irritatingly called JD), who set up the Carlisle firm in 1831; Rich Desserts and Captain's Thin were popular types of biscuit. A humane Quaker, he is attractively portrayed as a physical giant with formidable mental energy. Having started with a bakery, he soon created an integrated business ranging from com merchanting and corn milling to retailing, a fleet of ships for transporting wheat being added later. Although hours were long, 63 a week, the factory was clean and airy, and there was a bath, schoolroom and library, as well as a weekly employees' meeting attended by one of the Carrs. He was visibly in charge, ploughing back profits for expansion, but making misjudgements in his later years before he died in 1884.

His eldest son Henry succeeded him, but he and his brothers did not know the business as the father had done. When Henry died in 1904, the firm was found to be in serious debt, with many errors and discrepancies in the books. The ‘Buddenbroks syndrome’ (after Thomas Mann's novel about a business dynasty) might have been expected to apply here, with the third generation hastening the firm's decline. Mercifully, a youngish nephew—Theodore Carr—who did understand the business and was forever modernising and experimenting, took over and was in charge until his death in 1931. The book explains how he got rid of the milling and other interests to concentrate on biscuit making; however, his achievements are not as sharply described as those of his grandfather.

It has to be said that the later Carrs were a full and provincial bunch, not enlivened by details of their private lives. Some figures of company performance would have helped. In 1974 UB produced a compilation by J. S. Adam, A Fell Fine Baker, whose chapter on Carr's was unaccountably not used by the author. That showed that in 1939, for wartime allocation purposes, production data were shared by biscuit firms. Carr's was well up in the big league, producing 14,500 tons annually, not far behind the 16,400 tons of Huntley & Palmers. Adam also gave Carrs' profits in 1927 at [pounds] 66,000; as the present book states that that year's profit was four times the pre-war average, profit in 1914 could have been only [pounds] 16,600.

Business histories on the whole are not good at describing conditions of work, but the author has used tapes recording the reminiscences of employees, more of which would have been greatly welcome. Among other topics, her account of how J. D. Carr and the rest of the family resigned from the Quakers, for doctrinal and not social reasons (he insisted on taking his bible into meetings), is correctly given at some length. In short, a mixed but very palatable and nutritious assortment.

Anita Brookner (review date 26 June 1999)

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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 would have said she preferred: no child would be glad to be associated with a death, however pathetic and regrettable that death was said to have been by those so benign elders—grandmother, father, second wife—who saw to it that she should not suffer. So successful were they, and so favourable were the family circumstances, that Catherine grew up merely irritated by the reminder of that death and took care to distance herself from it as far as she was able.

But Susannah exerted a prior claim which at first Catherine was determined to repudiate. She left a box of mementoes, all apparently inconsequential, that passed into her daughter's possession after the other relatives had died. Catherine's reaction was one of intensified exasperation. She herself, at the moment of telling her story, is 31 years old, the same age at which her mother died of heart failure, with the baby in her cot beside her. Aged a few months at that time, the child could not possibly relate to her mother's death, and as far as she knew was perfectly happy with her father's new wife.

But the mementoes haunt her. They are puzzling and unconnected: feathers, a shell, a hat, a rucksack, an address book. Like a good heroine, at least a heroine in fiction, she sets out on a quest to see where they will lead her. They lead her in various directions, all of them inconclusive. This is where Margaret Forster reveals herself as an experienced practitioner, far too experienced to promise revelations. Why else would she have Catherine journey to Cumbria, or to Becquia in the Grenadines, only to find no answers at the end of such journeys? In any event it seems unlikely that her frail mother, suffering from heart failure, should have gone fell-walking or sailing, even less likely that the address book should contain no names, only addresses. All this is fairly frustrating, not only for Catherine but for the reader as well, as too many excursions are undertaken with no conceivable purpose in sight.

But some kind of revelation takes place as Catherine realises that the memory box was full not of messages to the daughter Susannah would never know as an adult woman but messages to herself of times gone by. There were indeed excursions to Cumbria and the Grenadines, but these were not what they seemed. Susannah had a life already lived: it seems to the adult Catherine that this was far more interesting than the image of a tragic young woman who died holding her baby's hand. By the end of the story Catherine has had to revise her ideas, to cancel various frustrations and to recognise herself in her mother's new image. All this adds up to an agreeable picaresque novel in which the reader urges the protagonist on in the hope of new twists in the tale. In this sense The Memory Box lets one down rather. The promised revelations fail to satisfy, and Catherine herself is not particularly sympathetic. Moreover, the effects are overqualified, signalled by too many question marks. That these questions remain unanswered is a sign of Margaret Forster's expertise, but the exercise feels a little formulaic, as if the practised novelist is on automatic pilot, believing intensely in her own plotting but too familiar with her own scenario to make it persuasive to her readers, or indeed to other daughters, whose home life may have been rather more complex than that enjoyed by Catherine. And there are one or two loose ends which it would be unfair to point out.

There must be a hard core of readers who pay no attention to reviews and who happily follow their favourite writers wherever they choose to take them. I suspect that such a constituency is dwindling, as novels imperceptibly lose their hold on the imagination, to be replaced by more factual testimonies or by the fascinations of science. Yet novelists rely on readers who come to them in a state of innocence, willing to be diverted and comforted. Such readers will need no special pleading to persuade them of Margaret Forster's worth as a novelist with a lively penchant for family mysteries. She will be excellent company for as long as simple stories have their power to please. Those who have found simplicity less than satisfactory may do better elsewhere.


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Further Reading