Books: Feminine endings

HIDDEN LIVES: A Family Memoir by Margaret Forster, Viking pounds 16
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THE photographs in this book speak volumes. The author's grandmother, a domestic servant before she married, appears as the modestly prosperous young matron she became, stiffly dressed to kill in mutton-chop sleeves for the big event of a family portrait. Her mother is snapped in a group at the seaside in the 1950s, in a sensible coat and hat. Margaret Forster herself, photographed at 28 (when her novel Georgy Girl was being filmed), is a Sandie Shaw-lookalike in a PVC mac. But posed photographs aren't meant to tell the whole truth. This memoir does indeed plot the shifting fate of women over a century of social change, but what also emerges is a delicately precise picture of that suffocating disease, English class.

In 1936, on the day of Margaret Ann Hind's funeral in Carlisle, an angry woman arrived on her doorstep claiming to be her illegitimate child. The three daughters of Mrs Hind's marriage were outraged and incredulous, but it turned out to be perfectly true. Furthermore, the dark secret had been living just round the corner, unacknowledged, for years. Such a juicy snippet would be enough to tempt any writer. When the dead woman in question is your own grandmother, the temptation is not one to resist. Armed only with a few such vivid fragments of oral history this was not, pre-Margaret, a family given to writing anything down or even talking about its past Forster sets out to uncover the facts.

The first part of the book uses parish and census records, hearsay, much observant tramping around old Carlisle and the author's novelistic skills to create a Catherine Cookson-vivid picture of turn-of-the-century working- class lives. As servants went, Margaret Ann was lucky well housed, respected and kindly treated. She was fortunate too in that her eventual marriage to a local butcher (their slow courtship is eloquently imagined) raised her a couple of notches on the social scale and gave her a reputation to maintain: reason enough, perhaps, for the complete veil she drew over her earlier life. Childbirth outside marriage was of course commonplace, but Margaret Ann never spoke of that first-born daughter or of her own illegitimate and orphaned status, or of the reasons for her sometimes evident unhappiness. If asked about her childhood she lied. It was as though her real life had begun at 23.

Shame casts a long shadow. When, as an eager Brownie doing a project, the author asked for help in drawing up a family tree, her mother Lilian became as tight-lipped as her own mother had always been.

Lilian, in fact, is at the heart of this book. The cleverest but least ruthless of the three sisters, stranded between the essentially Victorian world of her mother and the liberated one of her daughters, she is a study in thwarted potential, a distinctive personality but also the epitome of one kind of decent, dutiful, timid, mid-century English womanhood. Writing about her mother, Forster slips from third-person imaginative reconstruction to acute first-person memory. The result is both warmly nostalgic and sad.

Lilian's story is the classic one of devotion to family, rice pudding for lunch, keeping up appearances and make-do-and-mend. Unlike her own mother, she married "down", so money was always tight, but come what may her girls must have their new Easter frocks, even if it meant shame-facedly going to a second-hand shop. The weekly trips into Carlisle never vary: the market and the dismal Co-op are for buying, the smarter department store for yearning. Lilian is horrified when her husband urges young Margaret to buy a bike on hire purchase, the slippery slope to penury. Fear of poverty, humiliation and in particular of anyone in authority half rules her life. Just once she blossoms, when invited to return to the well-paid clerical job she had loved before her marriage, but three months later she is back at home, the habits of duty and self-denial too strong to break.

What gives the book its edge is the ambiguity of feeling that daughters everywhere will recognise. From the day Margaret won a place at the posh High School, her fate escape to Oxford and the airy world of can-do was sealed. The price of social mobility is to judge those who made it possible and Forster, irritated by her mother's missed chances, isn't slow to judge. But blood is thick. Rational, emancipated Margaret may briskly reject her mother's punishing standards of housekeeping, but when Lilian falls ill and Margaret stands in for her at the hospital where she mans a charity tea-trolley, she strives to do it just right, desperate for Lilian's approval. The duality of feeling is mutual. Visiting Margaret and her husband Hunter Davies in North London, Lilian peers with wonder and deep suspicion at this brave new world of exotic vegetables, pine furniture and slipshod dusting.

One year the Forsters invited Margaret's parents, neither of whom had ever been abroad, to join them for a holiday in Gozo. Surprisingly, Margaret's father (who had been appalled at the mere thought of having to go to an airport) had a wonderful time. Lilian, made predictably uneasy by uninhibited foreign ways, did not. Seeing her swelter under layers of cold-weather clothing, Margaret is driven to her usual sense of exasperation, but she really can't have been surprised. The writer of this affectionately analytical little book must perfectly understand as she makes the reader understand why Lilian could no more dispense with her corset and long-legged knickers on a Mediterranean beach than she could have danced naked through the streets of Carlisle.