Book of a lifetime: Hidden Lives, By Margaret Forster
Saturday 16 June 2012
I first heard about Margaret Forster's Hidden Lives on a park bench during a lunchtime escape from the office. I was longing to become a writer and a girlfriend and I were discussing the book I wanted to write. It was about a great-grandmother who wrote a recipe book in a Japanese concentration camp because, years earlier, she had been trapped in a miserable first marriage, and resurrected it by cooking.
A hundred years ago, it had been the only option she had. She wasn't famous, I told my friend. She hadn't made her mark on history but the limitations and struggles she had faced and how she dealt with them fascinated me, as a woman. Would it make a book? "Read Hidden Lives," my girlfriend said. I bought it on the way home that evening – a paperback whose front was a collage of black-and-white photographs taken in different decades of the 20th century. Hidden Lives, it read, a family memoir. I looked at the people on the cover, wondered who they were, where they were. Then I opened the first page and was hooked.
Hidden Lives is social history at its engaging best. Forster follows the lives of her grandmother, Margaret Ann, her mother, Lilian, and then her own. In so doing she traces the path of women from the late 19th century to the late 20th, showing their changing expectations and opportunities and how lives were governed by marriage and unplanned child-bearing. When, on reaching Oxford, Forster herself discovers contraception, she wonders why "did everyone stress the importance of the vote for women when control over their own bodies matters so much more?"
Hidden Lives didn't just make me think; it opened my eyes to how riveting the history of real girl-next-door women could be. I was gripped by the detail. Even at academic schools, boys might be taught fractions and equations, physics and chemistry, while girls were not stretched beyond multiplication and botany. That women in the Civil Service used to have to give up work when they married. How a woman adjusted from earning a good salary to lighting the oven coals at 6.30 am, and spending half her week scrubbing her family's clothes.
Through Hidden Lives, I found the confidence to write my own great-grandmother's story. Within a couple of years I was a full-time writer, about women who fought to break out of the narrow confines of their lives in the generations before us. Another biography followed, and now a novel, Park Lane. I am not sure that they, or any future books, would be written were it not for Hidden Lives.
Frances Osborne's novel, 'Park Lane', is published by Virago
TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success
tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Which country would be hardest to invade?
- 2 The man who filmed the Freddie Gray video has been arrested at gunpoint
- 3 Royal baby girl born: Duchess of Cambridge's second child will be a princess thanks to Queen
- 4 Uploading pictures to find out how old you are gives Microsoft the right to post them wherever they want
- 5 Teen suffers embarrassing wardrobe malfunction in front of deputy PM
Daredevil, Netflix, TV review: Marvel wins first fight in bid for television domination with Charlie Cox's superhero vigilante
London art exhibition features portrait of Iraqi migrant shot dead in Iraq after being refused UK asylum
Grace Dent on TV: Peter Kay's Car Share made me genuinely LOL
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
London Marathon: Best running songs from Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar to 'Uptown Funk'
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
Indonesia executions live: 'Hysterical' families heard prisoners being shot dead by firing squad
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: SNP and its activists 'openly racist' towards the English, Farage says
EU exit would hit UK economy much harder than neighbouring countries, study finds