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Book of a lifetime: Hidden Lives, By Margaret Forster


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