Unravelling the family braid

Margaret Forster's search for her grandmother's secret years is full of treasures. By Claire Tomalin; Hidden Lives: A Family Memoir by Margaret Forster Viking, pounds 16

This is a wonderful book, perhaps the best Margaret Forster has yet given us, crowning her 30 years' achievement as a novelist and biographer. She has found a perfect subject in her own family history, one that uses her historical sense, her researcher's skill and her vivid and sympathetic imagination. A few years ago she reconstructed the life of a real servant, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's maid, Wilson, in fiction that occasionally verged on the lush. Here, where the servant is her own grandmother, her narrative has the bite and vigour of truth well told.

The book sets out to do justice to the women of her family: her mother, the eldest of three sisters born at the beginning of the century, and before that her grandmother, Margaret Ann Jordan, after whom Margaret Forster herself was named. All had lives of hard physical labour. The earlier Margaret was born in Carlisle in 1869, and died there in 1936; and Carlisle, the place, is the other main theme of the book, with its markets, factories, different grades of housing estates, offices, shops, churches and schools: an almost unrelievedly grim, grey backcloth for the family drama.

Carlisle was a pretty closed world. Among Margaret's relatives, "the most daring journey ever made was by my father when he went as a young man to London for the day. He went to King's Cross station, walked round it, thought nothing of it, and came back, to boast forever he had been to London." When Aunt Nan moved to Nottingham with her husband, their behaviour was judged dashing and dangerous, and when Margaret went to France as an au pair in 1955, she was the first member of her family to cross the channel.

Or so she believes. But there are mysteries in the family. They centre on her grandmother, who was, she discovered from her birth certificate, the illegitimate child of a Carlisle servant girl, and orphaned at two. There were then 20 hidden years of which she never spoke, and another mysterious birth which preceded her respectable years in service, and her respectable marriage to a local butcher. When I first read the book in proof, without illustrations, I imagined Margaret Ann as a self-effacing woman. Her photograph in the finished book suggests something quite different, bold dark eyes, smartly piled-up hair and seductive turn of the head making guilty secrets seem likely enough.

Margaret Forster is not able to unravel her grandmother's story beyond the fact that her first daughter, born before she married and never acknowledged in her lifetime or in her will, actually lived round the corner and must have used the same shops and walked the same paths as her half-sisters, year after year, remaining completely unknown to them. Who her father was, and where she was born, remain a puzzle.

The grandmother's grit and strength passed to her three acknowledged daughters, all clever and enterprising, as they needed to be when their father died young. Each at first did well within the limitations placed on working-class girls in the Twenties. Lilian, the cleverest, became a clerk in the local Public Health office, Jean went at 13 to Carr's, the Quaker biscuit factory, and Nan set up her own dressmaking business. But Jean and Nan were both pretty and, by the standards of the times, wild. They attracted boys and soon made the exchange that was imposed on every girl, giving up economic freedom for sex and babies. In due course Lilian too, driven only by her desire for children, sacrificed her good career and settled for the punishing life of a labourer's wife on a housing estate. It's worth quoting the central statement of the book:

"It would have been a comfort to both Jean and Lily to have been able to say giving up their jobs had been worth it ... but they couldn't. The further the two of them got into the life of a mother and a working man's wife, the more alluring their past careers became. The only real compensation was their sons. They doted on them and if they had not given up their jobs, they could not have had them, could they? Jobs were traded for children and that was that."

The book itself is of course an ironic demonstration of the fact that it was Lilian's daughter who achieved the success her mother came to envy, throwing off all the shackles that had weighed down grandmother, aunts and mother, using her force of character along with the great educational system of the post-war years to leave Carlisle, to go to Oxford, to decide when to have her children - to refuse the old choice, job or children - and to reach a life of luxury undreamed of in her family.

Covering the more familiar ground of a working mother's experience in London in the Sixties, the last part of the book is less enthralling, although it is a necessary part of the story; and the shifting grounds between daughter and mother, a complicated terrain made up of love, disapproval, exasperation, jealousy, bewilderment, guilt and love again, are as well charted as they could be.

When Margaret was in her teens, her mother would go every Friday night to Her Majesty's Theatre in Carlisle to see the Salisbury Players, and also to the local amateur dramatic society's performances. Local theatre was an important part of education in those days, and Margaret was often taken too. Thus encouraged, she began to listen to Saturday Night Theatre on the family wireless, which she had to plug into a light socket in her bedroom and listen to in the dark. She never heard the last ten minutes of any play because, "my father would come back from the pub and he had to have the wireless on. So just before he was due back my mother would come up and unplug the wireless and take it downstairs for him. I never even attempted to protest. That's how it was... My mother always said, as she did the unplugging, `I'm sorry, but you know it would be needed,' and she was right."

Hidden Lives is a box full of these treasures, a book to be put on the A-level syllabus, a slice of history to be recalled whenever people lament the lovely world we have lost.

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