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.

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game