“Hidden Lives” by Margaret Forster – a biography of three generations of women in one family

I have a number of favourite books which I like to recommend to people and which, on the whole, I find that they enjoy. One of these is Hidden Lives by Margaret Forster. This author wrote a variety of different types of book and is publically known for her novel Georgy Girl which was made into a successful film – I did not enjoy this book. She wrote a variety of novels, often about social issues, of which my favourite is Diary of an Ordinary Woman and books about the life of women and feminism including an excellent biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I read and enjoyed her autobiography and review it here and have read the biography of her husband, the journalist and writer Hunter Davies, which I review here.

Hidden Lives is a biography of three generations of the women of her family. Her grandmother was born in Carlisle and lived as a working woman and later a wife and mother. She may, or may not, have had an illegitimate child and possibly other secrets which Margaret tries to unravel. She then moves on to her mother and her sisters who also came from Carlisle but began to live a very different life as culture changed after the war. Margaret’s mother was discontented with her life feeling that she had more to give than she could because of the cultural restrictions of the time. The book finishes with Margaret’s life as a woman who escaped her working class background in Carlisle to go to university, live in London and become a writer. Much of the book examines the differences in opportunity faced by the women and what limited options they had. It is, therefore, a work of social history looking at the lives of working class people throughout the twentieth century through one family.

I found this book gripping and really enjoyed it on rereading. Biographies about ordinary people which demonstrate how they lived their lives are one of the types of book that I most enjoy. This is finely written and you feel that you begin to know and understand this family better as you read. It is one of the best biographies I own. The author also used the story of her grandmother to write a novel Shadow Baby about what might have happened and why.

The author also wrote Precious Lives which is the biography of her father and of her sister-in-law Marion and which was written as each of them faced the end of their lives. She explores the same themes of societal change and limited opportunities in a working class background but also explores society’s attitudes to death as part of the story. I also recommend this book although I don’t think that it has the same impact as its predecessor.

If you haven’t read any books by Margaret Forster I highly recommend them and suggest that you start with this one if you enjoy biographies or social history.

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