Margaret Forster, novelist, biographer and writer of truly memorable memoirs, died this month aged 77.
When I heard of her death, I felt I had suffered a personal loss. I felt as though she was a contemporary, a friend, who had experienced the same things I had and that now we would never be able to talk them over together. This is ridiculous in so many ways: she was my mother’s age, not mine; she was brought up in a council house in Cumbria while I was bought up in ‘nice’ private houses in Cheshire and then South Africa; she was a scholarship pupil at Oxford whereas I was a very average student at the University of Cape Town. And yet, and yet … in some strange way she was my friend, part of my family even.
My parents spent the last fifteen years of their lives in Cumbria, latterly very close to Carlisle. My mother loved the books of Hunter Davies (Forster’s husband of 56 years); my sister and I loved the books of Margaret Forster, especially her memoirs. As a family we were constantly giving each other Margaret Forster or Hunter Davies books as gifts, and conversations often contained references to them. Their lives and experiences seemed interwoven with ours.
Margaret Forster was a special person: clever, talented, generous, perceptive and yet shy and unassuming. I loved her. OK, I’ve never met her, but I loved what she gave me through her writing. Her beautiful style, a sense of hope and the possibility of achievement, an ironic acceptance of her own foibles and therefore mine. I was particularly moved by her last book, My Life In Houses , in which she shares her obsessions with the houses she had lived in – and those she hadn’t. This is an obsession I have too! When she imagined living in those houses she walked passed in Carlisle it was as though she was describing me. I could completely identify. As a student in Cape Town, South Africa, I used to plan my routes home from lectures depending on which houses I wanted to dream about that day.
Margaret Forster’s writing does something that really great writing can do – it validates and enhances our own life experience, allowing us to think differently about things, giving us new meaning.
A great loss, but also how lucky we are to have ‘known’ her, even if only through her books.