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On My Bookshelf – Women’s Lives

On My Bookshelfv1

This week I am going to share some of the books on my shelf that fit into my interest into women’s lives and how they’ve changed in the last one hundred years or so and in particular, how childbirth could have calamitous consequences.

I am going to start with one of my favourite books of all time: Shadow Baby by Margaret Forster which I read way back in 1996 while recovering from having all my wisdom teeth bashed out of my mouth! Since then I’ve read this copy many more times, hence the unforgivable creases on the cover.

SB June 2015


Evie, born in 1887, and Shona, born in 1956, have one thing in common: both were abandoned as babies by their mothers. Different times, different circumstances, but they both grow up sharing the same obsession. Each sets out to haunt her mother, with terrible consequences for everyone involved. Goodreads

While Evie and Shona’s stories are fascinating the events and emotions that led to their mothers to give them up are no less so. A book full of historical detail which was based upon Margaret’s book about her family for Hidden Lives. I read Hidden Lives after Shadow Baby having embarked on a Margaret Forster book fest and it was clear where her inspiration came from. Her Grandmother, also named Margaret was visited by a woman when she was in old age, a woman who said she was her daughter. Amazingly faced with the elderly Margaret’s ferocity not one of her family probed deeply into who this woman really was.

HL June 2015


Margaret Forster’s grandmother died in 1936, taking many secrets to her grave. Where had she spent the first 23 years of her life? Who was the woman in black who paid her a visit shortly before her death? The search for answers took Margaret on a journey into her family’s past. This is a memoir on how women’s lives have changed over the century. Goodreads

Many, many years later my daughter’s history dissertation led me to read more widely about infanticide, not wholly confined to poor women who couldn’t care for an unwanted child but those who were subjected to post puerperal mania. One of the most moving books I read was The Cruel Mother by Siân Busby

TCM June 2015


In 1919 Sian Busby’s great-grandmother gave birth to triplets. One of the babies died at birth, and eleven days later she drowned the surviving twins in a bath of cold water. She was sentenced to an indefinite term in a prison for the criminally insane.
For generations to come, the author’s family dealt with the murders and the accompanying shame, guilt, and anxiety by suppressing the disturbing memory. It wasn’t until Busby began to experience severe bouts of postpartum depression herself that she felt compelled to learn more about this shadowy story, ultimately immersing herself in the puzzling and horrific tragedy that had quietly shaped her family’s collective history.
In Cruel Mother, Busby digs out her own postpartum depression, by re-creating not only the broader reality of post-WWI working class England, but the more intimate setting in which her great-grandmother tried to raise a family. In the process, Busby brings ghosts to very real and familiar life, making these unexpected and inexplicable deaths that much more tragic. Ultimately, Busby and the reader are left not only with new understanding, but heartfelt empathy for all involved. Goodreads

This was another fascinating look at women’s lives, and treatment following childbirth, but also a great illustration of how such a tragedy can cast a long shadow over future generations.

One of the options that a girl in trouble could resort to in Victorian and Edwardian England was to employ a baby farmer. I read books about the infamous baby farmer Amelia Dyer but also a fictional depiction of the timeThe Ghost of Lily Painter written by Caitlin Davies, who is Margaret Forster’s daughter.



The first time Annie Sweet sees 43 Stanley Road, the house is so perfect she almost feels as though it has chosen her. She longs to move in, but with her husband seeming more distant, and her daughter wrapped up in her friends and new school, Annie is left alone to mull over the past.
Soon she becomes consumed by the house and everyone who has lived there before her, especially a young chorus girl called Lily Painter, a rising star of the music hall whose sparkling performances were the talk of the town.
As Annie delves further into Lily’s past she begins to unravel a dark episode from Edwardian London, that of two notorious baby farmers, who lured young unmarried mothers with the promise of a better life for their babies. Until Annie solves the mystery at the heart of the scandal, the ghost of Lily Painter will never be able to rest.
Based on a real period from London’s rich history, Caitlin Davies skilfully blends fact and fiction to bring to life part of our sinister past. Spanning an entire century, from the journals of an Edwardian police inspector to a doomed wartime love affair, The Ghost of Lily Painter is an engrossing and poignant novel from a hugely talented writer. Goodreads

This is an excellently well-told tale and as I was choosing books for this post, I was incredibly tempted to pick this one up and read it again.

Illustrating how long the subject of women’s lives, particularly when based on real women, has lasted this year I read Out of The Silence by Wendy James

Out of the Silence

no original picture of this one as it is on my kindle


I call his name – only quietly, but he hears me as I knew he would, and wants me as he always does. And we come together – right there in the darkness. And even though there is no way to be certain of any other thing in the world, I am certain that I would risk anything to keep what is between the two of us. For love, I would risk anything, lose everything.
Out of the Silence is a stunning debut novel about three Australian women from very different worlds: Maggie Heffernan, a spirited working-class country girl; Elizabeth Hamilton, whose own disappointment in love has served only to strengthen her humanity; and Vida Goldstein, a charismatic suffragist from Melbourne and the first woman to stand for Parliament in Australia.
When Maggie’s life descends into darkness after a terrible betrayal, the three women’s lives collide. Around this tragedy Wendy James has constructed a masterfully drawn and gripping fiction. Based on a true story, it unfolds at the dawn of the twentieth century against the compelling backdrop of the women’s suffrage movement and a world on the brink of enormous change.
The novel powerfully evokes the plight of women in the early 1900s – not least their limited options, whatever their class and education. However, at its heart this is a story of love – of love gone wrong; of its compromises and disappointments; but ultimately of its extraordinary transformative power. Goodreads

This book powerfully illustrated how women’s lives were hampered by their sex with those who decided on a career of any sort having to make a choice between that and marriage.

One last example of this genre is the memoir Bad Blood by Lorna Sage, a young woman who never had sex again after becoming pregnant in 1950’s Wales.

BB June 2015


Blood trickles down through every generation, seeps into every marriage. An international bestseller and winner of the Whitbread Biography Award, Bad Blood is a tragicomic memoir of one woman’s escape from a claustrophobic childhood in post-World War II Britain and the story of three generations of the author’s family and its marriages.
In one of the most extraordinary memoirs of recent years, Bad Blood brings alive in vivid detail a time — the ’40s and ’50s — not so distant from us but now disappeared. As a portrait of a family and a young girl’s place in it, it is unsurpassed. Goodreads

More posts from my bookshelf can be found here:
On My Bookshelf
On My Bookshelf – What’s in a Name?

I do hope you’ve enjoyed my whistle stop tour of nearly twenty years of reading around this particular subject – do you have any recommendations for me?


A book lover who clearly has issues as obsessed with crime despite leading a respectable life

31 thoughts on “On My Bookshelf – Women’s Lives

  1. I too love Margaret Forster. Try Good Wives if you’ve not already read it. It asks the question of what it means to be a good wife, through the stories of four women.


  2. Brilliant and interesting post Cleo and I even got some books for the TBR 😉
    I’ll have a look at my lovely bookshelves to see if I’ve got anything on that subject area you might like!


  3. What a terrific idea for theme for this post! And you’ve mentioned some excellent titles too. As we look at how women’s choices and lives have changed over the decades, it’s so interesting to see how society and the culture of the times impacts those choices. Thanks for this.


    1. Thank you Margot – it is a fascinating subject, I’m very glad to have been born when I was, and the books I’ve featured are my favourite examples that look at a wide range of issues, but also chart the change in society over the decades.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m dismayed to realise that this is an area I’ve not done much reading in, although it sounds just my kind of thing. Thank you for putting together a great reading list for me!


  5. Thanks for the post. I was especially interested in the mention of Margaret Forster as she is a writer I tried for the first time last year with The Unknown Bridesmaid which became one of my books-of-the year. I had a completely false impression of Forster, as a writer, but the Unknown Bridesmaid changed all that. I just bought a couple of her OOP titles the other day.

    On another note, it’s interesting (in a crime way) to note that most (not all) of the women convicted for murder in the 19th C were guilty of crimes to do with murdering children–their own or (more commonly) it was their profession. Terrible to think that if you were a maid (unmarried), you had to fob off your baby in order to get employment.


    1. I really enjoyed The Unknown Bridesmaid too Guy – I have quite a selection of her books from way back, another of my favourites is Have The Men Had Enough?
      On your second point that is exactly what some of these books explore, my daughter did her history dissertation on infanticide and I ended up reading quite widely around the subject, an absolutely horrifying proposition for any woman who fell pregnant while unmarried.


  6. Great idea for a post! Hmm…I’m tempted to recommend Richard Adams’ The Girl in a Swing, but actually I think you might hate it! Supernatural elements – but I read it, must be 30 years ago, and I still remember it vividly, as much for the totally ambiguous character of the mother as for the ending.


  7. A grim but nevertheless fascinating theme which makes this a compelling post Cleo… There are certainly a few here I’ll be popping on my wishlist and know I’ve read some of similar ilk – will try to track them down; especially as I’m researching how Stillbirth is represented in fiction.

    In the meantime ones that immediately spring to mind are – maybe tenuously? The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell, Philomena and Kate Adie’s non-fiction exploration into foundlings Nobody’s Child. There are a few other books with same title I suspect are of this genre) Also reminded of Jamilla Gavin’s Coram Boy too…


    1. Thank you so much for coming up with some recommendations. I do have The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox on my shelf, an excellent example of the genre and another firm favourite of mine. Nobody’s Child sounds fascinating and has gone onto the wishlist and the Coram Boy, wow that sounds like some story!


  8. What an interesting collection of books and an excellent idea to link them together through one post Cleo.

    It is an interesting subject and so dramatic for women during that time yet so secretive. The stories I’ve heard just within my own family, I was one of four adopted children, about the mother’s being sent away (about the faking of the mother being sent away including fake letters sent from those places), the contracts they had to sign and the hypocracy of it all is just astounding. And that was in the late 60’s, and 70’s, not so long ago really.

    If I read a book like this, I almost prefer that the writer has had direct experience, as you can often sense that driving the narrative and the closer we are to a subject the more critical of something that feels inauthentic.

    I haven’t read a lot of books around the subject, but the first book I ever read, back when I didn’t even know people wrote books about these experiences and it was such an eye-opener for me was Nancy Verrier’s The Primal Wound which is non-fiction, but anyone wanting to write fiction certainly would gain a lot of insight from the true stories reflected in this book.

    More recently, I read and reviewed here: The Closet of Savage Mementos by Nuala Ní Chonchúir , which is also semi-autobiographical, which was very intriguing and I am sure an audience with this author would be very interesting, it raises so many issues.

    I think this author has another book in her which will address the period she mostly avoids in this novel, the fact that she focuses most of the narrative on the period before and a period 20 years later, is like a metaphor for the suppression of what happened and the years of emotional torment until she moves on.

    Thanks for a wonderful list of books and discussion Cleo!


    1. Thank you Claire – I have bought a copy of The Closet of Savage Memories in spite of the fact I’m trying not to acquire quite so many new books at the moment. This one sounds exactly like some I’ve featured here, the wounds that remain open, so many years afterwards. I have a feeling I will be buying the other one too.
      Shocking to hear your tales of adoption, in many ways we have a sanitised view of the reality of this in more recent years, something which logically has to have effects on all parties involved.
      I really appreciate you taking the time to comment and come up with some suggestions for me on this fascinating but so sad a subject.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Another that I read that was sadly less convincing was Ignoring Gravity. I think the author uses the subject to propel the story along like a mystery, but it felt like things happened too quickly, there is less of the effect of the after shock that we know can slow people down in these investigations in the real world. Everyone I know who succeeded to track down their birthparents, including me, took years to uncover the mystery.


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