Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

My Life in Houses – Margaret Forster

Non-Fiction – Memoir

In hindsight so many of Margaret Forster’s books contain autobiographical detail but it was Hidden Lives which first really opened my eyes to the link between this talented story teller and her own background, although cleverly only ever apparent by reading between the lines. In My Life in Houses we learn more details about Margaret’s first house, the one on the Raffles estate which she was so ashamed of, preferring those on the better side of town. And though the book’s pages, we learn that from the tender age of seven this author began her own game of choosing another house to live in.

Of course, as an adult with a number of ‘important’ houses in her life, she realises that what she started with could have been so much worse, and so she explains how it defined her. How a house with only room for Margaret and her younger sister to sleep together in an alcove in their parent’s bedroom left her yearning for her own space. Even when the girls got older they had to share a bed even if they did have their own room because their older brother was off doing his national service at the time.

Having read Hidden Lives I was already aware that Margaret’s mother had aspirations and so eventually, through her hard work, although the money to fund the move and the increased rent was down to her husband working overtime, the family moved to the better side of town.

From here we follow Margaret to her student digs, her first house as a young married woman on the edge of Hampstead Heath, and beyond, including holiday homes both abroad and nearer her native Carlisle.

This is a fairly slim novel and the houses described are littered with personal details about the way she felt about neighbours, builders, her writing and sadly her illness. Sadly the cancer had already spread by the time she wrote this, her last piece of non-fiction, and more than likely is the explanation for the brevity and the matter of fact way she touches on her options is probably even harder to read in retrospect. Margaret Forster died on 8 February 2016 aged 77 having left a wealth of books behind to entertain and enlighten new generations of readers.

The most fascinating part of this book of however has nothing to do with the author and everything to do with how life changed so considerably between 1938 when she was born and 2014 when the book was published. Her early memories include the black-leading of the fireplace and not without a certain amount of wryness does she delight in this once hated job being integral in her second home in Carlisle. Of course Margaret Forster was more affluent than most but as she references sitting-tenants and shared bathrooms in the past she is describing the lives that certainly were the options open for my ancestors if they wanted to leave home. Life is very different with so many household gadgets nowadays but here is a woman describing the novelty of a home telephone.

For a different type of memoir this method is incredibly effective although I’m not sure I would have loved it quite so much had I not already had an insight not only into the author’s life but those important beliefs around feminism and socialism which seem to have featured long before they might have been expected to surface.

This copy of My Life in Houses was from the local library in my bid to support this wonderful community lifeline which has previously been such a huge part of my life. I would not be the reader I am now if it hadn’t been for libraries to keep me stocked up with books.

First Published UK: 6 November 2014
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
No of Pages: 272
Genre: Non-Fiction – Memoir
Amazon UK
Amazon US


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

20 thoughts on “My Life in Houses – Margaret Forster

  1. I love Margaret Forster’s books but I haven’t read either Hidden Lives or My Life in Houses, so I’ve reserved both of them at my local library. Libraries have always played a big part in my life and I love the fact that Northumberland Libraries have a mobile library service that comes round once a fortnight – almost to my doorstep! I wouldn’t want to be without it.


    1. Hidden Lives is my favourite of all of Margaret Forster’s books, and I’ve read the majority. I’m making a determined effort to use the library more this year – I had always depended on them until I moved/received my kindle, and although I’ve visited infrequently I want to support them more to keep the service going for other’s who don’t have the access to books that I do now.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lovely review and as I’ve also read Hidden Lives, think I’ll be looking this one up- I shall try the library first after your shout out for the great service they offer! Thanks Cleo! X


    1. Thank you – I loved Hidden Lives and this gives another look at some of the places she refers to in that book. Libraries are wonderful institutions and it is to my shame that I no longer use mine like I used to but I vow to do better in 2018.


  3. A lovely, thoughtful post, Cleopatra, and it somehow seems apt that you read this in a library copy, as Forster writes so much about community in this book, and how houses contain the whole history of society at the time of their building. Libraries such a part of community. I use my library far less than I used to, not least because the community it serves is a different kind. Less a reading community, more a resource for those without personal PC or printer access. Fewer books, and more genre, YA and popular fiction than ‘ all reading tastes’ as it used to be.


    1. Thank you – it was a very fitting book to pick up from the library.
      I have to admit it was strange with new machines to check books out and only an expired library card to my name. having visited this particular library so regularly for pretty much my entire adult life. As you say the function of the library has changed over the years but picking up this book brought back the delight on finding a treasure amongst the shelves.
      I think I probably remember the many libraries I’ve visited in my lifetime than the houses I stayed in and of course the author mentions the library in this book too.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reminding me I hadn’t got around to reading it yet – and there it was at the library! She does really did write some great non-fiction and was one of the authors that really opened my eyes to memoirs of ‘ordinary’ people


  4. This is an excellent review, Cleo. Forster’s approach to going about this is such a good reminder that the story of a personal life also tells the story of an era (or more than one). And that’s fascinating, too.


    1. To find a book that I’d been meaning to read for such a long time on my return to the fold was brilliant – I have followed my old rules of piling the library books in their own space so they’re easy to find and return before the time runs out!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve never heard of this author but I find the topic fascinating-I haven’t read many books that focus on homes, and how they shape our world view, and how it shapes how we see others too!


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