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.