Looking Back, Looking Forward

December 2021 has come to an end, finishing with my monthly review of books read. The year began in a flurry, ending with a mere trickle in the remaining three months.

The last book for the year was a memoir, recommended by the instructor for the writing course. For the same reasons my reading petered out, I wasn’t able to keep pace with the weekly exercises. Fortunately, the material remains accessible for life allowing me to return to them whenever I have the opportunity.

Hidden Lives by Margaret Forster was suggested as an example on how to write about “a parent or grandparent and trying to conjure people or a period of time they did not live themselves”. The title and the subject matter attracted me, thinking about documenting the life of my Uncle Kees as a missionary in Uganda, a history I am attempting to piece together; so, I ordered a used paperback copy.

Penguin Books, 1996. 309 pages.

“Margaret Forster (25 May 1938 – 8 February 2016) was an English novelist, biographer, memoirist, historian and critic, best known for the 1965 novel Georgy Girl, made into a successful film of the same name, which inspired a hit song by The Seekers. Other successes were a 2003 novel, Diary of an Ordinary Woman, biographies of Daphne du Maurier and Elizasbeth Barret Browning, and her memoirs Hidden Lives and Precious Lives.” (Wikipedia) Hidden Lives begins with a funeral after which a woman approaches the three sisters (the author’s mother included) about the will, and whether she was included. The sisters were completely unaware of this person’s identity, discovered later to be the illegitimate child of their mother, Margaret’s grandmother, who managed to keep secret the first 23 years of her life. Margaret researches official records from city offices and churches, unable to uncover much detail or information, remaining a mystery forever. The essence of the memoir, however, is about the circumstances of ordinary, working class women in late 19th and early 20th century England. The strength of this memoir is the evocation of that experience and the impact on their lives, hidden from the standard texts of our times.

Wikipedia

Hidden Lives is written in the third person up until page 132 when the author, Margaret, turns five and her “own real memory begins, real in the sense that I can not only recall actual events but can propel myself back to them, be there again”. With a grandmother of the same name, I found the depiction confusing, unclear as to who was conveying the story. The switch to first person was abrupt and suddenly everything made more sense.

Aside from this quirk in style, Margaret Foster’s description of her mother’s life, and her life with her mother strikes me as reflective of every working class family with the daily struggles of maintaining a home and growing up. Their world is bereft of sensational events or family crisis or sexual improprieties or awakened identities. The father is part of the picture, but the focus is on Lilian, the mother, and on Margaret, the eldest child. There are numerous moments when I could envision substituting the characters with my mother or our family situation as a child. I think particularly of the description of how Lilian had given up her respected job and potential career in order to marry and become a mother, fulfilling the role for woman of her time and class. My mother had forsaken a career in nursing.

Margaret Forster best describes the purpose of the book for the reader and for herself:

It gives me such satisfaction to prove, to myself at least, that what I hoped was true is true – my chances, my lot, my expectations, born as I was into working-class family in which women had always served rather than led, were always hundreds of times better than my grandmother’s or mother’s. All of us, all three representatives of different generations, always have put family first but in my case, in the case of my generation, it has not been at ruinous cost. (p.306)…..Everything, for a woman, is better now, even if it is still not as good as it could be. To forget or deny that is an insult to the women who have gone before, women like my grandmother and mother. (p.307)

Looking back at the very first post about my parents, entitled All I’ve Got is a Photograph, the appeal of this memoir was evident: “My parents lives and that of their immediate families are those of the ordinary people seldom discussed in the history books or eulogized in documentaries or glamorized in the movies” ; and in the obituary for my Uncle Kees, as recorded in the post, Server to Everyone, which read in part: “A legendary figure? No one with such recognition would laugh harder than Kees himself. He was true, and truly an ordinary man”. Their life is a story rarely told.

Looking forward, Hidden Lives provides encouragement to continue with my posts as markers of these lives; that the descriptions are of interest to those with similar backgrounds; that the stories are a memory to other members of the family; that they serve as a history for the next generation; and as importantly, that in writing, I learn more about myself and the impact of these lives on who I have become.

For 2022, I will continue to blog about the books I am reading as an occasional post, when they are completed, just not necessarily at the end of each month. I wish everyone much happiness in the upcoming year, and, of course, happy reading.

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