Obituary: Margaret Forster, award-winning novelist and biographer

Margaret Forster (right), novelist, biographer and shunner of publicity. Picture: PA
Margaret Forster (right), novelist, biographer and shunner of publicity. Picture: PA
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Born: 25 May 1938 in Carlisle. Died: 8 February 2016 in London, aged 77.

Born and brought up on a working class estate in Carlisle, Margaret Forster became one of the UK’s most prolific and best-selling novelists and biographers, beginning with her 1965 novel Georgy Girl which was turned into an Oscar-nominated movie the following year starring Lynn Redgrave in the title role.

Its theme tune, sung by The Seekers, became a major Sixties’ hit. Married for 55 years to Scots journalist and author Hunter Davies, Forster won several literary awards for her books, all written, even until recently after stricken by a recurrence of cancer, with a fountain pen on sheets of A4 paper. Known for shunning publicity and the literary world, she never had a computer and never drove a car, preferring to take buses around her adopted hometown London to make full use of her pensioner’s free bus pass.

A published writer over five decades, she wrote 25 novels and 14 biographies. Her most highly-regarded novels included Mother, Can You Hear Me? (1979), Have the Men Had Enough? (1989), Lady’s Maid (1990) and Diary of an Ordinary Woman (2003). She also wrote Significant Sisters (1984), an acclaimed history of feminism, as well as two raw, penetrating memoirs, Hidden Lives (1995) and the award-winning Previous Lives (1998), both about her family history in Carlisle.

One of her early novels, when she was still a young mother and housewife, was The Travels of Maudie Tipstaff (1967), in which she described a strict Glaswegian mother’s shock at her children’s modern lifestyles of luxury and loose morality. Through her Renfrewshire-born husband Davies and his mother, Scotland remained important to her throughout her life. In 1973, she published the colourful biography The Rash Adventurer: The Rise & Fall of Charles Eduard Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie). Appearing on the BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs in December 1994, she chose Kenneth McKellar singing Mairi’s Wedding, the Lewis Bridal Song, to which she remembered her mother-in-law dancing. Like her mother-in-law, she put her family first throughout her career, avoiding the literary lunches, parties and, whenever possible, book signings, insisting she was not “a performing seal”.

In between her novels, she wrote 14 highly-praised biographies including William Makepeace Thackeray: memoirs of a Victorian gentleman (1978), Elizabeth Barrett Browning: a biography (1988) and Daphne du Maurier (1993). A more quirky but well-received work was Rich Desserts and Captain’s Thin (1997), a history of the Carr’s family biscuit firm in her native Carlisle.

Margaret Forster was born on the working-class Raffles housing estate in Carlisle on 25 May 1938, granddaughter of a domestic servant. Her father was a mechanic and fitter, her mother a secretary who had to give up her job to look after the family. Later describing herself as a difficult, sulky child, Margaret went to the Carlisle High School for Girls where she won a scholarship to study history at Somerville College, Oxford, graduating with a BA. As a teenager, she had met Davies, whose family had moved to Carlisle from Johnstone, Renfrewshire. They married in 1960 before moving to Dartmouth Park, north-west London, where they would spend their lives, later alternating between there and a cottage in the Lake District.

In “Swinging Sixties” London, where her husband got a job with the Sunday Times, she found that working class was fashionable and she took advantage, not least by writing Georgy Girl, which thrust her on to the literary scene, helped by the success of the movie. The book and film reflected the spirit of London in the Sixties, telling of a free-spirited working class girl thrust into the tumult and sexual liberation of the time.

Forster was diagnosed with breast cancer in the mid-1970s, had a double mastectomy but continued writing. She and Davies would write every morning, walk on Hampstead Heath every afternoon and return to work all evening. Summers they spent in their Lake District cottage but to write rather than simply to relax. Her cancer resurfaced in 2007 but again she worked on until it worsened in this New Year and she was forced to move into a hospice. She herself became the subject of a 2012 biography, Margaret Forster, a Life in Books, by Kathleen Jones.

Forster’s 2003 novel Diary of an Ordinary Woman made an extraordinary impact on the literary scene. It was ostensibly a diary written by a woman called Millicent King, who lived through both World Wars, through the Swinging Sixties and on until Thatcher’s Britain. So authentic did it appear that many readers thought it was a real person’s diary which the author had merely edited rather than invented. Despite her cancer, Forster published the novel The Unknown Bridesmaid in 2013, followed by an autobiographical book My Life in Houses, which told of her life in the various homes she had lived in, from her council house in Carlisle, to a getaway home in the Portuguese Algarve and on to her two homes in North London and the Lake District. Her final novel, How to Measure a Cow, set in the Lake District, is to be published by Chatto & Windus in three weeks.

Last Sunday, the day before she died, Hunter Davies OBE, a massive Scotland football fan who has ghost-written autobiographies of stars such as Wayne Rooney, Paul Gascoigne and Dwight Yorke, wrote a moving column in the Sunday Times: “My wife, who has generally gone through life fitter, stronger and healthier than me, has gone into a hospice for respite care. So for the past four weeks I have been on my own, feeling dazed and disoriented.” After her death, he wrote: “She was not interested in money or publicity. In fact, she had an agreement with her publisher not to do literary lunches or do any broadcasting, and she actually didn’t care whether the books were published or not. Her fun was in writing them, and if the publisher didn’t want to publish it, so what? She’d move on to the next one.”

Margaret Forster died on Monday in a nursing home near her home in North London. She is survived by her husband, daughter Caitlin Davies, herself a successful writer, son Jake and daughter Flora.