My Life in Houses
Chatto & Windus, 272pp, £14.99
Inevitably Margaret Forster’s account of the houses where she has lived serves as an alternative memoir. The 76-year-old novelist and biographer is suffering from metastatic cancer, so there is a valedictory quality to aspects of her book. She quotes Leonard Woolf: “Looking back on my life, I tend to see it divided into sections which are determined by the houses in which I have lived.” In Forster’s case, these sections resonate with happenings, feelings and people, but the houses remain central.
At one point she appears impatient of her deep-seated habit of regarding her home as an active player in her life: she describes this impulse as “pushing emotion on to what was just a pile of bricks and mortar”. Were she proof against such a tendency, with its suggestions of anthropomorphism and pathetic fallacy, she would not be the writer she is and this book could not exist. Her admission, partway through her account, that “surroundings had always mattered to me”, is entirely superfluous.
Such close engagement with a house is, she acknowledges, a particularly writerly preoccupation. To illustrate, she cites authors whom she herself has examined as biographical subjects, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Daphne du Maurier. For all three women, a house is a universe in miniature, ideally ordered to suit its occupant – like an item of bespoke clothing, as Forster describes it. It reflects and reassures the writer at her (housebound) desk. Its qualities are affirmative; it offers solace, inspiration.
Forster’s focus on the spaces she has inhabited over eight decades, and the extent to which they in turn inhabit her, is consistent. She resists any conventional autobiographical impulse. Her husband (Hunter Davies) and her children are sketchily drawn; she does not reflect at length on her highly successful career as a writer, her books or what her writing means to her, nor are we often reminded that Forster’s homes have been cradles not only to her own writing but that of her husband, too. Instead, she explores a very personal emotional and imaginative bond with her living spaces, some of them permanent, others – including holiday homes in Britain and abroad – temporary or little used. My Life in Houses is exactly that; and as a result, perhaps, it is simultaneously less moving but more universal than it might have been. Forster’s spaces are specific to her and in this very specificity lies their value to her. Few of us have not felt at some time the womb-like tug of a favourite room.
Margaret Forster was born in 1938 in a newly built council house on a model estate put up by Carlisle County Borough Council on an expanse of poor-quality grassland to the west of the town, 12 houses to the acre, green spaces remaining. There were two bedrooms to the Forster home in Orton Road but no indoor loo or basin, and rudimentary heating in the form of a black iron range that required assiduous attention. Looking back, Forster describes herself as “a lucky girl”, an assessment intended as much for her younger self as the reader.
She lived there with her parents and siblings until she was 14. By the age of seven she had already begun to dream of a different home, a different aspect; she wanted distance from the rowdy corner pub, flowers in place of potatoes in the garden, and a view of garish colours rather than the predominant grey of outhouses, coal sheds, dank privies. Her childish cravings were for space, quiet, prettiness and, like writers before and since, a room of her own. She explains this reaction as not “any rejection of my own family, just a natural desire to have the chance not to be forced to be with others all the time”: that is to say, not snobbery, but the bookish child’s longing for a desk and the possibility of reading undisturbed. As Forster recounts it, that desire, natural or otherwise, became a significant dynamic of her life. Until her purchase in 1963, with Davies, of the house in Boscastle Road, London NW5, which remains her home today, Forster was a woman constantly – perhaps unusually – focused on settling satisfactorily the question of her living arrangements.
Since 1987 Forster and Davies have divided their year between Boscastle Road and a house in the Lake District. Now, given her illness, she anticipates a final move, to a hospice. That threatened severance spices her love for her home of 50 years. In truth, this sensitive and inspiring writer has always been passionately attached to the homes where she has lived.
Matthew Dennison’s latest book is “Behind the Mask: the Life of Vita Sackville-West” (William Collins)