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12 April 2016

Escape fantasies are common, but few of us actually leave – in How to Measure a Cow, someone does

Margaret Forster's posthumous novel has much to admire – from its tragicomic opening chapters to the authenticity of its unusual protagonist.

By Jane Shilling

When life is hard there are few fantasies more powerfully consoling than that of escape, its lustre tarnished only by the realisation that wherever you go, you will find yourself waiting there. This melancholy truism probably explains why the idea of running away tends not to advance beyond the stage of comforting reverie: people prepared to leave behind everything, including themselves, are generally those with nothing to lose.

Tara, the protagonist of Margaret ­Forster’s posthumously published novel, belongs in this category. That she has been under some kind of constraint is intimated in the opening paragraphs. On “The first day, free”, a sinister encounter in a London park with a stranger who grips her by the arm, asking, “Are you her?” convinces her she must leave the city: “They had told her it would be advisable, but she hadn’t listened.”

Opening a map of the British Isles, she closes her eyes and jabs at random with a hairclip. It lands just south of a Cumbrian town called Workington. So, with the approval of the mysterious authorities who control her actions – “She would have to ask if she could move there. That was one of the conditions” – she rents a bleak terraced house opposite a redoubtable old body, Mrs Armstrong (Nancy to her friends, of whom there are few).

Mrs Armstrong’s social philosophy is driven by contradictory impulses: an insatiable curiosity and a determination to keep herself to herself. In the case of the new tenant, now known as Sarah Scott, Nancy at first contents herself with observing the small changes she makes to the house and her daily routine, which proves admirably regular. Having exhausted the interest of these thin pickings, she calls on her new neighbour, but finds her uncommunicative. Only when Sarah accidentally locks herself out and Nancy is able to offer a spare key does a grudging acquaintance begin.

Meanwhile, an older and much more insistent friendship is determined to invade Sarah’s anonymity. As a schoolgirl, Tara was part of a quartet of friends briefly feted for the quick-witted rescue of a child who had fallen into a river. Twenty-five years on, Claire, the self-appointed leader of the group, wants to hold a reunion. The problem is that she has no address for Tara, with whom the friends lost touch when she was convicted of a serious crime whose details are only gradually revealed. Undeterred, Claire sends a letter through the authorities. Forwarded to Sarah Scott, it remains unanswered as she considers how to respond.

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The first five chapters of Forster’s novel are a remarkable exercise in withholding and revelation by minute increments. For different reasons, both Tara and Nancy regard their privacy as precious – Tara because she has much to conceal, Nancy from an ingrained habit of emotional parsimony. Yet eventually they embark on a wary relationship for which “friendship” is too expansive a term: Nancy’s revelation that she knows how to measure a cow (the legacy of a childhood spent on her father’s farm) carries the startling heft of an intimate confession.

At the novel’s midpoint the narrative abruptly changes direction: Tara attends the reunion of old friends, but soon afterwards her experiment in anonymous living is ­unexpectedly curtailed and Forster’s finely observed account of the tendrils of connection growing between two lonely, damaged people becomes a more conventional story of a woman determined to confront the past that pursues her.

Forster, who once described herself as “a housewife and a loner”, made her name with her second novel, Georgy Girl (1965), a study of a young woman at odds with the mores of the Swinging Sixties, which was made into a film starring Lynn Redgrave and Charlotte Rampling. In her prodigious literary output – 26 novels and many works of non-fiction, including memoirs and biographies of Daphne du Maurier and Elizabeth Barrett Browning – she returned constantly to the theme of women’s role in the family and society. Lives unlived are a leitmotif in her writing: the experiences of women who by choice or accident of fate find themselves unmoored from the world around them.

Her novel may be a flawed final work, yet there is much in it to admire, from the distinctive resonance of her deceptively plain style to her descriptions of landscape – beautiful even when the places described are not – and the tragicomic psychological acuity of the early chapters. Mrs Armstrong may vanish in an untimely way from the narrative, but she remains one of Forster’s most fiercely authentic creations.

How to Measure a Cow by Margaret Forster is published by Chatto & Windus (256pp, £16.99)

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This article appears in the 06 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war