Published by Penguin, 1995, 320 pages.
This is a family memoir: by tracing the lives of her grandmother, mother and herself, Margaret Forster looks at how things have changed for working-class women in the UK. This book brings to light the hidden lives, lives often considered too unimportant to be documented.
Forster’s grandmother, Margaret Ann, was born to Annie Jordan in 1869. Annie was unwed, which would make her a single mother today but until 50 years ago (or maybe less), a child born to an unmarried mother was something to be ashamed of. Annie died two years after Margaret Ann was born.
Margaret Ann next surfaces at 23, working as a domestic maid in Carlisle. What happened to her between 2 and 23 is unknown: she refuses to talk about it, and her daughters don’t dare ask. But just after Margaret Ann’s death in 1936, a woman comes to the house, saying she is Margaret Ann’s illegitimate daughter and wanting to know if her mother had left anything for her in her will. When she is told that there isn’t anything, the woman leaves and is never heard from again. Who was this woman and what was the story behind her birth?
Forster describes the life of Margaret Ann when she worked as a maid for the Stephenson family, which she enjoyed because she liked the family, although the work was gruelling.
“The physical hardship, the sheer energy and strength needed to get through each day, was commonplace. She expected to be down on her knees scrubbing, up to her elbows in boiling or freezing water washing and rinsing dishes, rocking on her feet with weariness after hours of running up and down stairs. … When she reminisced later in life…it was always without any trace of resentment. Her expectations were low. She expected to carry on as she was until she dropped. Or married.”
Although marriage would be an escape, it too meant endless cooking and cleaning. Margaret Ann married Thomas Hinds, a successful butcher, in 1899, after a long courtship. But in 1915 Thomas died, leaving Margaret Ann to raise their three daughters. The girls eventually all found work: Lily (Foster’s mother) as a secretary to a doctor, Jean at the office in Carr’s biscuit factory—she had to provide a certificate to say she was over 13—and Nan at Buck’s, a shirt manufacturing factory, where she got a job because of her skill as a seamstress. She was 13.
Foster paints a picture of the working days of the women, and how things had changed by the time she was born. Foster was the first of them to go to university and became a writer. These were all intelligent women, and it’s interesting to see how opportunities were gradually opening up as the years went by. Margaret Ann did not have the choices her daughters had: she worked as a maid, but her daughters worked in offices. Of course, making a living as a writer—which was Forster’s path—was unthinkable for any of them.
The women come alive in these pages, and by the end of the book, you feel as if you know them. This is a vivid family memoir but also a work of social history. People who complain that nothing has changed in the last century should read this. Things that many women today take for granted were completely out of reach not so long ago. That does not mean that women have it good the world over, or that there is not still a lot of work to do before true equality becomes a fact. But it is good to look back and see just how far we have come.
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