I love books about houses. Novels about someone buying a house in the country, renovating it, finding the right furniture, creating a home, creating a garden, I love reading about that. I can’t stand reality TV shows about renovation though but maybe that’s just because I’d rather read than watch TV. I’m also a fan of Margaret Forster’s books so I was looking forward to reading her new memoir, My Life in Houses.
The book is structured in a series of chapters about the houses Forster has lived in. She was born in 1938, in Carlisle, in a house on the Raffles Council estate. This house represented a step up for her parents & they were proud of the hard work they’d done to get the house & then to maintain it. Margaret, however, was always looking at other houses, always slightly ashamed of living on a Council estate, especially as the Raffles estate had quite a bad reputation by the early 1950s. She spent as much time as possible in other people’s houses, looking longingly at the Edwardian villas on Norfolk Road, wanting what she didn’t have – a room of her own, mainly. She was a clever student & felt she deserved a proper study or at least a desk in her bedroom. The only time she ever really felt at home as a teenager was when she was alone in the house.
Margaret passed the entrance exam & went up to Somerville College, Oxford. She thought that living in college would be the culmination of her ambitions but she hated it. The noise, the other people so close by. Her furniture & belongings looked ridiculous in the spacious corner room. She soon moved into lodgings with a friend. The landlady, Mrs Brown & her sister, Fanny, who did all the work, were an odd pair but Margaret loved the house, imagining the many other women who had lived in her room over the years.
After Oxford, Margaret married the writer & journalist Hunter Davies. They lived in Hampstead, in a beautiful house owned by Mr Elton, an eccentric man who hated noise. Eventually, reluctantly, they had to move because they wanted to start a family. The house they finally bought, in Boscastle Road N W 5, was to be home for over 40 years. There were interludes in Portugal, when the children were small, & weekend cottages in the Lake District but it was Boscastle Road & eventually another house in the Lakes, in Caldbeck, that became the homes Margaret had always wanted.
The stories of the renovations at Boscastle Road show how much work is needed when your home is a Victorian wreck that Margaret hadn’t wanted to live in anyway. Gradually the house grew on them. The plan to move back to Hampstead as soon as they could afford it faded away & the Boscastle Road house became home. Even the trial of having a sitting tenant, Mrs Hall, wasn’t enough to deter the Davies’ from loving the house. They just had to come up with a way of moving Mrs Hall.
This book isn’t just a series of stories about house hunting & the benefits of one district of London over another. It’s really about what makes a house a home & the way that ideas about home have changed. One of the most moving themes is about the home as a haven. Margaret Forster had breast cancer twice in the 1970s & she describes so beautifully how she felt when she finally went home from hospital after the first lot of treatment.
Arriving home was in itself a healing process. Once I was inside my house the relief washed over me like a tide going out – I was on dry land again, secure within its familiar walls. And that’s how the house changed its significance for me. It took on a magical quality. If I stayed in my house, I’d be safe. I knew perfectly well that this was fanciful nonsense, but it was how I felt. Sometimes, in the weeks that followed, I’d be out on the Heath enjoying a walk when I’d be overwhelmed with an urgent need to be inside my house. I’d start walking more quickly, then almost run, and when I reached our front door my hand would fumble with the key in my haste to get into the house. Once inside, I’d stand for a moment with my back against the door, and the ordinary sight of the staircase ahead of me, a toy dropped halfway up, a basket of clean clothes lying on the bottom stair waiting to be taken up – all this would calm me. I was fine again, cocooned by the familiarity of the house.
One of my favourite Forster novels, Is There Anything You Want?, follows the lives of the women who attend a cancer clinic. I listened to it on audio, read by Susan Jameson, & found it very moving. I had no idea, then, that Forster had suffered from cancer. Only a few years later, the cancer returned, necessitating another mastectomy & this time, chemotherapy.The cottage in Caldbeck near Windermere was the healing place this time, a place where Margaret & her family would spend half the year rather than just the odd weekend.
This cottage had been built to withstand the full force of the wild winds coming from the west and so it was dug low into the ground. There were only two small windows – one in the living room one in the bedroom. Not much could be seen from them but views were not the point: keeping the wind and cold out was more important. That first night, there was a tremendous wind, howling and roaring all around, but the cottage stood firm, not a rattle to be heard. It hunkered down, just as it had done for two hundred years, and being inside it felt secure and safe.
I read a review of this book that complained about the detached way that Forster writes about her life. I didn’t find her writing to be detached at all. She seems very clear-eyed about herself, even brutally honest about her snobbery as a child & the way she looked down on her childhood home, taking for granted her good fortune. I was very moved by the later sections of the book where she writes about her cancer treatment & the effect that it has had on her. Her writing is restrained, matter of fact, unsentimental. She’s more sentimental about houses than about her health. Several times she describes her anguish at leaving a loved home but other setbacks that might seem more personal are described dispassionately. I also enjoyed her thoughts on the importance of houses to the women she has written biographies of – Casa Guidi to Elizabeth Barrett Browning & Menabilly to Daphne Du Maurier. Margaret Forster has used the idea of home to structure this story about her life & the houses she’s lived in & I found it an enjoyable, moving book.