When I'm travelling, which I seem to have done quite a lot lately, I usually grab a slim book off the shelves to read on the plane or train, and last week it was this one. I had the impression that I'd read it before, but I definitely didn't review it though I did review another couple of Forster's novels about nine years ago (goodness, fancy having been blogging for that long!). They were Lady's Maid, considered by many people to be her best work (it's the story of Elizabeth Barrett Browning as seen through the eyes of her maid) and Diary of an Ordinary Woman, which I read quite a bit of before I realised it was a novel and not a real diary. I believe those two to have been charity shop finds and I expect this one was too.
Private Papers is a brilliantly conceived but rather dark book. It's about family relationships seen through the eyes of a mother, Penelope Butler, and her daughter Rosemary. The scenario is this: Rosemary, who we gather eventually is about fifty, is visiting the home of her elderly mother. Sent into another room to look for some family photos, she stumbles on a memoir that Penelope has clearly been writing for some time, and which tells the story of her own life and of her relationships with her four daughters. Infuriated by what she sees as her mother's twisting of the truth of their family life, Rosemary continues to read the memoirs secretly on many subsequent visits, adding her own comments and her view of the truth of the events and circumstances Penelope has recorded.
The novel, then, is structured like a conversation, complete with gaps and interruptions, although it's unlike a conversation in that one party is unaware of the interaction. This has a powerful effect on the reader's response, or or did for me. It was easy at first to be seduced by Penelope's sweetness and to sympathise with her struggles - she was an abandoned baby, has never found her birth parents, and is obsessively attached to the idea of the happy family, striving to make her own measure up. Rosemary, on the other hand, seems wholly unsympathetic, angry and bitter, for reasons that at first are hard to understand:
Oh shit - it's obvious I'm going to carry on reading this to satisfy my curiosity. But I can't stand reading it all, so I'll just have to skip when it gets too much. I'm not going to read this next bit for example. I know it all, I was reared on it, I know exactly what is coming. It always made me furious, her tale of being inspected by a couple who came looking for a 'nice little girl' and being rejected and crying for a week and thinking she must be ugly or that she stank and all that tedious rubbish. Furious with her, not with the couple. Furious that she told the pathetic story at all, furious at the expression on her face - tremulous, solemn, sickly.
But as the story unfolds through the double narrative, perspective changes and it becomes easier to understand Rosemary's point of view. I can't say that we come to love her, but as the nature of her life and that of her sisters is revealed, her irritation with Penelope becomes at least understandable. Having missed out on life with her own birth mother, Penelope's one desire is for a harmonious household in which all of her children love each other, and love her, unconditionally. Such things rarely happen, it seems, and certainly this is not the case here. One daughter (actually adopted) dies young and the other three grow up in ways that are wholly inimical to what their mother wanted for them. Rosemary has strings of relationships but never settles into domesticity, Celia grows up plain and serious, and makes bad choices in men, and Emily, who at first seems to fulfil her mother's ideal by marrying young and having a family, rejects everything she has built up and then has a breakdown. Tragedies happen to all three of the daughters, and arguably when we read about Rosemary's, her anger and bitterness are partially explained. It's also clear that, despite her anger and cynicism, she is the one who really tries to hold the family together, or to mend breaches that have occurred. As for Penelope, it's impossible not to sympathise with her but at the same time to see how irritating she must be to her more worldly and sophisticated offspring.
This is far from being a cheerful novel but I found it fascinating. Margaret Forster, who died last year, was a superb novelist and one who I think is not sufficiently known or appreciated. So this is one for anyone who appreciates good writing and/or is fascinated by family dynamics!