The award-winning writer Margaret Forster, whose novel Georgy Girl inspired one of the hit songs of the late 1960s, has died at the age of 77.
Her husband, the writer and journalist Hunter Davies, said that she died this morning at a hospice near her north London home.
Forster, a former teacher, was one of the UK’s most prolific writers, producing more than 20 works of fiction and a host of award-winning nonfiction titles after the success of her 1965 novel about a young woman adrift in swinging London.
Georgy Girl was made into a film starring Lynn Redgrave in the title role, alongside Charlotte Rampling, Alan Bates and James Mason, and featuring a song which was recorded by the Australian group the Seekers, and became an international chart-topper. It hit number one in Australia, no 3 in the UK, reached second place on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US, and was listed at number 36 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Pop Songs of all time”.
Davies said Forster, who had a mastectomy 40 years ago, had died of cancer of the back.
In a Sunday Times column at the weekend, he revealed that she was terminally ill, writing: “My wife, who has generally gone through life fitter, stronger and healthier than me, has gone into a hospice for respite care. So for the past four weeks I have been on my own, feeling dazed and disoriented.”
The couple met as teenagers in their home town of Carlisle where Forster, whose father was a mechanic, went to the local girls’ school. She won a scholarship to Oxford, though she has said she regretted not going to drama school instead.
They were married in 1960, the year that she graduated from university. Though they appeared to be poles apart temperamentally - he an indefatigable socialiser, while she would have nothing to do with the media merry-go-round - they remained inseparable. Asked what or who was the greatest love of your life, she once replied “reading and my husband.”
Biographer and journalist Valerie Grove, a longstanding family friend, said: “What I adored about her was the total lack of sentiment. Hunter would come breezing in from the Groucho full of stories and she would listen, but she would never go herself. She carried on writing novels of a slightly commercial nature about women’s lives and the deceit within families, but she would never talk about them.”
She interspersed her novels with books about literary figures such as Thackeray and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and had a beady eye for a good story. It was her award-winning 1993 biography of Daphne du Maurier that first revealed the novelist’s complicated sexuality, and her obsessions with women, notably the actress Gertrude Lawrence.
The biography was commissioned by publisher Carmen Callil, who said of Forster: “She was a feminist and a socialist, whose life view was shaped by her sense of her working-class origins: most of her stories were about women’s lives. She was immensely brave and immensely sardonic and I adored her, though – in common with all but a handful of very close friends – I hardly saw her.”
The Du Maurier biography is still a source of reference for Du Maurier researchers, prompting a tweet from novelist Joanna Briscoe in response to Forster’s daughter Caitlin Davies’s announcement of her mother’s death:
One key to Du Maurier, wrote Forster, was her love of houses - a passion the novelist shared, going on to publish her own house-by-house autobiography in 2014.
My Life in Houses opened: “I was born on May 25, 1938, in the front bedroom of a house in Orton Road, on the outer edges of Raffles, a council estate. I was a lucky girl.” It went on to chart her journey from that council house, to her London home, via Oxford, Hampstead, the Lake District and the Mediterranean.
One of the people to tweet their condolences was another Carlisle-born success, the wine writer Jancis Robinson, who wrote “My great respect to a heroine, & fellow head girl of Carlisle & County High School, Margaret Forster. Bet she never tweeted. RIP”
In an interview for the Guardian’s Writer’s Rooms series, Forster revealed that she was indeed no lover of new technology: “I don’t have a computer. Everything I write is handwritten. The A4 paper lies in the middle of the desk with my fountain pen on it. I’m endlessly told how much time and effort it would save if I used a computer, and could delete and add as I wished, but I believe the whole process of using a pen is part of how I think and I’m more careful with the words when changing or erasing them would not be simple. And the handwriting gives me pleasure.
Her latest novel, How to Measure a Cow, returns to the Lake District, where she and Davies have a home. It is due out on 3 March from Chatto & Windus.
The publisher said on Monday: “We had the pleasure and honour of publishing her for thirty years. She wrote over forty works of fiction and non-fiction, ranging in subject from contemporary and historical novels to literary biography and memoir. Her books were both critical and popular successes throughout this long and productive career. She was also a wonderfully perceptive reader and an avid enthusiast and supporter of new writing.”