The relationship between mother and daughter is probably the most insidious, powerful, elaborate and devastating connection known to woman. (It can, of course, alternatively be the most powerful, elaborate, rewarding and positive relationship, but either there is far less of that about, or novelists find it harder or less interesting to deal with.) Fathers and daughters have had their share of dramatic and literary interest, but that is generally cruder stuff – the tyrant, the sexually hung-up bully manipulating his child, often ineffectually: Elizabeth Barrett simply eloped with Browning, and the most that Mr Bronte could do to obstruct Charlotte’s happiness was to refuse to give her away at her marriage, but if either of these women had had mothers they could remember, it is a fair bet that the maternal influence would have persisted long past the altar.
Margaret Forster’s novel deals with a mother, Penelope Butler, and her four daughters: the private papers are Penelope’s, and they are discovered and read by the eldest daughter, Rosemary, who then interpolates her comments and versions of her mother’s account of their lives. The author handles this original method for