'Margaret Thatcher': Irony and paradox

A female leader who disdained feminism. The world shaper who left little personal trace. Charles Moore's authorized biography of the British prime minister is fair play all around.

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Now it can be told: In the summer of 1944, World War II was raging, the V-1 flying bombs were falling and Margaret Thatcher -- then a grocer's daughter named Margaret Roberts -- was mulling over the colors of her handbag.

"Do you think the person who makes the handbags could make me one in maroon leather like your blue one?" Mrs. Thatcher wrote her sister Muriel from Oxford, where she was one of only five women pursuing a degree in science. "I have decided that maroon would be the best colour for my wardrobe."

Give her a break: She was only 18.

Authorized biographies, it is frequently said, need to tell us what we didn't already know, and Charles Moore, a distinguished British journalist and author of "Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands," gets his chance after discovering 150 letters between the sisters -- spanning the 1930s to the 1960s. They do soften some of the Iron Lady's hard edges, even if they tend to skew impressions of her as a young woman mainly interested in clothes ("I decided to buy a really nice undie-set to go under my turquoise chiffon blouse").

Mr. Moore had his work cut out for him when he was commissioned by Britain's first female prime minister to write what he calls "a life unexamined by the person who lived it." Moreover it could only be published after her death (on April 8 at 87) so she would never have to read it.

Mrs. Thatcher loathed having people know about her private life. She never kept a diary. Naturally guarded, secretive and tidy -- a lethal combination for a biographer -- she threw away documents, letters, photos and press clippings as she moved from smaller house to bigger house, smaller office to bigger office -- because, as Mr. Moore notes, "she did not believe others had a right to know about her life outside the public sphere."


By Charles Moore.
Knopf ($35).

Hence, the author's dilemma, which, in his preface, he gamely declares made "the work more fascinating." Mr. Moore had access to everyone who ever knew the prime minister, and to Mrs. Thatcher herself. But even lengthy interviews with her had been frustrating, since she "found it hard to understand that historical inquiry is not the same as political combat."

In answer to a question about her mother's skills as a seamstress, for example, Mrs. Thatcher would "immediately rush from the specific to the general," replying, yes, her mother was a good seamstress "and she did wonderful volunteer work. And that's the thing about the women of Britain -- they do wonderful voluntary work -- not like French women."

• • •

This first volume covers a lot of ground -- the 1979 election, the Irish hunger strikes, the Falklands War -- but it is the early years documented in the first part of the book that make it fresh.

The letters between the sisters provide few early clues of the woman she would become, displaying mostly chatter about handbags, clothes and money (she had none). It was "striking," Mr. Moore writes, that there is no mention of any intellectual awakening, evolution of political views or, at Oxford in 1944, of the life-and-death struggle for civilization unfolding around her.

And yet, there are signs of the future. All that scrimping, saving and budgeting -- and her impatience and lack of empathy for those who didn't or couldn't -- would become a central part of her political philosophy.

A young woman's determination to shut out unpleasantness, even danger, even as the bombs fly during the "Second Blitz" of 1944-45, would be revealed years later when the IRA nearly killed Mrs. Thatcher in the 1984 bombing of a Brighton hotel during a Conservative Party conference (an episode to be covered in the second volume). Five people died in the blast, but she insisted the conference go on and calmly revised a speech she had been working on when the bomb exploded at 2:54 a.m. -- delivering it that afternoon.

Mr. Moore has edited Britain's leading conservative publications (The Spectator, The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph) and is clearly an admirer of Mrs. Thatcher, but he cuts her no slack -- there is not a whiff of the hero-worship found in William Manchester's books about Winston Churchill.

To pick just one example: He quotes her Oxford professor Dorothy Hodgkin noting that, as a scientist, she was "good," not great. "There was something that some people had that she hadn't quite got."

There was disappointment in love, after a doctor twice her age, Robert Henderson, declined to propose because of their age difference. But ever practical, she settled for Denis Thatcher, a man, Mr. Moore says, "she liked." He was well-off and able to finance her decision to become a barrister. They then pretty much neglected her lower-middle-class family as they climbed into the higher reaches of Britain's managerial class and she pursued her political ambitions, leaving their twins Carol and Mark to the care of nannies.

For feminists, there's nothing to look at, move along please. The indignities Mrs. Thatcher endured as a young woman seeking public office are startling, even more so in retrospect, knowing that Mrs. Thatcher would never embrace the feminist movement.

For those of us uninterested in the minutiae of 1970s British politics, there are some long slogs through cabinet appointments and various political brush fires, although the chapters on her tenure in Ted Heath's cabinet, battles with the budget and the European Economic Community make for painful and probably necessary reading for any serious student of Thatcherism. Excitement addicts, though, may want to skip to the Falklands War and the triumphal last pages.

Here, the essential Mrs. Thatcher is revealed, in all her paradoxes -- a fierce defender of the British empire, even if there's very little of it left; conveniently victorious in war at a time when unemployment lines are lengthening; the first woman as prime minister, and yet a woman not fond of other women, who uses her sex to advance herself but not women's interests, who prefers the company of men even as she berates or lectures them.

At a Falklands victory dinner in 1982, she is the only woman among men, to some observers evoking another redheaded female warrior, the first Queen Elizabeth, even as she quoted the Duke of Wellington: "There is no such thing as a little war for a great nation," she declared.

And yet.

When the toasts were done, Mrs. Thatcher rose in her seat again, Mr. Moore recounts, "and said, 'Gentlemen, shall we join the ladies?' It may well have been the happiest moment of her life."


Mackenzie Carpenter is a Post-Gazette staff writer (mcarpenter@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1949).


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