Margaret Thatcher’s relationship with her home town is a fascinating thread running through her authorised biography, which has just been published.
With more than 880 pages, the £30 hardback will a long read for many, but those interested in Baroness Thatcher’s early life will find more to dissect and discuss here than in any other volume about her life.
Former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore was chosen by the Iron Lady to write the book – this is the first volume and begins in October 1925 with her birth and ends with victory in the Falklands in 1982 – with the understanding she would never read the manuscript and it would only be published after her death.
All of which meant people could speak candidly and fill in the many gaps Baroness Thatcher allowed to exist, about her early life in particular – she did not keep a diary and did not enjoy looking back, making some interviews with her difficult, particularly as the last years of her life were blighted by ill health and dementia.
The most revealing aspect of the book and her early life in Grantham comes from the then Margaret Roberts’ candid letters to her older sister Muriel. Although Baroness Thatcher’s rise to power is well-known, this book makes that story feel fresh and surprising because of the many insights the letters and other recollections reveal, casting both light and shade on the incidents and activities of her upbringing.
Her life above the grocer’s shop in North Parade was austere – no garden, no hot water and an outside toilet - and her relationship with her hard-working, serious and religious Alderman father – the Journal called Alfred Roberts “Grantham’s Chancellor of the Exchequer” as he chaired the finance and rates committee of the town council for more than 20 years - clearly shaped her future attitude towards, and allure to, older men, including her husband, Denis.
Margaret, in the words of her compatriots, was a bright, hardworking, serious and self-possessed girl who had outgrown Grantham by the time she was 18, but then struggled to find her place at Oxford, where she was far from the top of the intellectual or money tree, unlike in her hometown.
She had no boyfriends in Grantham, but her letters demonstrate a feminine side many will find surprising – an interest in films, shows and clothes, clearly evident, along with a strong sense of thrift and keeping most details of her life from her shy, retiring mother, Beatrice, who she quickly grew apart from, and even her father, who complains in letters to Muriel he “hasn’t heard anything from Margaret.”.
The book also relates the remarkable tale of how Margaret dated an Essex farmer, Willie Cullen, and then passed him onto Muriel, writing in April 1949: “He will never become your brother in law, though I have high hopes he might be mine one day!”
Within a year, Muriel was engaged to him.
Margaret returned to her home town to take her driving test, for dental treatment and to visit school friends like Jean Farmer and Margaret Goodrich as well as for family visits, but, after University, virtually all her spare time was spent on her political endeavours and the visits became even more sporadic.
When she did make it into Parliament in 1959, her political life overshadowed everything, including marriage and motherhood.
It is clear from this book Margaret Thatcher’s extraordinary ambition, drive and thirst for hard work were born in the family home, encouraged throughout her childhood and ingrained at Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School. It is satisfying to see this acknowledged so vividly in what will surely be the definitive biography of Britain’s only female Prime Minister.
* Margaret Thatcher: The Authorised Biography, Volume One: Not For Turning, by Charles Moore, is published by Allan Lane, £30 hardback.