The lives of Margaret Thatcher and Margaret North, RIP

My mother died in February, aged 95 and Margaret Thatcher, of course, died in April, aged 87. They were quite a common social type, and rather a fine one.

I always thought that my mother, also a Margaret, was a little like Lady Thatcher. Both Margarets were lower-middle class and not southern; both the daughters of shop-keepers, though my maternal grandfather was a pharmacist not a grocer. My grandfather was not of the severe Methodist stamp and my mother for a while aspired to be an actress. Both women were of the generation that went in for elocutionary improvement, which produced in both of them a sort of cut-glass falsity which was amusing to snobs. I am fascinated by Charles Moore’s account of Margaret Hilda’s frankly go-getting view of the sexual and social politics open to good-looking girls. My impression is that my mother knew all about that sort of thing, and played that game fairly hard and with some success.

It ought to be said Margaret N always rather despised Margaret T. My mother had a vivid turn of phrase and when the PM’s name came up, she would say, “That woman has a narrow vagina!” Quite how she could have divined such a thing, I don’t know. Perhaps she said it because she knew my father rather admired Mrs Thatcher. My mother did not think much of her menfolk, as men: she reserved her veneration for Frenchmen, because, “they understand a woman”. I don’t think she had known many Frenchmen. Anyway, she was fiercely jealous and given to sharpness about any female who might be in the remotest sense in competition with her.  
The best account I have read of this sort of territory is the remarkable (because matter-of-fact but almost novelistic) diary by Joan Rice, Sand In My Shoes. There are lots of accounts in Betty Miller, Rosamund Lehmann and other women novelists – also Nevil Shute – of the first half of the 20th Century of the kind of thing I mean. It has to do with an understanding, as common in the lower as in the upper strata of society, that it is important to move upward, and avoid falling backward. Of course, for many women love played a big part in their relations, but there was also a striking lack of sentimentality: a briskness, at least amongst female intimates, about the advantages of a good marriage. We may think romance plays a bigger part now, but it is striking how much books like Manning Up and Growing Apart emphasis the way modern elite couples form themselves out of a small pool. Indeed, the pool may be narrowing as clever and successful men marry clever and successful women.

That generation of women were seldom old-fashioned. They framed themselves as not being Edwardian and still less Victorian. They did not especially need to be insurgent and dissident, merely modern. (Our own Baby Boomer feminists, having been totally liberated into modernity, had to go all round the houses to come up with a pseudo-patriarchy to hate and rebel against.)

It is interesting that Mrs Thatcher was never a great moraliser: she expected quite bad behaviour from men and women alike. It is often supposed that she was anti-homosexual, but I rather doubt that. Her generation adored Noel Coward and well understood that the arts and fashion were awash with pansies, many of whom – they well knew – had been heroic in war. On the whole, that generation of women thought almost everything went, but shouldn’t be allowed to frighten the horses (an expression they freely borrowed from their parents and grandparents).

I do think that my two Margarets were pleased to be liberated from lower middle class mores, though of course Mrs T was in the peculiar position of basing her politics on the voting power of suburbanites, the erstwhile curtain-twitchers of our country. One of the reasons my mother cordially loathed Mrs Thatcher, by the way, was perhaps because my late sister did, and my mother took Pauline’s part in that as in many other mild family disagreements. I never saw my mother undone or sentimental, but she was shaken very deeply by her daughter’s death.

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Publication date

10 August 2013