Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Iron Lady unmasked

Bio about female British prime minister exhaustive, but lacks analysis

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British prime minister  Margaret Thatcher in 1982.

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British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1982.

This official biography of Margaret Thatcher well and truly offers everything you wanted to know about Britain's first and only female prime minister and then some.

Calling the work the definitive view of a complex personality is an understatement. Plowing through the door-stopper of a book, it feels like author Charles Moore omitted not a single detail from the minute Thatcher is born Oct. 13, 1925 to the Oct. 12, 1982 dinner celebrating victory in the Falkland Islands.

In fact, he includes details from before Thatcher's birth: the startling possibility she was not the biological child of her beloved father, a rumour that finds its roots in another rumour about Thatcher's grandfather impregnating the household's maid.

That risque nugget is buried in the footnotes and offers welcome relief from Moore's habit of footnoting a biography of each person he interviews, listing their full education, titles and occasionally sports victories.

It's a shame that among all that detail there isn't a little more analysis of how and why Thatcher succeeded so brilliantly against all odds -- a woman, from the lower-middle class, the first of her family to go to university -- who leads the country for more than a decade and comes to define a certain brand of conservatism world-wide.

That's not to take anything away from the gargantuan effort of Moore, a British journalist. He's worked on the biography, his first book, for close to 15 years -- this is merely Vol. 1; Vol. 2, Herself Alone, is still to come -- and had access to Thatcher's personal papers, extensive interviews with her and everyone from school chums to private secretaries to political opponents, all on the understanding nothing would be published until after her death. Thatcher died in April.

It's an impressive feat, if an intimidating read.

The book does have its charms, though. It's amusing that many of Thatcher's classmates clearly did not like her. She was too outspoken, too blunt, some suggest, while the staff at No. 10 Downing Street welcomed the new prime minister's willingness to tell them what she really thought, a contrast to the previous PM, Jim Callaghan.

Thatcher's letters to her sister when the two were young women show a side that surprises. She makes much fuss about clothing, about her shortage of money and about the young men who court her. They are not topics normally associated with the Iron Lady.

Strength and brilliance are, though, and Thatcher showed them early by winning the university scholarship that set her on the path to leadership. She was not for turning even then. Her phrase "the lady's not for turning," was from a 1980 speech referring to her resistance to change course on her economic plan in the early days of a recession. It is considered one of her defining political moments and has evolved into a motto for her followers.

She ignored a teacher who told her to forget about Oxford as she "hadn't got Latin." Thatcher found a tutor and "got Latin," much the way she later passed the Bar after studying tax law on her own.

The brilliance, the strength and the political victories were in the recent Meryl Streep movie which introduced a whole new generation to Thatcher and likely piqued their curiosity. It's too bad this biography doesn't do more to add to their understanding.

Julie Carl is the Winnipeg Free Press associate editor, reader engagement.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 13, 2013 G8

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