Why distorting Mrs. T. has been a popular literary pastime.
Margaret Thatcher, though a prodigious consumer of economics textbooks and briefing documents, and a frequent spouter of Bible passages, has been widely considered deaf to literature. Even a besotted admirer like the novelist Anthony Powell found it hard to take her reading seriously. After Thatcher told him that Dostoyevsky’s novel The Possessed had helped her understand the pressing problems of the day, he wondered in his journal “when, how, she got round to this. Did she read the novel, see its contemporary relevance herself, or was that pointed out to her by someone? I fear probably the latter.” (His skepticism was well founded: The someone was apparently the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge.) In any case, reducing a classic novel to a kind of political how-to guide plays right into the prevailing image of Thatcher among the literary set: someone who, in the writer Jonathan Raban’s words, “doesn’t appreciate doubleness, contradictions, paradox, irony, ambiguity.” One famous anecdote has her pulling out a copy of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty at a meeting and pronouncing, “This is what we believe.”
Novelists, in turn, invite the charge of being blinkered about Margaret Thatcher, undisposed to see her except in melodramatic terms. As D. J. Taylor notes in his new book, The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England Since 1918, she has been treated as “an almost mythical figure … for whom the techniques of realist fiction seem sadly inadequate.” Novels about Thatcherism tend toward satire and even farce—Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up! being perhaps the classic instance. Novels portraying Thatcher herself veer toward Gothic fantasy: the prime minister as monster, stripped of her name—in The Satanic Verses, she is Mrs. Torture—and sometimes of more than that. In Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time, we are told about “a convention in the higher reaches of the Civil Service never to reveal, by the use of personal pronouns or other means, any opinion as to the gender of the prime minister.” In The Line of Beauty, the winner of the 2004 Man Booker Prize, Alan Hollinghurst achieved a breakthrough, portraying Thatcher as a lightning rod and exploring precisely the extremities of response to which his emotive predecessors had succumbed.
Continue reading your story on the app
Continue reading your story in the magazine
THE FOUR AMERICAS
COMPETING VISIONS OF THE COUNTRY’S PURPOSE AND MEANING ARE TEARING IT APART. IS RECONCILIATION POSSIBLE?
MY SIX MONTHS ON THE LINE IN A DODGE CITY MEATPACKING PLANT
The Trees Are Talking
Pioneering research has revealed how social cooperation thrives in the forest.
The World Kodak Made
The tech giant of the 20th century changed the way Americans saw themselves and their country— and built the city where it made its home. Now Kodak and Rochester are trying to reinvent themselves, and escape their history.
The Weird Science of Edgar Allan Poe
Known as a master of horror, he also understood the power—and the limits—of empiricism.
Infomercial for America
The timeless appeal of Top Gun
INSIDE THE CONTROLLED CHAOS OF DOWNING STREET
BORIS JOHNSON KNOWS EXACTLY WHAT HE'S DOING
A little alcohol can boost creativity and strengthen social ties. But there’s nothing moderate, or convivial, about the way many Americans drink today.
CAN BOLLYWOOD SURVIVE MODI?
Its films have always celebrated a pluralistic India, making the industry—and its Muslim elite—a target of Hindu nationalists.
BUST THE POLICE UNIONS
They don’t just protect members at all costs—they condition officers to see themselves as above the law.