Margaret Thatcher: An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel

published 1995   chapter 8

[Guest Night at a women’s hall of residence at London University, 1970]

The Secretary of State [for Education] put forth fingers, and accepted a glass of sherry from the warden. Her eye was bright and sharp and small; she tilted her head, the better to see. Her dress was of the shape that is called ageless, and of a length that is called safe; it was sewn all over with little crystal beads. Her pale hair lay against her head in doughy curves, like unbaked sausage rolls….

Our guest was not eating, even though she had been served with a voluminous chicken breast; her knife toyed with it. She was leaning over the table, talking urgently to the warden and to the section of High Table on her right. The crystals on her dress seemed to quiver; so did her voice, with the effort of restraint. She spoke slowly; she spoke as if she knew everyone except herself was stupid. She leaned forward and smiled, and her hair moved with her, as if it were not just hair but a hat made of hair

Margaret Thatcher died on 8th April.

This is her uncredited cameo appearance in Hilary Mantel’s story of girls living together at university – although strangely, Mrs T is mentioned quite separately earlier in the book:

Mrs Thatcher has told one of her interviewers – not that I study her pronouncements but this one sticks in my mind – that she had nothing to say to her mother after she reached the age of 15. Such a sad, blunt confession it seems…
She became Prime Minister nine years after the events in this book. But one thing hadn't changed - ‘she spoke as if she knew everyone except herself was stupid’ is probably the best description of her manner you could ever have. She was clever, she was brave, she was high-achieving, but she had disastrous blind spots - about society, about selfishness, about caring for others. She also had that strange, and strangely widespread, belief that being born able to achieve is a matter of merit rather than luck, and requires further rewards. She thought that everything can be counted in monetary terms: that sent her in what great swathes of us thought then and believe now to be completely the wrong direction. She certainly changed the UK, and while tributes and kind obituaries will be plentiful, many people will not be sentimental at all about her death. 

Links on the blog: Labour finally defeating the Conservatives (when Mrs Thatcher was no longer leading them) is the centrepiece of this entry. An Experiment in Love featured before, when we looked at the genre of young women living together.


  1. Really interesting post Moira. I hadn't realised she had made a guest appearance in a Mantel book.

  2. That is a brilliant description of the way she spoke, and of the 'hat made of hair'. Great post Moira.

  3. hahaha, ties in nicely with mantel's focus elsewhere on overbearing monarchial figures...

  4. As all are wisely told, if you cannot say anything nice, say nothing. That applies to me, not to you. The blogpost is completely fair!

  5. Moira - This really is interesting, Moira! Like Sarah, I didn't know she'd made an appearance in a Mantel book.

  6. I think that really sums up how many of us remember her, it's such an accurate description, it couldn't really be anyone else! It's also a bit more succinct than the 25+ pages in The Telegraph.

  7. My mother has sent me a colour supplement from the Telegraph! Do I take it on vacation for poolside reading?!

  8. T - definitely! My mother's great enjoyment of the funeral came from identifying the aging former Cabinet Ministers a second before the commentator - you should do the same, look at the pics before you read the captions....


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