Red Queen: The Authorised Biography of Barbara Castle by Anne Perkins30 September 2007
As with the Lib Dem conference, so now with Labour’s. If we do get word of a snap General Election, I’m well prepared with book reviews tangentially related to that subject, too.
Red Queen: The Authorised Biography of Barbara Castle by Anne Perkins
‘Authorised biography’…it’s a phrase that’s often a turn-off to any potential reader. The fact that the biography is ‘authorised’ by its subject suggests that the author has had to pull his or her punches in dealing with the less pleasant aspects of the subject’s life. After all, it’s a rare individual who would be willing to have a biographer dig through and publish all the really sordid and/or private bits of his or her past, or point out a truly breathtaking blunder and declare, ‘Why yes, So-and-so really did mess up there, and wasn’t it just awful?’ Reading an authorised biography can often be like eating a low-calorie snack when you really want the regular kind — before you start you can pretend that you’re about to enjoy the real thing, but the taste is the first giveaway and it doesn’t get much better from there.
That said, I think that Anne Perkins did a spectacular job in giving a warts-and-all presentation of the life of one of Old Labour’s most high-prolife figures. Barbara Castle was at one time thought to be the most likely woman to become the first leader of a major British political party (an honour that would go to Margaret Thatcher shortly before the end of Castle’s time as a Minister). In Red Queen, Perkins draws a neat sketch of her subject’s early life that contains many parallels to Margaret Thatcher’s own upbringing. Barbara Betts, as she then was, was born into a middle-class family that was very politically active, headed by a dominant father whom Barbara spent much of her young life trying to please. The autobiographical detail is very good, pulling in information that doesn’t necessarily find its way into a political autobiography — specifically, some of the hints of Barbara’s early sex life and her longstanding affair with a married man (which happened before she met her husband Ted). From the well-rounded picture of young Barbara, it’s a bit of a jolt when Perkins goes into detail about the intricacies of Labour politics in the mid-1950s and early 1960s. (So much detail, in fact, that she occasionally loses sight of the biography proper.) But Perkins speaks quite readily of Barbara Castle’s successes and failures, her personal faults and her obsession with her looks, ‘In Place of Strife’ and its aftermath, her dependence on Harold Wilson for her political position and her abrupt sacking shortly after Wilson’s resignation in 1976…it’s all there, and very well organised and fluently told.
Perkins does play upon the pathos of Castle’s later life. It’s hard not to be affected by the swift progression of personal tragedies: the death of her husband and mother in the space of a few weeks’ time (over the Christmas/New Year’s holidays, no less), the bout with breast cancer that led to her mastectomy (an incident which was not very well known until after her death), and the solitary existence that Castle led until her death in 2002 (she died after a nasty fall down the stairs in her home). Rather abruptly, the autobiography ends there, without the usual general ‘summing up’ chapter to analyse Barbara Castle on the whole. Perhaps Perkins felt that there was no need for summing up, in the end. I’m inclined to agree, because the book really does speak for itself…and lets Castle speak for herself in a way that feels more honest than the carefully selected entries in her published diaries.