the observer Sat 30 May 2009
Though he achieved fame in his lifetime as the author of Utopia and won the respect of the young Henry VIII, without his daughter, Margaret Roper, Thomas More would be a mere footnote in history. It was she who enabled him to enact posthumous revenge on the king who sent him to the gallows for refusing to condone his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Margaret's masterstroke was to compile her father's letters, written while he awaited death in a dank cell in the Tower of London, which cemented her father's reputation as a man of conscience felled by a tyrannous king. In this original and engaging double biography, John Guy charts the debt that history owes to More's enduringly obedient daughter.
the guardian Fri 29 May 2009
If it hadn't been for his eldest daughter Margaret, Sir Thomas More - author of Utopia, uncompromising lord chancellor, and Catholic saint - would have been "just another footnote in history", claims John Guy in this gripping double biography. It was Margaret who published More's collected works; she even rescued his boiled and tarred head (and was buried with it when she died in 1544). When More was imprisoned in the Tower prior to his execution, Margaret was his main channel of communication with the outside world. Guy shows how she comforted More in those dark times, and their clandestine correspondence is moving, some of More's letters written "with a coal". Guy maintains that More's fictionalised dialogue with his daughter - composed while he was in the Tower - was in fact a collaborative effort. After all, the Margaret Roper presented here is a courageous, highly intelligent, enterprising and accomplished scholar, despite her proud father's uneasiness about - and sometimes zealous opposition to - the idea of a woman putting pen to paper.
the guardian Fri 08 August 2008
Professor Guy likes twin subjects. His last work, My Heart Is My Own (which won the Whitbread), paired Mary Queen of Scots with her royal English rival. Here, he complements a stirring account of the man who died for refusing to acknowledge Henry VIII as head of the Church in England - and Anne Boleyn as his legitimate wife - with an affectionate portrait of Sir Thomas More's eldest daughter, Margaret (the wife of William Roper).
The story is, of course, familiar. An excellent biography of More by Peter Ackroyd, when coupled with Paul Scofield's spellbinding performance in the 1966 film of Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, has allowed us to think we know both the man and his family. Yet attention has always been more firmly fixed on Alice Middleton, More's doughtily unintellectual second wife, than on the lawyer's favourite child. This enduring lack of emphasis on Margaret should not surprise us. Thomas More, in whatever light we see him - and Guy's torch flashes into some murky corners - remains a fascinating personality. Margaret Roper, a scholarly woman, has seemed, by comparison, a touch dull.
Guy works hard to enliven her. Travelling by water towards London Bridge on a wet August morning in 1535, he tells us, there came a woman with big brown eyes and "a haunting sorrow". Margaret had voyaged three miles along the river on a secret mission: to collect the boiled and tarred head of her father from its pike on the bridge. Safely home again, she packed the skull with spices and - when she died, 10 years later - had it buried at her side.
That boat trip was Margaret's big moment in history; Lord Tennyson didn't even need to identify More's daughter when he wrote, in "Dream of Fair Women", about the heroine "who clasp'd in her last trance / Her murder'd father's head". Balancing this setpiece - Guy is the most symmetrical of biographers - comes Margaret's other stellar scene: the devoted daughter calming her apprehensive father's fears in the final weeks before his execution. Margaret, as described by Guy, could match Sir Thomas in wit during these prison visits, "provoking riotous mirth and revelry" as she helped him twist old fables into new shape to mock his enemies. Margaret's handwriting, Guy further argues, indicates that the celebrated prison letter in which More fictionalised a dialogue with his daughter (its intention was to show his firmness of purpose) was in fact their collaborative endeavour.
Margaret needs all the help she can get from Guy's lively pen. Her chief service to posterity - the preservation of her father's books and papers - does not make for enthralling reading; not even such details as her youthful attachment to some rabbits and a favourite pet monkey can infuse her with much life. It's possible that this central difficulty lies behind the strangeness of the book's structure. Halfway through his account of Margaret's life, her biographer halts, dispatches her and then proceeds to turn history back 20 years to trace her father's rise to power.
A price is paid for this strategy; Margaret, already a shadowy figure, fails to recapture our interest when, some 60 pages later, she returns to the stage. Helping to compensate for that loss, however, is Guy's portrait of her extraordinary father. Bolt's play offered hints of More's wit; Guy shows us both the charming friend (for whom Erasmus announced he would gladly have performed a rope dance) and the guilt-ridden sensualist who wore a hair-shirt throughout his second marriage. (Guy doesn't tell us why Margaret, rather than More's wife, was accorded the singular privilege of washing this unappealing garment.) He also describes a darker figure who, while taking immense pride in his eldest daughter's learning, allowed her scholarship no public outlet. When the 19-year-old Margaret wrote a book, Wolsey, rather than the sternly traditional More, shepherded the volume into print. When William Tyndale published his revolutionary English New Testament in 1526, only More's daughter (so Guy theorises) might have challenged the Lutherans with a Catholic-approved translation of her own. But her punishment for such boldness would have been severe: women writers, in More's view, were as worthy of damnation as the Lutherans.
More, as Guy represents him, was capable of chilling detachment. He abandoned his family at times for months and even years. A fierce upholder of print censorship, he endorsed and actively sought the public burning of heretics. He appears, in fact, a man more in tune with his turbulent times than either the saintly figure presented by Ackroyd, or Bolt's stubborn hero. More's death, seen in this context, becomes less shocking than King Henry's malicious endeavours to annihilate all record of his former chancellor. Margaret Roper's enduring achievement was to ensure that this eradication did not occur: we owe to her the survival of her father's voice in his works, both public and private.
Unsatisfactory in its form, Guy's book redeems itself by a significant reappraisal of More and by the generous detail at which Guy excels. You may not care whether Margaret Roper climbed 30 wooden steps from the river to London Bridge's fish market; you surely can't resist learning that Henry VIII was quite incapable, ever, of meeting a direct stare.
· Miranda Seymour's In My Father's House is published by Pocket Books