Journalism

Women

August 10th, 2001

Aug 21st

What do Mary Archer and Christine Hamilton have in common? Mary is cool and composed, Christine crashes around in her Coco the Clown clothes. Mary is the master of the one-line put downs ‘my husband has a talent for inaccurate précis.’ Christine burbles into the microphones of waiting journalists, and defends herself against serious sexual allegations by asking why anyone would want to leave a nice dinner party to go to Ilford?

One woman is the model of intelligent, watchful decorum, the other makes Frankie Howard look like a study in self-restraint. Yet these two women are the women in the news right now, and we are fascinated by both of them. They are poles apart – almost psychotically so, but two things draw them together – the way they control their men and the way they control the media.

Or do I mean the Medea? Both women have been compared to Lady Macbeth, but Medea is a closer role model, and she is a character exercising a curious pull on the national psyche. Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw’s troubling triumphant sell-out, came off the stage in April, and now Liz Lochead’s version is back on. Why? Why do we want to think about a woman who will betray everything for the man she loves? Perhaps because Medea is not betraying everything for Jason – she is doing it for herself, without cynicism, but with an ambition deeper than drowning. Medea’s depths are not navigable waters.

Of course, the British are easily caught in the glittering stare of a powerful woman. Margaret Thatcher was as ruthless as either Hamilton or Archer, and an entire nation paid the price of her ambition. I suspect women are more ruthless than men, for the simple reason that once a woman has broken through the considerable barriers of conditioning and instinct that feminize her, there is no motive for compassion. This is not to say that such women cannot be kind and generous – Mary Archer is capable of both virtues – it is rather that such women will never be inclined to softness. Softness has been cut out like diseased tissue.

I do not want to imply that every powerful woman is like this. Most are not. The Medea type is an archetype – a case study in extremism, one that terrifies men and hypnotises women. How far could we go? How far would we push others? What means would become acceptable, natural even, in the pursuit of our ambition?

Medea lives on humanity’s rim. She is not de-humanised, and we should not think of her as inhuman – that word escapes responsibility – whatever humans do is human. A Medea type forces us to travel to the edges of ourselves, away from the comfortable middle ground most of us occupy. In real life, reading about Archer of Hamilton, we laugh or blame or recoil, but it would be better to focus, better to ask the difficult questions of ourselves. One of the reasons I am passionate about art, is that it makes this focus possible. Bumping up against Medea in real life may be too close for analysis or catharsis, but it is strange that at this time, the real and the imagined should be constellated together.

Part of the lure of Archer and Hamilton is that neither woman recognises any separation between real and imagined worlds. The only world they recognise is their own world – self-invented and self-justifying, outside of which there is no truth.

I doubt that Mary Archer thinks of herself as a liar, and I believe her when she says she believes her husband to be truthful in the important things. The Archers and the Hamiltons have never wanted to be tethered to the facts. They have hated the examination of the minutiae of their lives. They want the big picture. God is not in the detail, only tax inspectors and policemen care for anything as tedious as detail.

Both pairs are now being accused of just about everything – sexual scandal in Ilford and charity embezzling are not likely to be true, but both couples have become magnets for invention, perhaps because they are so self-invented.

Mary and Jeffrey are much more complex than Christine and Neil. It is difficult not to feel sorry for Neil Hamilton, with his absurd libel suites, and idiotic posturing. He is his wife’s puppet in a way that Jeffrey is not. Yet this last Archer trial has shown how controlling Mary has always been – of their life together, of his image, and of her own.

Both women are now working once more to save their men – Mary with her suffering beauty and nuclear wit, Christine, as clownishly as ever. It is a fascinating drama, and one which would make a much better play than The Accused.

Guardian Newspapers Tuesday August 21, 2001