Monday, May 16, 2005

The saintliness of Mary Archer

American readers will probably not be as familiar with the names of Jeffrey Archer and his wife Mary as are readers in the UK , so let us begin with a brief recapitulation.

It seems likely that Jeffrey Archer has always regarded himself first and foremost as a politician. He is a former member of Parliament, was once the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, and in 1992 was made a Life Peer. That means that he is a member of the House of Lords and is known formally as Lord Archer; his wife acquired the title Lady Archer as a result.

In parallel with all this, Jeffrey built for himself a formidable career as a writer, and one reasonably objective web site refers to him as Britain's top-selling novelist. Given that he has been massively successful in the US, which not all British authors are, that may even be true. Certainly he has made a lot of money.

All Jeffrey's books are, of course, purely commercial fiction. And as a teller of tales he is undoubtedly pretty good. His first book of any significance was Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, and he then made an impact on the American market with Shall We Tell the President?; this was a book which Jacqueline Kennedy found morally objectionable, and the resulting publicity did not harm sales.

Publicity is in fact the key to Jeffrey Archer's writing career. He learnt early that modesty is the enemy of talent, and in any case Jeffrey was never a modest man. While most writers hate to do book tours, Jeffrey revelled in them, and he was a complete master of the chat-show plug. Nobody could shut him up. One gathers, however, that those whose job it is to escort writers on such tours did not enjoy them quite as much as Jeffrey did.

In the midst of all this success there were occasional problems. He was sometimes the subject of criticism in the newspapers, and he sued for libel, successfully, on a number of occasions. It began to look as if Jeffrey had not just one but two or three guardian angels.

In the end, however, it all went horribly pear-shaped. In 2001 Jeffrey Archer was prosecuted for perjury. The jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to four years in the slammer. He served the usual two, and was then released.

Throughout all these 35 years of trials and tribulations, Jeffrey has remained married to the same woman, Mary. And Mary is no sort of a slouch herself. She has held a succession of academic posts in chemistry, first at Oxford and then at Cambridge. And they don't appoint the clueless to those positions.

In this last week, public attention has shifted from Jeffrey, where it normally lies, to Mary herself. On Thursday last the Guardian printed a carefully phrased piece, reporting that Margaret Crick has written an unauthorised biography of Mary Archer; the publisher is Simon and Schuster. Not only is the biography unauthorised, but Mary has done everything in her power to prevent its publication. She has made demands, pulled strings, and, finally, resorted to the law.

All these attempts to prevent publication have failed. And in order to forestall any more of the same, S&S have rush-published the book; they have cancelled the original publication date (5 September) and have put it out, officially, on 12 May.

Now the interesting thing is this. Throughout all the many adventures of the Archer family, the general view has been that Jeffrey is the naughty boy, prepared to cut corners on occasion, while Mary is the loyal, long-suffering, and entirely blameless little woman, keeping the home fires quietly burning, and no doubt darning the great man's socks, as and when the need arises.

Personally I have long regarded this interpretation as a complete misreading of the Archer family dynamics. So I am looking forward to finding out what view is held by someone who has evidently made a prolonged attempt to establish the facts. No doubt we shall shortly have some reviews of, or extracts from, Margaret Crick's book, and then we shall know.

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