FROM a molehill of information on the upbringing of Theresa May, a mountain has been made in the press in the few weeks since she became Prime Minister.
Her father, as it has widely been noted, was the Revd Hubert Brasier, who was Vicar of Enstone with Heythrop, and then Wheatley, where she grew up — a fact to which she has occasionally referred in her political speeches, most recently in launching her leadership bid: “I grew up the daughter of a local vicar and the granddaughter of a regimental sergeant major,” she said. “Public service has been a part of who I am for as long as I can remember.”
Mrs May has acknowledged an element of servitude for the sons and daughters of the cloth, which I can attest to, being myself the daughter of a vicar. And yet from so few words her childhood has been narrowly defined by commentators. They have described a misery of public attention and expectation, and a lack of privacy; they have asserted categorically that she must have felt such things, as strongly as if they had been expressed in her own words rather than in the guesses of journalists.
They have presumed to know what life “must have been like” for Mrs May as the daughter of a vicar, and how this fact has so definitely shaped her life and politics. She, however, has said little on the subject, probably to prevent these very assumptions.
TAKE a recent commentary by the Times journalist Rachel Sylvester, who wrote: “Just as Margaret Thatcher’s world view was informed by living above her father’s grocer’s shop in Grantham, Mrs May’s character and politics were forged in a rural Oxfordshire rectory.”
Characters may be formed, in part, in childhood, but I am ex-tremely sceptical about how anyone can “understand” what it is like to be a vicar’s daughter — or indeed, anyone’s daughter — from speculation, since every experience is so different.
Nor can we presume anything of Mrs May’s politics in this, least of all that they might have been “forged” in the vicarage, where political talk was, in my experience, often a very private topic, and not to be bandied about: God forbid that parishioners should find out how the vicar and his wife voted.
And yet Ms Sylvester goes on: “Living next to the church, she acquired the discipline and determination that have led her all the way to Downing Street — but she also learnt a wariness about revealing too much of herself to the rest of the world and a need to retain control of a life that often felt as if it belonged to others.”
This, too, is wildly presumptuous. I have many memories from my childhood — happy, confusing, embarrassing, and frustrating — which have undoubtedly, as for most people, formed the core of who I am now, but which I would hate to be stereotyped in such a way, even by those who have had similar experiences.
Take then, for example, Canon Giles Fraser, who wrote in The Guardian that, although there is no “standard model, there is nonetheless something about growing up in a vicarage that is bound to shape the way you see the world — not least a peculiar feeling of resentment that half the community call him ‘Father’ when he is your father, not theirs. Vicarage life is conducted in a goldfish bowl.”
I cannot agree with this, either, since I felt nothing of the sort: I would always chuckle as my father introduced school assemblies, adding “my” under my breath as 200 children chanted “Good morning, Father Hugh.”
AS A child of the cloth, you might be in the public eye, as I was, albeit the sheltered eye of the village or town, the mayor, the local PC, the teachers, the lollipop man, the shopkeepers, and of course, the congregation. There can be also an expectation on your shoulders to behave properly from an early age, at school and at church: to be polite, respectful, and, of course, a good Christian, however that is defined.
Here is the rub, however: whatever your experience, you are at perfect liberty, being an individual, to deny such expectations, to shrug them off, or to wear them. I know of one clergy daughter who refused to be forced into services as a teenager, and another who did go to church, but rocked up (in the most literal sense) in Gothic black attire, ripped jeans, purple hair, and multiple piercings — much to the delight of the tutting parishioners.
Both women are now highly successful in their own professions, and lovely people. It seems ludicrous, however, to attribute childhood experiences to their success, unless they have said as much. Whether or not Mrs May chose to take up this mantle, then, to sacrifice the freedom of rebellion or to embrace it, is irrelevant, because I do not believe that this affects the outcome: in this case, her becoming Prime Minister.
WHAT we can gain from the little that Mrs May has said on the subject is that she is committed to service, to the Church, and to her faith — which is apparent in her steady dedication to her spiritual home of St Andrew’s, Sonning. The Vicar, the Revd Jamie Taylor, said on her appointment that the church was “something of a sanctuary” for her. I can easily believe this, and perhaps it has become even more so, since her elevation to the flurry of 10 Downing Street.
This is, however, about all that we — the public and the media — can or should comment on. Mrs May should not be bound to the category of “vicar’s daughter” any more than me or anyone else. Whoever your parents are and whatever they have done, what defines you is a matter of private, personal experience, shared only with those with whom you wish to share it — not everyone who wishes to interpret it.
Let us, then, leave behind blind speculation and stereotypes, and define Mrs May by her actions as Prime Minister, for better or worse — not her habits, her clothes, or her parentage; and certainly not by her upbringing.