London — As relentless as a hurricane, the then leader of the opposition had worked seven days a week for four weeks in a row - until her staff insisted she spend a weekend in her country cottage to unwind.
So what did Margaret Hilda Thatcher do on her weekend? With enormous zeal, she wallpapered a bathroom on her own.
''I would find it acutely difficult,'' she once said, ''if I had 10 days off without something specific to do.''
This drive, energy, and self-discipline are now legendary within the British Parliament at Westminster and the civil service in Whitehall. It has never been so much on display as it was during the Falklands war, whose victory has turned Prime Minister Thatcher into the most dominant British political leader since Winston Churchill.
Inevitably, she causes controversy. Opponents grant her the gifts of tenacity and energy. But they charge her also with being impetuous, dogmatic, narrow-minded, and insensitive, for example, to the needs of those hurt by her stringent economic policies.
Nonetheless, the stories of her prodigious energy and her endless work abound here.
''She never stops,'' sighs a close aide who sees her every day, with exhaustion and admiration mingling in his voice.
Opponents and critics, put off by her concentrated, no-nonsense manner, have branded her ''Attila the Hen,'' ''Warrior Queen,'' and ''Boadicea,'' as well as the ''Iron Lady.''
''You never walk in and catch her reading a book for fun, or looking out the window,'' the aide said. ''When she's finished the paperwork in front of her, she goes out hunting for more. Oh, she might go for a walk on a Sunday afternoon , but that's about all.''
It is nothing new. Discovering that her local grammar school did not teach Latin, and determined to sit for Oxford entrance examinations that required it, the young Margaret Roberts (as she then was) simply found a tutor, raced through five years of Latin in a single year - and topped her Latin exam for Somerville College.
She graduated from Oxford with a bachelor of science, and was only the second woman president of the Oxford Union debating group. She was already determined to try for a political career and for a degree in law.
Two years after she married prominent businessman Denis Thatcher in 1951, she had twins, Mark and Carol. But her pace did not slow. Five months into her pregnancy in 1953 she passed her intermediate bar exams. The twins were born in August, and by December she had passed her bar finals. With a full-time nanny at home, she specialized in difficult financial and taxation law.
Today, Margaret Thatcher works longer hours and sleeps less (five hours or fewer a night) than almost anyone else in public life here. She and her husband live in a four-bedroom flat on top of No. 10 Downing Street, the prime minister's official residence. She rises early to listen to BBC news on the radio, makes a quick breakfast, and is down in her office by 9 a.m. for a work day that often runs to 18 hours.
She is accustomed to living on the job: She was raised in a tiny apartment above a grocer's shop in Grantham, Lincolnshire. Her deeply religious, middle-class environment stressed piety and self-reliance as well as discipline and work. They are lessons Mrs. Thatcher has never forgotten.
Although she no longer goes to church four times every Sunday as she did with her parents, she does attend church, and she describes herself as a ''conviction'' politician.
Hers is an almost religious sense of moral conviction in the values of work, discipline, individual enterprise, and freedom. Her opposition to socialism is passionate.
Asked by cheering crowds outside 10 Downing Street the night Argentina surrendered if she had doubted British victory at any point, she said flatly: ''No, I never had any doubts at all. Never.''
Later I raised my eyebrows at this in the presence of a close Thatcher aide. ''Never?'' I asked. ''Not even when ships were being sunk?''
''Never,'' said the aide. ''Her attitude was: 'Just send more ships.'
''Two weeks before she swept to victory in the general election of May 1979 at the head of an ecstatic Conservative Party, she told a rally in Cardiff, Wales:
''The Old Testament prophets didn't say, 'Brothers, I want consensus.' They said, 'This is my faith and my vision. This is what I passionately believe.' ''
To give herself time to work so hard, she used organization and discipline in her personal life as well. She knows where every shoe and item of clothing is, and lays them out meticulously for the following week. Someone packs for her when she travels, but she does the choosing.
Even her opponents marveled at her calm and tailored appearance at all times during the Falklands war. Part of the explanation is that her hairdresser arrives at Downing Street every Monday and Thursday at 8 a.m. An hour later, Mrs. Thatcher is ready to face the world, hair swept back in soft waves. She freely admits that her natural color is brown, and that she has it tinted to a pale gold.
She can be gentle in private, her aides report, even ''coquettish'' at times. But she is always the boss. And she is almost always working, even on social occasions.
At a Buckingham Palace garden party, she spotted John Cole, then deputy editor of the Observer and now chief political correspondent for the BBC, with a Church of England bishop from Tipperary in full purple vestments.
She came over to them, and the prelate began a small speech of welcome, but she laid a white glove on his purple sleeve. Saying that both ''my estate and your estate must pay attention to the fourth estate,'' she began to batter Mr. Cole verbally about his opposition to the purchase of his newspaper by controversial businessman Tiny Rowland, whom she supported.
''Not even at a garden party was she ready to chat about the weather,'' Cole saidlater.
A formidable, combative debater since her Oxford days, she expects other people to ''stand their corner,'' as the British say -- to defend their own point of view. She argues with everyone from husband and children to close friends.
''If you don't stand up for yourself in reply, she pays you little attention from then on,'' as one aide says. ''But if you argue back, and know what you're doing, she likes you.''
She once gave a former Finnish foreign minister a stern lecture on ''Finlandization'' -- on border states that accommodate the Soviet Union because of its power. On and on she went, in a mini-harangue of the kind to which her staff is accustomed.
The Finn was quite young, and onlookers thought he would be overwhelmed. But he stood his ground, and gave what was described later as a brilliant response, well-argued and cogent, questioning some of her views and defending his own country's anti-Soviet record in war and peace.
Far from being taken aback, Mrs. Thatcher was delighted. She has sung his praises ever since.
As prime minister, her main challenge has been economic. She supports the Reagan view of attacking inflation by holding down public spending. She must go to the polls again before May 1984, and despite her victory in the South Atlantic, she will probably stand or fall on her success in reducing inflation and unemployment as well, which still stands at about 3 million.
For now, she is enjoying widespread popularity, with polls showing almost half the electorate behind her.
Her critics, and some of her friends, now want her to develop a gentler, softer public approach to her opponents -- to unemployment as well as to Argentina. Her formidable intellect is at once her strength and her danger. Her supporters urge her now to moderate her tone and let her more human qualities shine through.