Claire Tomalin is one of the most celebrated biographers of the age. For over 40 years now, she has been producing works that stand the test of time, rendering iconic literary figures such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Charles Dickens, Jane Mansfield, Thomas Hardy and Samuel Pepys in ways that not only bring said figures to life but transport the reader to a vividly wrought historic present. She has certainly built up enough of a readership, and had enough of a life, to warrant, as her title says, A Life of (her) Own. Even as someone who has been reading her books for the better part of a decade, what A Life of My Own demonstrates is how little I knew of her in her entirety, and also quite what a life she has lived, full of dizzying highs and crushing lows.
Born to a French father and a composer mother, her early life is awash with boarding schools and, sadly, in time, the inevitable shuttling that accompanies a broken home (although she is blessed with significant foreign travel from quite an early age). We also learn that her mother put some of James Joyce’s poems, collected in Chamber Music, to actual music, and had the good fortune to meet the great man himself on her honeymoon where he offered her his blessing (and there is a sweet story in which Joyce says her music is better than his words and Tomalin’s mother misunderstands and thinks Joyce is saying the opposite, to which she responds with an “Of course!” before recognising her error – everyone laughs).
Later, we hear about her first marriage to columnist and eventual reporter Nick Tomalin (she was born Claire Delavenay), which was up and down to say the least – Nick had what Cliff Richard might have called ‘a wandering eye’ and Tomalin’s gradual acceptance of bad treatment (which included the odd bout of domestic violence) might surprise many readers. They have children, and Tomalin’s love shines through, particularly where it comes to the child that she loses at birth, the child who is born with spina bifida, and the child she loses later in life as a result of suicide. Here are struggles that would lay a lesser person low. Famously, she also lost her husband when he was reporting overseas and was killed in a missile attack in Israel. (And, again, after his death, she discovers more of his infidelities but accepts them, in time, in a way that may have some readers expecting greater outrage – Tomalin seems to be able to weather storms by accepting that in life, milk is spilt.)
Tomalin’s positions at various newspapers, and the social milieu in which she finds herself, seems to afford her certain avenues of work (reading for publishing houses, gradually picking up review work for the broadsheets) and access to influential people that in time grant her lofty positions herself, editing for the New Statesman and The Sunday Times. Whilst she holds these positions (alongside her deputy, a young Julian Barnes), she has an affair with a young Martin Amis, lunches with Philip Roth, embarrasses herself (to her mind) in front of Updike, meets Saul Bellow etc – the book can get a bit name droppy – but then she did meet these people, and it is interesting to have her views on literary titans so – you take the name dropping with a pinch of salt. She also, thankfully, recognises on more than one occasion, that she been tremendously fortunate throughout her life (and you can’t help but think, yes, you’re right, on such good fortune is success built) – even as you can’t help but remember, and have sympathy for, the fact she has had, seemingly, more than her fair share of tragedy.
And then, of course, we get the gradual shift from journalism to biography (there is a six year journey from her celebrated first book, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, to her second, Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life that sees her juggling her many responsibilities, as mother, editor and writer, in a way that feels very real), and, in time, the celebration that accompanies those weeks that saw her recognised as a significant figure in the literary firmament (I’m thinking here particularly of The Invisible Woman, her biography of Dicken’s young lover Nelly Ternan, which won a number of awards, was eventually made into a film starring Ralph Fiennes and stirred up controversy from Dickens’ scholars who felt she was saying things that shouldn’t be said). This celebrity is then confirmed and consolidated by her mighty biography of Pepys, and equally worthy works on both Dickens and Hardy.
She marries again, the playwright and author Michael Frayn (a person and a friend she seems to have known for a tremendously long time in advance of them getting together), and we glimpse how they live (foreign travel for her research or for international showings of Frayn’s own plays are high on the list). She comes across as a kindly person, a person who doesn’t think she was born into wealth but whose own life seems to read as if it is the story of a person born into a certain social milieu (accentuated in the audio book by the fact that it is read by actress Dame Penelope Wilton, of Downton Abbey fame, which makes a lot of the book sound very jolly hockey sticks indeed). At 84, she promises to continue writing books after this one (obliquely, it sounds as if she has someone in mind), which is good news for us readers.
Any Cop?: It’s a fine thing to learn more of a writer who we have long read the works of and whose shrewd and incisive mind has long been turned outwards on other subjects finally revealing a view of herself.