Claire Tomalin: A Life of My Own

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know Claire Tomalin as a biographer, having read her biography of Dickens and Dickens’ ‘invisible woman’ Nelly Ternan, as well as well-documented and sensitive recreations of the life of Samuel Pepys, Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen and Katherine Mansfield. But she found her vocation rather late in life, as she admits in this very frank memoir A Life of My Own, and her career has been almost accidental, often resulting from changes to her personal circumstances rather than any ambitious planning.

Photo credit: Bodleian Libraries

Tomalin’s life is a mix of privilege and hard blows. As she herself admits: ‘I’ve had a life with tragedies in it. But also extraordinary good luck.’ Born to well-educated but unhappily married parents, brought up bilingual and evacuated from home during the Second World War (changing schools very frequently), she entered a charmed circle of talented friends at Cambridge, who later became influential journalists and critics. She married young and had several children in quick succession, but her charismatic reporter husband Nick Tomalin was an inveterate womaniser, who kept planning to leave her but eventually came back. When he was killed by a missile attack in Israel in 1973, Claire was shocked but must also have been relieved. She built a new life for herself as a single mum supporting her four children, working as Literary Editor at The New Statesman and the Sunday Times. She knew everyone who was anyone and had affairs with younger men, such as Martin Amis. She lost a baby and her last child, a son named Tom, was born with spina bifida. She describes her struggles to bring him up as normally as possible, but also found an army of willing childminders. Her middle daughter, who always seemed the most cheerful and well-adjusted, committed suicide when she was 20. She found late love with her second husband and lifelong friend, playwright Michael Frayn.

During happy times, the description of her music and book-filled life, with frequent trips abroad and full of big names, can sound slightly elitist. Yet she is often very modest and full of subtle humour. Although she names a few lovers, she is on the whole discreet about all the men offering themselves to the young widow as ‘admirers, consolers, wooers, romantics and would-be seducers’.

Claire has a breezy way of dealing with sad events in her life, dispatching them in one unsentimental paragraph. No self-pity is allowed to creep in at all, but her stoicism made me as a reader feel very uncomfortable. For example, about her last reconciliation with her first husband:

Nick grew more pressing. My daughter Jo was now twelve and I decided I should consult with her. I told her he was eager to come back and said I thought he would never change and that we could make a better life without him, and maybe I could marry a steadier partner one day. She listened, and then said in a very small clear voice, ‘I want Daddy.’ And I answered, in a voice which I made cheery, ‘All right – we’ll have Daddy.’

At times, this breeziness can descend into callousness, such as when she describes falling in love with Michael Frayn, who was still married at that point.

… Michael and I were now living together. Our long friendship, in which we had talked and confided in one another about our lives, had turned to love. It was an overwhelming experience. It also caused pain and difficulties for everyone. We tried to give up our relationship more than once, and never could. The situation was resolved very slowly through the generosity of his wife…

Maybe the previous generations are far less puritanical than ours (and the younger ones). Or perhaps this is the way to deal with things in life, to tell yourself a certain story and not agonise over other possible interpretations.

23 thoughts on “Claire Tomalin: A Life of My Own”

    1. Hmmm, maybe I was just extremely grumpy given my personal experiences, although the reactions below suggest that I am not alone in feeling a bit. I suppose in a way it’s better that she addresses the matter very briefly, rather than going on and on about it over lots of chapters.

  1. What an interesting memoir this must be, Marina Sofia. And what a rich life! It sounds, too, as though it strikes a balance so as not to be too self-serving, nor too name-dropping. That’s not always easy to achieve, and I’m glad she does.

    1. I did enjoy it on the whole but it did leave me with some questions about privilege and connections. Although her life was balanced out by more than her fair share of misfortune, it could have been so much worse if she hadn’t had all those friends and influential people around her. As most of us don’t.

  2. Suffering from a womanizing husband and then breaking up someone else’s marriage . . . Not sure what to think about that. And the flippancy of some of her comments, I hope are just an act. Otherwise – she’s a wonderful biographer. I like her work very much.

    1. That statement was tucked away in just one paragraph, but it certainly stuck with me. I think she is of the older generation who doesn’t want to go into lengthy descriptions of her feelings, and therefore almost errs on the side of flippancy. For instance, when her husband got violent towards her – again, expedited in 1-2 sentences, so matter-of-fact that I couldn’t believe I’d understood correctly.

  3. I’ve wondered about reading this, having read some of the biographies she’s written. You’ve persuaded me to give it a go, so I’ve reserved it at the library. There are 7 holds before it gets to me, so I might have to buy a copy.

    1. That is a lot of holds! Maybe the people who except it to be full of scandal and gossip will be disappointed… I’d be happy to post you my copy of it, as I’m unlikely to reread it.

  4. This one’s been on and off my list. I’ve enjoyed her biographies but thought this might be just another tale of privileged folk. You’ve persuaded me to put it back on.

  5. Really interesting review, Marina Sofia. She’s an excellent biographer but this doesn’t really appeal to me. Her voice in the quotes you pulled is a bit cold for me, coupled with such a privileged life I think I’d lose patience!

  6. So interesting, Marina. I know of, and have, read her work of course, but I’m not sure this would be for me. I know we can’t help the circumstances of our lives always, but wreaking a bit of havoc and then not really acknowledging the consequences isn’t always appealing.

  7. I always wonder when people say they hadn’t a choice, as if it were fated, meant to be. Wonder, that is, if they could have made a different choice?

    But, what a position for Frayn’s wife! I can see the wisdom/self-protection in being “generous.”

  8. I entirely agree with you over her treatment of Frayn’s first wife. Some explanation of her callousness might be explained by her father’s description of Claire’s conception which he details in his autobiography and showed to Claire in 1991 (page 23)

  9. Do I dare say that I’m not as shocked as everyone about that last quote? Must be the frenchness in me…Feelings cannot be helped and would not have room to develop on the married partner’s side if she/he were happily married…

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