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.

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#ReadingRhys — Short Fiction and Memoir

Smile Please is Jean Rhys’ autobiography, or rather a collection of vignettes about her life in Dominica, London and Paris, left unfinished at the time of her death. She revisits much of the same ground that she has already addressed in her fiction, although it is dangerous to assume that her fiction is confessional. However, it is close in subject matter and style to her short story collection Sleep It Off, Lady, so this is the comparison I shall make.

smilepleaseWhere Jean Rhys succeeds so well, to my mind, is how she takes a certain experience from her own life (her husband’s jail sentence, an abortion, being educated by Catholic nuns, being abandoned) and heightens it, polishing it until it catches all the light of universality.

The first tales in both books are remarkable for their vivid evocation of the Caribbean smells, sounds, heat and colours. But what is remarkable is how there is always something sinister under the lovely trappings. In Smile Please the author does allow herself some wallowing in nostalgia when describing her aunt’s estate in Geneva or carnival or riding or musical evenings, although she also mentions her terrifying nurse Meta, the Englishman who superciliously declared her ‘not a pretty little girl’, the racial tensions. But in the fictional accounts of her childhood the danger is much more apparent, the disillusionment all the more acute. In ‘Goodbye Marcus, Goodbye Rose’ a twelve-year-old girl is inappropriately fondled by an old Englishman, a war hero, on holiday in Jamaica. In ‘Fishy Waters’ white privilege, sense of entitlement and child molestation all come together to create an unpalatable truth which is never explicitly stated, only hinted.

What we do get to see in Smile Please is Jean’s family: her opinionated, generous and charismatic father, her withdrawn, cold mother, early separation from her older brothers and sister, a slight resentment but also protectiveness towards her younger sister who ‘was now the baby, the spoilt and cherished one’, and her great sense of loneliness. She found companionship and consolation in books.

sleepitoffWhen she goes to England however (where the dominant first impression is of a grey, cold, unwelcoming place), she loses her love of books for many years. Scenes from her first encounters with London, falling asleep in the Wallace Collection, her mediocre acting career, dirty bedsits and suspicious landladies are very similar in both books and have indeed been described in other books. This is the landscape and state of mind we associate with Jean Rhys. The narrative voice so often echoes the author’s thoughts that it’s no wonder we confuse the two, yet it’s worth remembering that she liked shape and said, ‘A novel has to have shape, and life doesn’t have any.’

You can detect some of this ‘shapelessness’, a meandering through memories (where one memory gives rise to another), in her autobiography, and not just in the unfinished second part of it. There is a rawness and immediacy to her work in Smile Please.  The words are perhaps less carefully measured out than in her fiction, but we feel we are participating in the author’s thought processes.

Is the following truth or fiction? And does it matter? It certainly explains the self-destructive and passive tendencies of the female characters in Rhys’ novels and stories.

I had started out in life trusting everyone and now I trusted no one. So I had few acquaintances and no close friends. It was perhaps in reaction against the inevitable loneliness of my life that I’d find myself doing bold, risky, even outrageous things without hesitation or surprise. I was usually disappointed in these adventures and they didn’t have much effect on me, good or bad, but I never quite lost the hope of something better or different.

Jean Rhys’ writing represents the poetry of the downtrodden and vanquished, who nevertheless display an obstinate pride from time to time and an occasional wild streak, like the black cat in the story ‘Kikimora’. There remains something untamed about the narrator. Her language is simple, eloquent, almost child-like in its simplicity. The narrators come across as pathetically naive at times, cynical and world-weary at other times, but they often surprise the men in their lives or the reader (and even, occasionally, themselves).

Jean Rhys at about the time of the publication of 'Sleep It Off Lady'
Jean Rhys at about the time of the publication of ‘Sleep It Off Lady’

Inevitably, you’ll find the fictional account (because it was finished) far more lucid about the fear of illness and old age, the inevitable decline and raging against it, and finally some kind of troubled acceptance of death. But there is a lot more self-deprecating humour in her autobiography. Take for instance, her delightful anecdote about being a governess to a small, solemn little boy and getting lost on the way back from the park. So typical of the well-meaning but accident-prone and muddled heroines of Rhys’ novels.

Sometimes now I smile when I think there is a middle-aged, or even elderly, man in Paris with an unnecessary hatred of everything English, and vague memories of a thin Englishwoman in black who tried to kidnap him.

In today’s world, when everyone bares their soul and the kitchen sink on their blogs and in personal memoirs, does Jean Rhys’ brutal honesty still have the power to shock? Perhaps not, but it’s not about the subject matter, the relentless drabness and numbing one’s senses in alcohol. It is about transcending greyness, about turning it into luminous prose. Thank you to Eric and Jacqui for initiating #ReadingRhys week and thereby reminding us once more just what a consummate artist she is.

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