A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin review – this time, it’s personal

One of the greatest biographers of our age finally shines the spotlight on herself in this moving and beautifully written memoir

At the end of this memoir, in the acknowledgments, Claire Tomalin thanks her husband, Michael Frayn, for his patience in discussing “doubts and problems”, and for encouraging her to keep going when “I was close to giving up”. It is outside the province of the book to explore the doubts in detail or to explain why she almost ditched it. But as one reads, one speculates about the difference between writing biographies, as Tomalin has with questing brilliance – on Mary Wollstonecraft, Katherine Mansfield, Dora Jordan, Nelly Ternan, Charles Dickens, Samuel Pepys, Thomas Hardy – and writing about herself. The book, absorbing, moving and marvellously written, will not let this question drop.

Tomalin explains, in the foreword, that it has been a challenge moving between “the trivial and the tragic”. Her aim is “truthfulness” and she adds the Chekhovian afterthought that life does not hold its breath for anyone: “Even when you are at the worst moments and would like to give all your attention to grief, you still have to clean the house and pay the bills, you may even enjoy your lunch.” She was moved to write the memoir partly to understand herself better, approaching herself like a biographical subject. She discovered she was not making “individual choices” but was typical of her time (she was born in 1933) and “about as powerless to resist as a migrating bird or a salmon swimming upstream”.

But to research yourself is a peculiar project. To what extent are you already an expert? You might want to resist the subjects a biographer would dwell on. You know and do not know yourself. You remember and forget. At times, she must have had to steel herself to write at all. Tragedy stands out in her story, as tragedy will. I remember an interview Tomalin gave in this paper, in which she admitted that she had sometimes felt as though she were being pelted with bricks from above. In the memoir, she is more withheld.

Tomalin with her husband, Michael Frayn
Tomalin with her husband, Michael Frayn. Photograph: Rebecca Frayn

On the afternoon of Wednesday 17 October 1973, she heard that her husband, Nicholas Tomalin, a journalist on the Sunday Times, had been killed – a garbled rumour until the point that Harold Evans [the paper’s editor] and journalists Ron Hall and Hunter Davies turned up at her house in north London’s Gloucester Crescent: “They were the messengers of death. Nick had been killed in Israel. I suppose they told me – a heat-guided missile from the Syrians hit the car he was driving in the Golan Heights.” He was 41. Their marriage had been turbulent, but “it felt now as though the sun had been eclipsed”. She writes with a decisive lack of self-pity. Her prose is clear, level, unheated. Nicholas’s infidelity is lightly treated – not the same as making light. She has the unusual gift, in everything she writes, of never making a difficult subject more difficult.

She undertakes not to dwell on her children. But she describes Daniel, born in 1960 severely handicapped, who did not survive, and Tom, born a decade later with spina bifida, who did. She is full of praise for Tom’s fortitude. It is painfully ironic that it should be death that, lifting the ban on writing about her children, introduces the book’s most vivid character: Susanna, her second daughter. A brilliant, life-enhancing girl, Susanna came back in 1980 from Oxford University, where she had been studying English, in a catastrophic depression. A first attempt at suicide was unsuccessful. A second attempt succeeded. Tomalin found her “lying on the floor, her face calm”. There was a “very small note on the floor near her, a few words saying she was sorry, but it would get worse”. It is painful to read Tomalin’s conclusion: ‘I don’t think there has been a day since her death when I have not thought of her, her blue eyes and her high spirits. I should have protected her, and I failed. The system failed too, badly and inexplicably...”

She is hard on herself (almost always generous about others), believing she also failed her mother at the end of her life. Muriel Herbert was a pianist and composition scholar at the Royal College of Music. Her father, Emile Delavenay, was a French intellectual with perfect English, who joined the BBC in 1939. When their disastrous marriage unravelled, Tomalin moved to Welwyn Garden City with her mother and sister. She attended several schools but writes with particular enthusiasm about Dartington Hall in Devon and, later, about university – she read English at Newnham College, Cambridge. Her career as literary editor makes entertaining reading, starting at the New Statesman in the 70s and including an account of her affair with Martin Amis. Terry Kilmartin, then the Observer’s literary editor, teasingly told her she was “pretending to be the heroine of a French film”.

I was interested in her years at the Sunday Times in the 80s, partly because I was given my first stab at reviewing for her pages and remember her book-filled office and the formidable impression she made. She loved a literary argument. Once, when I’d liked a book she hadn’t, she kindly concluded – after hammer-and-tongs discussion – that positive reactions were more persuasive but without budging a jot. One of the surprises of the memoir was to discover how tentative she often felt about herself, although about the Sunday Times’ move to Wapping and the printers’ strike, she has remained firm. She politely damns Murdoch and the Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil. She and her deputy, Sean French, and others who refused to cross the Wapping picket line, were dubbed “refuseniks”.

Her resignation was liberation: she found her “vocation” as a biographer. Her mother used to say that, no matter how unhappy you were, you could escape into a book. She has spent a lifetime doing this – even in later, happier times – and in writing books into which we can gratefully disappear. In the memoir, one feels she is more at home writing about Hardy or Dickens than herself – the tug of the literary wins. There are reasons why she does not write about life with Michael Frayn, whom she married at 60. Falling in love with him was “overwhelming” but caused “pain and difficulties for everyone”. Her lack of self-importance is refreshing, her consideration for others admirable, but I’d have liked her to indulge herself – and us – with a little more about her life now and its uncontroversial, non-literary diversions – her garden, her travels, the continuing distraction of a good lunch.

• A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin is published by Penguin (£16.99). To order a copy for £12.74 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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