An Award-Winning Biographer’s Latest Subject: Herself

Claire Tomalin

The English biographer Claire Tomalin’s memoir, “A Life of My Own,” is on one level a phlegmatic tour of a fruitful life. She guides us briskly through her childhood (her French father worked for Unesco; her English mother was a musician), her education at Cambridge University a year ahead of Sylvia Plath, her early marriage and four children, her years in London’s literary world as the editor of book review sections, and finally her emergence, starting in her 40s and 50s, as the esteemed biographer of Samuel Pepys, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and others.

On another level, the book is one shock after another. Tomalin was a second child, born in 1933, and “as soon as I was aware of anything,” she writes, “I knew my father disliked me.” His name was Émile Delavenay, and his hostility toward her was inexplicable until much later. That’s when she read, in his own memoir, that shortly before she was conceived he had considered killing her mother by pushing her from a high cliff.

Tomalin’s parents divorced, a scandal in the 1940s. Her mother was so distraught she threatened to put her head into a gas oven when her daughters left to visit their father in the United States. The author found consolation in reading. “My mother told me early that whatever happens to you, however unhappy you may be, you can escape into a book.” Here, too, events conspired against her. When young she read a book called “Tom Brown’s School-Days” and — well, let’s let her tell it:

“I had been reading ‘Tom Brown’s School-Days’ and learned there that, if you simply threw yourself into some deep water, you would find yourself swimming automatically. Trustingly, I put on my bathing suit and leaped into the pool. I have a clear memory of sinking through the water, beginning to choke.”

She might have died had not a quick-witted observer plucked her out. (Books, as Philip Larkin explained in his poem “A Study of Reading Habits,” are a load of crap.) Tomalin got a further shock in her school days when an adult explained to her that sex “was just like going to the lavatory.” She is compelled to add, for the disbelieving, that “those were his exact words.”

Books and sex nearly ruined for her, she soldiered on. At college she met Nicholas Tomalin, a dashing fellow who was president of the Cambridge Union, the university’s debating society, and co-editor of the student magazine Granta. She began contributing poems to the magazine. They fell in love, married young, had children, and Nicholas embarked on a successful journalism career, bouncing between The Sunday Times and The New Statesman.

He also cheated relentlessly. “Suddenly I found myself living through the most banal of stories, as the neglected wife of a faithless husband,” she writes. He would do things like drop off a beagle puppy in an attempt to make amends (“a gesture so inappropriate to the situation that I didn’t know whether to laugh or rage”) and then disappear to Greece with a girlfriend for four months.

Credit...Angus Muir

When the author began to have discreet, reciprocal affairs of her own, her husband grew violent. He tried to run one man down with his car. He punched Claire, and sent her to the hospital for stitches in her lip. In 1973, after reuniting with Tomalin following a separation, he was killed while reporting in Israel. A heat-seeking missile, fired by Syrians, hit the car he was driving in along with an Israeli officer and some other journalists. He was 41.

Few things were easy for the author. One of her children, a son named Tom, was born with spina bifida, a defect of the spinal cord. The author’s intense love for him, and his emergence as a vital part of the family, is intensely moving, and a reason by itself to come to this book. Another of the author’s children, a daughter named Susanna, fell almost inexplicably into depression and was a suicide.

I fear I am making this intelligent and humane book sound darker than it is. Tomalin writes with a dry wit about, for example, the sexism she faced when starting her career. She got a job at a publishing house when, after her interview was complete, another man walked into the office and put down a folded piece of paper. Tomalin later learned she had been ranked a seven out of 10 in terms of her looks; high enough to get the job.

She would abandon publishing because “journalism was tougher and more exciting.” She became literary editor of The New Statesman, with Martin Amis as her deputy. She later became literary editor of The Sunday Times, where Julian Barnes was her deputy. She had an affair with Amis when he was 26 and she 41. Men often flung themselves at her. Saul Bellow told her she had beautiful legs.

In Clive James’s satire of the London literary world of the 1970s, a poem titled “Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage,” Tomalin appears as “Clara Tomahawk.” About her editing work, she reports: “Neal Ascherson told me that literary editors are those who prevent their friends from writing books by getting them to review other people’s.”

Tomalin’s first biography, of the English writer and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, appeared in 1974. Tomalin knew she had found her métier. She was not able to write full-time, however, until she was in her mid-50s. In 1993 she was remarried, when each was 60, to the playwright and novelist Michael Frayn.

“A Life of My Own” has a formal quality. Occasionally there is the unhappy sense that Tomalin is viewing her own life from too great a distance, as if she were a biographer working through a stranger’s life from file cards. She is a fluid writer but not the sort to go in search of le mot juste. Original ideas and memorable turns of phrase are rare.

Yet there is genuine appeal in watching this indomitable woman continue to chase the next draft of herself. After a while, the pages turn themselves. Tomalin has a biographer’s gift for carefully husbanding her resources, of consistently playing out just enough string. When she needs to, she pulls that string tight.

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