A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin


What a wonderful book this has been. Claire Tomalin is a British biographer of such august and challenging subjects as Charles Dickens, Samuel Pepys, and Jane Austen. Now in her 80s she undertook her own biography and seems to have applied the skills and thoroughness to her own life as to her other subjects. And fortunately her life has been biography-worthy.

Her early life was affected by her parents’ divorce and the war; she described her life at various boarding schools, and later Cambridge. Her love for learning and the lively intellectual interactions come through strongly. She married a fellow Cambridge student, Nicolas Tomalin and had children at a young age. Nick became much loved and admired journalist; with his frequent work absences and their rocky marriage causing other separations she became conscious of the necessity of making her own way. He was killed in Israel during the 1973 war and her work as a literary editor grew in its importance. She worked with an impressive array of writers as colleagues:  Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, Jonathan Raban to name a few who became well-known authors. She later married Michael Frayn, who wrote the two wonderful and wildly different plays, “Noises Off” and “Copenhagen,” as well as novels.

In 1983 she was literary editor for the Sunday Times; that year Rupert Murdoch brought in a new editor, Andrew Neil who, among other sins, removed a review of a book that had a critical account of US involvement in El Salvador. She threatened to resign if she wasn’t allowed to run the review and after some struggles, it did run. By early 1986 the upheaval at the paper under the direction of Murdoch caused her to resign. Her work as a biographer was growing by that point.

She tells about a popular Cambridge professor, who dismissed Dickens as a mere entertainer.

Eighteen years later, in 1970, when all of Leavis’s obedient students had gone forth spreading the word that Dickens was no good, and saving themselves the trouble of reading or teaching him, Leavis and his wife Queenie published a book on Dickens’s novels in which they retracted their earlier opinion, suddenly describing him as one of the greatest of creative writers and presenting warm and brilliant analyzes of individual novels. This was an extraordinary volte-face, made without explanation or apology for the earlier dismissal of Dickens. It was one of the strangest of literary recantations, closer to a spiritual conversation than a critical reappraisal.

She and Nick moved into Gloucester Crescent in London in 1963 and she lived there for 40 years. It was an affordable location and interesting literary folks lived in the area, including Alan Bennett. She mentions the lady in the van, which refers to the woman who lived in her van in Alan Bennett’s driveway for 15 years. That story became a movie with Maggie Smith. Some years later Mary-Kay Wilmers moved in and her sons became friends with Claire’s son Tom. Life in the Crescent was chronicled by Nina Stibbe about the years when she was nanny to Wilmers’s sons in Love, Nina.

The lady in the van and the Nina Stibbe stories were just brief mentions with no explanations. It happened that I knew about them; I assume I am missing many interesting backstories about others who were mentioned. Despite the fact that so many of the people she referred to were unknown to me, I thoroughly enjoyed living near, if not in her world for a time.

Claire Tomalin, A Life of My Own, Penguin Press, 2017, 334 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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