IN HER OWN WORDS
England’s leading biographer Claire Tomalin has finally told the story of her own remarkable life at the age of 84
If you write lives for a living, how do you write your own? ‘I’ve tried to look at myself as if I were someone else,’ says the author Claire Tomalin, leaning back on a sofa in the living-room of the large Richmond house that she shares with unlimited books and her husband, the playwright Michael Frayn. Behind her, through the windows, a vast lawn curves out of sight. On the grass sit two sunloungers side by side.
Tomalin is a biographer by trade. After a run of literary subjects – Pepys, Hardy, Austen, Dickens – she has turned the lens on herself, to tell the story of an ‘ordinary female child’, she says. There’s nothing ordinary about it. Her new memoir, A Life of My Own, is a catalogue of infidelity and brutal grief. It is a seductive portrait of London in the Sixties and Seventies when you drank at lunch and could buy an enormous house in Camden for £5,000. But it is also the story of family life, of how simultaneously to be a single mother to four children and the literary editor of the New Statesman and The Sunday Times. It’s a hymn to good nannies. And, ultimately, it’s a love story.
‘What started me off was thinking about my parents,’ Tomalin tells me. ‘[My father] wanted to kill my mother when I was conceived.’ She isn’t being glib. Her French father, Emile, seriously contemplated pushing her mother, Muriel, over a Cornish cliff, such was his hatred for her. He preserved the thought in a memoir, and showed it to Tomalin years later. ‘Did he think I ought to know? ’ writes Tomalin, still mystified. It is the first example of what at times feels like an impossible chain of misfortune through the 84 years of Tomalin’s life. Her first husband, Nick Tomalin, was killed while reporting in Israel in 1973. Her third child, Daniel, died shortly after birth. Her youngest, Tom, was born with spina bifida. Her daughter Susanna suffered from severe depression and committed suicide at the age of 22.
‘I did find it very difficult, very painful to write,’ says Tomalin. ‘I think finally now I have come through Susanna’s death, partly through writing this book. But I became extremely depressed, going round and round thinking about it. She blames herself for not realising the depth of her daughter’s suffering. Writing the book, she thought, might help others caring for someone with mental illness; to show, too, that life continues. Tomalin has often been pitied for the tragedies of her life, but extends no such indulgence to herself. Instead, she set out the facts. ‘I wanted to be clear,’ she says. ‘I like clarity.’
Grief mingles with joy. The bohemian chaos of life on Gloucester Crescent (with neighbours including Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett, and the poet Christopher Reid employed as one of Tom’s carers) is spliced with accounts of Nick’s wild philandering. ‘We got married very young,’ says Tomalin. ‘A terrible mistake.’ She delighted in the Sixties, remembers her doctor giving her a pill in a packet ‘and saying, “You might likethis.”’ Shehadaffairs. ‘For a lot of people, the only thing they know about me is that I had an affair with Martin Amis,’ she says with a weary smile. When she sent Amis the section of the book in which she recounts their time together, he replied fondly: ‘You make me feel so nostalgic.’
You can see why. Tomalin conjures a London in which everyone was writing, everyone cared about writing and where literary criticism was the pulse of the city’s culture. At the Statesman, her colleagues included Amis, Christopher Hitchens and Julian Barnes. ‘It was absolutely wonderful.’ She was constantly pursued: ‘A lot of men made sexual passes at me, which I found completely meaningless,’ she says. ‘What I responded to was love.’
Tomalin’s first romance was at the age of 14 with a 21-year-old neighbour, Philip. They danced together, ‘one of the most erotic experiences of my life’, and crept out of their houses in the middle of the night to meet in the shrubbery at the end of their gardens. Through the years there were more. ‘I think I made friends with all the men I had affairs with,’ she says now. ‘And that matters to me.’
Then there was Frayn. They had been friends for years when he eventually left his wife and three children to be with her. Their marriage offered a second chance, a second life: peaceful, contented, devoted. ‘I have never looked at another person,’ she says. ‘I used to be quite susceptible.’ Now both in their eighties, they have slowed a little. Tomalin might write another book, but she’s not sure. As with all things, she is clear-eyed on the subject of mortality: ‘I do feel very strongly that death is the end.’ She hopes she dies first, as Frayn has daughters nearby who will look after him. And so, inevitably, her story will come to a close. ‘I’ve had a very happy time,’ says Tomalin. ‘I’ve done the things I wanted to do. I’ve been married to a man I love.’
‘A Life of My Own’ by Claire Tomalin (£16.99, Viking) is published on 7 September.
Left, from top: Claire Tomalin onholiday in the 1960s. With her baby Tom in 1970