A life of tur­moil and prose

A Life Of My Own CLAIRE TO­MA­LIN Vik­ing £16.99

Sunday Herald Life - - BOOKS REVIEW - Re­view by Hugh Mac­Don­ald

IT is Ed­in­burgh at the dawn of the new mil­len­nium, as dre­ich as only a sum­mer’s Sun­day morn­ing in the cap­i­tal can be. A brisk, con­fi­dent woman com­mands the lectern in a tent at the book fes­ti­val, telling tales of her re­search into a forth­com­ing bi­og­ra­phy of Sa­muel Pepys.

Claire To­ma­lin ap­pears at that mo­ment as wholly in com­mand: of her sub­ject, of her life, of her­self. She is the acme of a woman at work but at ease. The back­story, though, is at odds with this im­age. Her bi­og­ra­phy re­veals a life of tur­moil, tur­bu­lence and gen­uine, re­cur­ring tragedy.

The loss of her hus­band, Nick, as a re­sult of a mis­sile strike on a car when work­ing as a war correspondent in Is­rael in 1973, was the most gaudily pub­lic of the tri­als to con­front To­ma­lin. How­ever, A Life Of My Own is marked with other blows, more pri­vate, per­haps, but in­cur­ring deeper wounds that can­not be salved by thought or time.

There is one strand of To­ma­lin’s life that is ac­com­pa­nied by achieve­ment and the sub­se­quent ap­plause. There is an­other that is darker, trou­bling. They, of course, co­ex­ist.

The suc­cesses can be quickly an­no­tated. She achieved a first at Cam­bridge, was an in­no­va­tive and bril­liant lit­er­ary editor, par­tic­u­larly at the Sun­day Times; she has be­come one of the most ac­com­plished bi­og­ra­phers of her era, chron­i­cling the lives of Dick­ens, Woll­stonecraft, Austen, Hardy and Pepys among oth­ers to won­der­ful ef­fect. This is her pro­fes­sional, pub­lic life.

To­ma­lin, too, had the fleet­ing, some­times in­sub­stan­tial pri­vate encounters with oth­ers. She had an af­fair with Martin Amis (“I no­ticed his hands shook in the morn­ing, mak­ing him seem more vul­ner­a­ble”), sub­se­quently mar­ried Michael Frayn, em­ployed both Ju­lian Barnes and Christo­pher Hitchens as as­sis­tants.

She has a se­ries of anec­dotes rang­ing from a naked Ge­orge Melly do­ing party tricks to a sleep­ing Ted Heath at dinner. Saul Bel­low con­grat­u­lated her on her legs, an un­con­scious nod to the time when a first at Cam­bridge could put a woman on the path to fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion at a sec­re­tar­ial col­lege.

Her neigh­bours as a young mar­ried woman in­cluded the At­ten­bor­oughs, Alan Ben­nett and his lady in the van. There is, in pass­ing, a de­li­cious put-down of An­drew Neil, her editor at the Sun­day Times. To­ma­lin and the Scot were not kin­dred spir­its. She ap­plies the stiletto after de­scrib­ing him as a poor editor: “Neil has found his metier since on tele­vi­sion.”

This is largely all good fun as the great and the not so good wan­der in and out of news­pa­per of­fices or pub­lish­ers’ par­ties. How­ever, A Life Of My Own has a pro­found sub­stance and aches with the bur­den of heavy re­flec­tion. To­ma­lin as­serts that she moves “be­tween the triv­ial and tragic in a way that could seem cal­lous’’. But she adds cor­rectly: “That is how life is.”

So her suc­cess at Cam­bridge is fol­lowed by the re­al­i­sa­tion that she has not the ta­lent to be­come a poet: “My de­ci­sion left me with an empti­ness in my life which has never quite been filled.” A mar­riage to the most glam­orous, promis­ing jour­nal­ist of his era pre­cedes in­fi­delity on both sides, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence in­flicted by the hus­band and de­ser­tion, de­ceit and un­hap­pi­ness. There are tears, stitches in­serted in her mouth and scenes of des­per­a­tion.

It is a mer­ci­less por­trait of both Nick To­ma­lin and of a dys­func­tional part­ner­ship. She is frank in as­sess­ing the re­la­tion­ship after the death of her hus­band: “I doubted our mar­riage would have pros­pered.”

This open­ness does not ex­tend to the re­la­tion­ship with a sister who dis­ap­pears from the nar­ra­tive but oth­er­wise To­ma­lin

is un­spar­ingly hon­est. As a mother, she lost a son shortly after birth, an­other son has lived with spina bi­fida and a daugh­ter com­mit­ted sui­cide. This bru­tal sen­tence ob­vi­ously can­not con­vey the an­guish in­flicted upon To­ma­lin.

The writer, though, finds a way to de­scribe the losses, re­flect on the bless­ings, par­tic­u­larly those of Tom, the dis­abled son, who con­tin­ues to pur­sue a ful­fill­ing life. But there is re­gret, an en­dur­ing an­guish.

The triv­ial and the tragic, the witty anec­dote and the aw­ful re­flec­tion have con­spired to pro­duce a be­guil­ing, un­set­tling and un­for­get­table bi­og­ra­phy. There are blem­ishes. The end­ing is un­sat­is­fac­tory, al­most as if To­ma­lin had to reach a word count.

Her com­ments on Brexit and other sub­jects suggest the des­per­ate, un­spo­ken cry of “are we there yet?” The dis­ap­pear­ance of her sister and her mother’s re­treat into an al­most ghostly pres­ence both de­serve fur­ther il­lu­mi­na­tion.

But th­ese are quib­bles. The ac­claim for an out­stand­ing bi­og­ra­phy ex­tends to a deep­en­ing re­spect, even af­fec­tion for its author.

Her fa­ther tells her as he ap­proaches the end: “You have had a hard life.” This con­ver­sa­tion oc­curs after the pub­li­ca­tion of the Pepys book that To­ma­lin mem­o­rably her­alded in Ed­in­burgh.

She re­calls in the mem­oir the aw­ful surgery Pepys had to en­dure be­cause of re­cur­ring kid­ney stones. “It makes you think again about what he had gone through in the course of his life, recog­nise how much pain he had to en­dure, and ad­mire his courage the more.”

Th­ese sen­ti­ments ap­ply to his biog­ra­pher. This is a work that de­mands To­ma­lin be self-re­flec­tive but she es­chews self-pity. She has lived, loved and lost. She has cre­ated a life of her own but one that has an ex­tra­or­di­nary reach and res­o­nance be­yond the bounds of the deeply, wound­ingly per­sonal.

An­ti­clock­wise from right: Claire To­ma­lin’s bi­og­ra­phy re­veals a life of tur­moil and achieve­ment; danc­ing with first hus­band Nick; dur­ing her time as Sun­day Times lit­er­ary editor; and with hus­band Michael Frayn in a pic­ture taken by daugh­ter Re­becca.

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