A Life of My Own by Claire To­ma­lin

Love and tragedy in lit­er­ary Lon­don – a bi­og­ra­pher’s mov­ing yet dis­creet mem­oir

The Guardian - Review - - Non-Fiction - An­thony Quinn An­thony Quinn’s most re­cent novel, Eureka, is pub­lished by Jonathan Cape.

You will find it hard not to be amazed, and im­pos­si­ble not to be moved, by the in­domitable spirit that drives this mem­oir. Though dealt a ter­ri­ble hand in her mid­dle years, Claire To­ma­lin re­mains so ut­terly with­out self-pity, so brim­ful of sto­icism and courage, that at times she comes across like the hero­ine of a great novel. Mem­oirs, es­pe­cially writ­ers’ mem­oirs, are of­ten the oc­ca­sion for score-set­tling, an ex­cuse to pro­duce that dish best served cold, yet even in the face of mighty provo­ca­tion, this writer tran­scends petu­lance and piety. Such is her re­straint, in­deed, that the reader may feel oc­ca­sion­ally chas­tened by the high-mind­ed­ness of it all.

It is, I should add, a hugely en­ter­tain­ing book. Hav­ing read her work, I ex­pected the bi­og­ra­pher’s light­ness of touch, in­stinc­tive sym­pa­thy and eye for the killer de­tail; here those at­tributes are en­livened by a story she knows bet­ter than any­one else’s. Born of artis­tic mid­dle-class par­ents – her father a French ra­tio­nal­ist, her mother a Chris­tian Sci­en­tist from Liver­pool – she had a child­hood dis­rupted by the war and haunted by a dis­tinct per­cep­tion: “As soon as I was aware of any­thing I knew my father dis­liked me.” Her par­ents’ mar­riage was goth­ically wretched. She was con­ceived on a hol­i­day in Corn­wall on the same day her father had “thought se­ri­ously” of killing her mother. Again, it sounds as if it should be in a novel. They sep­a­rated when she was eight, in 1941.

In­tel­lec­tu­ally speak­ing, her stock­ings were al­ways of the finest blue worsted. She grew up in a home full of books and mu­sic – opera be­came a life­long pas­sion – and from an early age con­sumed art with ter­ri­fy­ing en­thu­si­asm. Ed­u­cated at the French Ly­cée in Kens­ing­ton, she was read­ing JE Neale’s life of Queen El­iz­a­beth and “turn­ing out son­nets by the dozen”. For her 13th birth­day she asked her mother for the two-vol­ume Ox­ford English Dic­tio­nary. “I longed to be­come an adult,” she re­calls. This book gives a clear pic­ture of To­ma­lin as a young woman: bright, cu­ri­ous, af­fec­tion­ate, a bit of a showoff and, like many women of her class and gen­er­a­tion, quite un­worldly. Sen­si­ble enough to have dodged the age­ing men­tor who had ex­plained sex to her as “just like go­ing to the lava­tory”, she was less for­tu­nate in fall­ing for Nick To­ma­lin, a dash­ing fel­low stu­dent at Cam­bridge who came from an eru­dite, bo­hemian fam­ily like her own. They mar­ried, against her bet­ter in­stincts, and raised a fam­ily in the newly resur­gent Cam­den Town of the 1960s.

A ten­sion in To­ma­lin’s char­ac­ter be­comes ap­par­ent. She is clear-sighted and re­mark­ably lacks sour­ness in her ac­count of Nick, whose mul­ti­ple in­fi­deli­ties and de­fec­tions left her and her young chil­dren in a state of mis­er­able un­cer­tainty. Partly in re­tal­i­a­tion, partly in keep­ing with the times, she em­barked on an af­fair of her own with “a clever and lik­able jour­nal­ist”. When the phi­lan­der­ing hus­band hears of this he throws a punch at her, which she ducks. But what we re­ally want to know is the man’s name, not the scene’s affin­ity to The Mar­riage of Fi­garo (“he will not al­low the count­ess any equiv­a­lent free­dom”). To­ma­lin’s ret­i­cence is pre­sum­ably a cour­tesy to peo­ple still liv­ing; to the reader, alas, it is mad­den­ing. Later, when books ed­i­tor of the New States­man, she is wooed by a “bril­liant and witty col­league”, also mar­ried. Her re­fusal to spill his name forces her into lo­cu­tions (“my lover rang me”) that sound old-fash­ioned and coy – surely not her in­ten­tion. She ex­er­cises a dis­cre­tion on her pri­vate life she would never dream of con­ced­ing to her bi­o­graph­i­cal sub­jects. (I kept think­ing of her elu­ci­da­tion of Dick­ens’s mis­laid 1867 di­ary in her su­perb life of Nelly Ter­nan, The In­vis­i­ble Woman).

On the other hand, her re­straint in deal­ing with the twin tragedies of her life, seven years apart, is mov­ing. In Oc­to­ber 1973 Nick To­ma­lin, re­port­ing on the Yom Kip­pur war, was killed on the Golan Heights by a Syr­ian mis­sile. She re­counts the shock of his death, for her­self, her fam­ily, col­leagues, with a ten­der­ness that feels raw even to­day: “It felt as though the sun had been eclipsed.” She grieved for Nick – the charmer, the chancer, the fear­less jour­nal­ist – yet she also felt re­leased in some way. She knew she had her own life to make: “I was al­ready stand­ing alone, and not afraid.” Her first book, The Life and Death of Mary Woll­stonecraft , ap­peared the fol­low­ing year, and she plunged right into the thick of lit­er­ary Lon­don, re­view­ing, edit­ing, even find­ing the time for an af­fair with Mar­tin Amis (“I suc­cumbed to the charm of his smoker’s voice”). The love of her daugh­ters and her son Tom, born with spina bi­fida, sus­tained her. Men were con­stantly of­fer­ing them­selves as pro­tec­tors and do­mes­tic help­meets. I would have liked to know the story of how Michael Frayn, a shad­owy pres­ence here, be­came her soul­mate and sec­ond hus­band, but again, she isn’t telling.

All seemed to be well un­til she was blind­sided by an­other bolt from nowhere. Her mid­dle daugh­ter, Su­sanna, a bright and high-spir­ited girl, fell prey to “a cruel and in­ex­pli­ca­ble black­ness” whose warn­ings nei­ther her mother nor the med­i­cal pro­fes­sion suf­fi­ciently heeded. She made sev­eral at­tempts on her own life, and fi­nally suc­ceeded in Au­gust 1980. Again, sor­row­ful ac­cep­tance of her lot is To­ma­lin’s key­note. “I should have pro­tected her, and I failed,” she writes, con­clud­ing a fine and af­fect­ing ac­count of her daugh­ter’s short life. The bough creaks, and bends; some­how it does not break. “Work has to be the healer” – the joy­ful work of life-writ­ing and, in the dis­pu­ta­tious 1980s, a fi­nal stint in jour­nal­ism as lit­er­ary ed­i­tor of the Sun­day Times, first un­der Harold Evans, later un­der the celebrity-chas­ing aegis of An­drew Neil. It’s a farewell to the old Fleet Street spirit as Ru­pert Mur­doch out­wits the print unions af­ter mov­ing his pa­pers to Wap­ping.

I loved the way the book’s clos­ing chap­ter be­lat­edly cir­cles back to its be­gin­ning via her post­hu­mous dis­cov­ery of songs in a man­u­script writ­ten by her mother, not just a tal­ented pi­anist but an ac­com­plished com­poser. “How hard she had worked, and how well.” With her father, who lived much longer, she be­came rec­on­ciled, though when he pub­lished in his own mem­oir the atro­cious story of her con­cep­tion she never chal­lenged him: “I can­not ex­plain why I failed to.” Per­haps this is sim­ply the way she has learned to sur­vive. That To­ma­lin knows who she is seems to have made it easy for her to un­der­stand oth­ers. Aged 84 now, she wants to fol­low the ex­am­ple of her long­est-lived sub­ject, Thomas Hardy, and keep writ­ing to the end. She in­tends to be­gin an­other book af­ter this. I can’t wait for it.

Claire with her first hus­band, Nick To­ma­lin, on board the Queen Mary in 1959

352pp, Vik­ing, £16.99

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