A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin
Love and tragedy in literary London – a biographer’s moving yet discreet memoir
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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