I first became aware of Claire Tomalin a few years ago when her biography of Samuel Pepys (Samuel Pepys: the unequalled self) won the Whitbread Book Award (predecessor to the Costa Book Award) in 2002. I remember the story was quite newsworthy because her husband, the novelist and playwright Michael Frayn, was also shortlisted the same year for his novel Spies. He won the prize for the novel. She won the biography prize plus the overall best book. Tomalin has written a number of well-received biographies, including of Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Hardy. Her most recent was Charles Dickens: A Life, published in 2011.
Browsing in the bookshop last year, I noticed that she had published her own autobiography, at the age of 83 – I note with some pleasure that her 84th birthday is in fact today! Many happy returns! Reading the blurb whetted my appetite – I was not aware of her life as a groundbreaking Literary Editor at the Sunday Times, or that she had five children, including one boy who died as a baby, and another son who was born with severe disabilities, nor that her first husband, fellow journalist Nicholas Tomalin, was killed in 1973, when her children were still very young. It sounded like a very interesting read.
Anticipating some long drives, I got hold of the audiobook (the reserve list at the library was long and I knew it would be many weeks before I got it), and the fact that it was narrated by Dame Penelope Wilton was a bonus.
At first, I’m afraid to say, I did not enjoy it; I found it quite irritating. Claire was born in 1933. Her father was French and her mother from Liverpool, a talented composer. Her early life was troubled, not least because her parents divorced when she was still quite young. However, she still secured a very good education, first at Hitchin Girls Grammar School and then at the progressive Dartington boarding school in Devon, before going to Cambridge. Through her parents she came into contact with very many high-profile artists, writers and musicians, so though there may have been a shortage of material wealth (though I can only imagine this is relative) there was no shortage of cultural wealth. And I’m afraid this is what I found irritating. I don’t think the author wants us to feel sorry for her, but I found myself with the sense that she really had no idea what the lives of her working class contemporaries, many of whom would have no less ability, were like compared to her own.
The book became less irritating. Once she had graduated, I found the young adult Claire more interesting, although there was still way too much name-dropping for my liking. I think I expect biographies, and in particular autobiographies, to provide insight, reflection and self-awareness; I have, for example, enjoyed Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Anjelica Huston’s A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland very much. However, for me this just did not happen with Claire Tomalin until the final quarter or so of the book. As we learn about the death of her husband Nick (he was hit by a shell whilst reporting on the Yom Kippur War in 1973) and how she had to cope with life as a widowed mother of four children, I found I became more sympathetic. She also faced challenges that most will never have to, thankfully, in relation to her children and these parts were both incredibly touching and immensely readable. She lived in a house in Gloucester Crescent, north London, and mentions neighbour Nina Stibbe, whose tales of nannying to the editor of the London Review of Books in the 1980s are recorded in another book I’ve reviewed here, Love, Nina. It was quite a bohemian lifestyle and engaging to read about.
There is much to enjoy in this book, and the last few chapters are poignant, but overall, I was disappointed. Although it was not smug or self-congratulatory, there were certainly parts which lacked a sense of the privileged life the author had led and that for me was a flaw. You will recognize many of the names mentioned, the anecdotes about Andrew Neil and Rupert Murdoch and the industrial disputes that beset The Times provide a fascinating perspective, and here is a life that has been long-lived, so it spans a vast range of time. For me, though, the book was little too much chronological account and not quite enough personal insight.
Recommended if you’re an admirer of the author or have an interest in the mid-20th century cultural life of London.
Which biographies or autobiographies have you enjoyed recently?
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