Claire Tomalin’s literary biographies — of Thomas Hardy, Samuel Pepys, Charles Dickens and Katherine Mansfield, among others — aren’t so much massive biographies of record as fresh, engaging, revisionist takes on her subjects. In “A Life of My Own,” Tomalin, now 85, turns her critical eye on her own history, revisiting her not always smooth path through a challenging childhood, difficult marriage and early widowhood to a rewarding life of her own. “In taking on this self-imposed task,” she writes, “I was driven partly by curiosity: what would I learn about myself?” Plenty — and so do we.
Tomalin brings to her memoir a pro’s practiced ability at threading the personal, the professional and the contextual with details that sing. Born in London in 1933 to Émile Delavenay, from Savoy, and Muriel Herbert, from Liverpool, Claire Delavenay’s early years were marked by “discontinuity” — frequent relocations stemming from her parents’ bitter divorce and evacuations during World War II. After her father left, her mother gave up a promising career as a pianist and composer for a routine office job to support herself and her two daughters. Tomalin repeatedly expresses gratitude for her “admirable courage and good sense.” It’s a model she clearly found helpful when facing her own tribulations years later.
Another helpful lesson: “My mother told me early that whatever happens to you, however unhappy you may be, you can escape into a book.” “A Life of My Own” is among other things a record of Tomalin’s lifelong engagement with books — “Black Beauty” and “Babar” as a child — and later, authors such as Julian Barnes and Martin Amis, her deputy literary editors at the New Statesman and the Sunday Times. It is also a wonderful evocation of London’s vibrant literary culture of the 1960s and ’70s.
Tomalin’s father’s influence was less benign. He made clear that he hadn’t wanted her, yet she doesn’t let that stop her. She writes, “My mother’s unconditional love gave me confidence, and was stronger than my father’s unkindness.” The wonder is that she eventually established a relationship with him.
Tomalin’s depiction of her tempestuous marriage to fellow Cambridge graduate Nicholas Tomalin is similarly forthright and un-self-pitying. A brilliant reporter, her husband was chronically restless, unreliable and unfaithful. They married too young, Tomalin writes, and she was quickly tied down after giving birth to four children in five years. (The fourth, their first son, died in infancy. Years later they had another son, Tom, born with spina bifida.)
Readers may find Tomalin too willing to shoulder blame for her marital strife, especially when it comes to her husband’s outbursts of physical violence. After yo-yoing between separations, the marriage ended in 1973 when Nick was killed in Israel by a Syrian missile while on assignment for the Sunday Times.
With extraordinary honesty, Tomalin admits that this loss was mitigated by the fact that the pair had already drifted apart: “I was already distanced from him. I had learnt too well that I could not depend on him. I knew I had to make my own working life, and my own independent emotional life. I grieved. But I also thought, ‘NOW!’ What did this NOW mean? That I was released from a contract. That from now on I was in sole charge of my own life, of my four children. . . . That I was to start again and live as I chose.”
Tomalin was 40. She persevered. She got a job as literary editor of the New Statesman. But tragedy struck again seven years later, when her second daughter sank into intractable depression after her first year at Oxford and killed herself. “I should have protected her, and I failed,” Tomalin writes movingly, adding, “The system failed too, badly and inexplicably.”
Tomalin’s ability to compartmentalize and forge ahead defines her stalwart character. She comments: “Grief has to be set aside, but it does not go away.”
Like her biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen and Nelly Ternan (the young actress with whom Dickens had a secret 14-year affair), Tomalin’s memoir addresses the particular challenges of navigating life as an independent woman. As a literary editor, she championed not just great books but also great writing about books, and she strove to hire female reviewers. But her children and failing mother were constant concerns, too. She was in her mid-50s when she discovered her “true vocation” writing biographies full-time.
Among the many pleasures of “A Life of My Own” is Tomalin’s portrait of her Gloucester Terrace neighborhood in north London, which attracted a lively group of writers and artists, including Alan Bennett (and the lady in the van). Illustrious dinner guests included playwright Michael Frayn, V.S. Naipaul, Marina Warner, Paul Theroux, Victoria Glendinning, Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis, 17 years her junior, with whom she had a fling.
Tomalin can be frustratingly decorous and protective of others’ privacy regarding her love affairs and the long gestation of her relationship with Frayn, her second husband. “Writing about myself has not been easy,” Tomalin comments. “I have tried to be as truthful as possible, which has meant moving between the trivial and the tragic in a way that could seem callous.” The result is an elegant profile in courage and fortitude.
Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for The Washington Post, NPR, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal.
By Claire Tomalin
Penguin Press. 334 pp. $27