You can tell a life over a thousand pages or sum it up in a sentence. Claire Tomalin, now 78, shrinks hers into a line: "My life was a sort of
series of random disasters." This may seem unfair. Tomalin is often hailed as our finest living biographer, a writer who has defined the lives of English greats - Pepys, Austen, Hardy and now Dickens. Yet her version of events hints at her skill: a bad biography makes a life seem inevitable, reconstructed from the outside, a series of consequential events ending in death. A good one - the kind she writes - shows the holes, the flaws, the messy inner reality; that life is lived in unplanned moments, not rounded chapters.
At first, Tomalin wanted to be a poet, she tells me, when we speak on the phone - she is at her home in Richmond, south-west London, where she lives with her second husband, the writer Michael Frayn. Between the ages of seven and 21, she wrote "an enormous amount" of poetry. "I still think that writing poetry is the most enjoyable human activity, a wonderful thing to do, [but] I realised I hadn't got a voice of my own, so I stopped."
Brisk, practical, unforgiving of imprecision or inaccuracy, Tomalin is as harsh a critic of herself as of anyone else. Just as she has no desire to prettify or excuse the lives of her subjects, she is scrupulously honest about her shortcomings. She knows that her latest book, Charles Dickens: a Life, will upset some of the novelist's fans (the ones who read A Christmas Carol every year, she says, and for whom he is a literary godfather). They will dispute her theory that he had an affair with the actress Nelly Ternan and was cruel to his wife, Catherine, and at times neglectful of his younger children.
Best and worst of times
Tomalin finds these episodes hard to accept, too. In the book, she describes Dickens's "dismaying loss of moral compass" and her instinct to turn away on uncovering his worst offences. Even now, when we speak of his wife, she sounds wretched. "How could he do that?" she says of a letter that Dickens wrote to a friend, in which he accuses his wife of not loving their children. "I find it very distressing, because he's not happy and no doubt he feels guilty; he feels remorseful. He is a man, like many men, who always needs to be in the right."
A desire to counter the male view prompted Tomalin to write biographies and led her to Dickens. In 1990, having already written the lives of the feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft and Katherine Mansfield, she published a book about Nelly Ternan, a bit-part in Dickens's life, a woman who shames him in the eyes of devotees but whom Tomalin characteristically wanted to rescue from the margins (the book was called The Invisible Woman).
“I wanted to write about women, because I wanted women to be brought to life out of history and given their due," she says. As she established herself, she recalls, she moved on to more celebrated subjects, but if she were to write another book, she'd pick her subject from obscurity again. Her interest is sparked by those on the fringes, "who had to fight . . . against great difficulties".
Tomalin knows difficulty and grief only too well. Her first son died as an infant. In the early 1970s, she worked on the New Statesman as deputy to the literary editor Anthony Thwaite. She left the job when she had her fifth child, who was born with spina bifida. In 1974, after her journalist husband Nick Tomalin was killed in the Golan Heights, she was persuaded to return to the New Statesman as literary editor.
After such suffering, she says now, "It was a very, very happy time. I enjoyed it much more than I enjoyed being literary editor of the Sunday Times [her next role], because you could experiment on the Statesman. You could try out unknown people; you could make people's reputations; you could publish a lot of poetry. It was a very, very wonderful job."
When she walks through Lincoln's Inn Fields and passes the old offices, she feels the tug of nostalgia. Tomalin worked at the NS at the same time as Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens, James Fenton and Julian Barnes - a rare confluence of talent, though she wasn't aware of it then. "You're too busy to sit back and think, 'This is an amazing time.' There were always brilliant people coming up in journalism."
She took her job seriously (Clive James has written about the blue pencil with which she would fiercely mark his copy) but it left little time for writing books. Editing and bringing up four young children alone was demanding enough and personal ambition was postponed. It was only in late adulthood, after leaving the Sunday Times in 1986, that she "got into [her] stride" fully as a writer. Frayn, whom she married in 1993, has helped: they both write in their studies at home and he is her first reader (on an early draft of the Dickens book, he told her, "You'd better deal with the 'and then' feeling of the book" - the sense of a relentless list of events. Tomalin seems to have taken the criticism with good grace).
Back to mine
Now, she is in a new era: Dickens is her "last large-scale book". A biography is an act of total immersion, years - if you do it the Tomalin way - of sifting through letters, diaries and accounts. She describes the process as similar to carrying a huge weight on your head. Now that the weight is lifted, however, she feels bereft. "You're like a horse trained to wind a bucket in a well. If you're so used to tramping on all the time, when you stop tramping, you wonder what there is still to do," she says.
Far more than disaster, hard work has characterised Tomalin's life as a writer. After years of writing the lives of others, she now has to attend to her own. There are happy sides to this. She will see more of her grandchildren, and Frayn. "You know," she says, "I want to have a bit more of a life."