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24 September 2017

Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own is unexpectedly moving but free of self-pity

What iron she has: a tenacity I would order by the case-load if only she’d bottle it.

By Rachel Cooke

Six years ago, during an interview to mark the publication of her life of Dickens, Claire Tomalin told me that the idea of writing a memoir filled her with horror. It wasn’t hard to see why. Self-absorption is not her natural mode; and besides, only rarely do you meet a biographer who thinks of themself as the most interesting person in the room. But still, I longed for her to do it. I knew a little of what she had to put up with during her working life, which began in the Fifties, and I wanted better to understand how she had first survived, and then thrived, in a realm – I’m thinking of her time in journalism, particularly – in which women were often treated like secretaries by their male colleagues, even when they were in fact the literary editor of the newspaper, and in the middle of editing a long piece by Noel Annan about Isaiah Berlin.

And now here it is, that dreaded memoir. Written against the grain, and against literary fashion, it may disappoint those who expect memoirists to spill and to emote, to hang out absolutely everything like so much underwear pegged on a line. If, though, your taste is for understatement and a certain caution in the matter of sentiment – think of another of Tomalin’s biographical subjects, Jane Austen – then you’re likely to love A Life of My Own.

For my part, I can’t remember the last time I found a conventional autobiography so unexpectedly moving. Its author has been through so much: widowhood; the suicide of a beloved daughter; the death of a baby; the bringing up of a disabled son. Yet among its pages there is not one whisper of self-pity.

What iron she has: a tenacity I would order by the case-load if only she’d bottle it. “I grieved,” she writes, of the death of her husband, Nick Tomalin, killed in the Golan Heights in 1973 while reporting the Yom Kippur War for the Sunday Times. “But I also thought, “NOW!” What did this NOW mean? That from now on I was in sole charge of my own life… That I was already standing alone, and not afraid.”

She needed, at this point, to keep a roof over the head of her four children. But she knew, too, that work was a privilege and a balm. She was hungry for it; she did it with passion and commitment; and in turn, it repaid her.

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This aspect of her character was formed early on. Born in 1933, she was a child of the war, which certainly played its part. But her parents also separated when she was small, at a time when divorce was rare, and rather shocking. If she felt different – a child apart – she developed, too, an abiding sense of gratitude for what she had in life (the family lived in Welwyn, where her mother, a composer and music teacher, struggled financially at times), and this stayed with her, manifesting itself later on in the form of what we might call a sense of perspective.

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When she discovers, for instance, that the man she has married – she and Nick met at Cambridge, where they were both stars – is not only a philanderer, but an egregiously spoony one to boot, apt to fall in love with his mistresses, her poise is breathtaking. First, she pushes her unhappiness aside. She has things to do: books to read (she was then working as a publishers’ reader), children to ferry around.

Then she retaliates with an affair of her own. When Nick discovers this, he is furious, and violent. But again she possesses an almost bird’s-eye view. She is on her guard – prepared, now, for his rage. However, she will not leave. Later, when he hits her so hard she has to have stitches in her lip, she does not excuse him. She does, though, look back with understanding. He was, she writes, in love again, and overwhelmed by guilt. I meant it when I said that this book would not be to everyone’s taste.

Her husband’s death is, as she tells it, sudden and shocking: the moment when Harry Evans (the editor of the Sunday Times) and various other noted hacks appear in her Camden home to break the news has a slow-motion quality that is the very opposite of rattling printing presses. But it is set against the fact that Tomalin has already buried a baby son, Daniel, and that her youngest child, Tom, has all sorts of complex needs, having been born with spina bifida.

She is able to cope – perhaps because she has to cope – and not too long afterwards, she joins the New Statesman as literary editor. This is good for her, and she feels better. She buys an orange Volvo, has an affair with a 25-year-old reviewer called Martin Amis (she is 40), and continues to write (she has already completed her first biography, of Mary Wollstonecraft). You hope this is her break: that she will get to bask in the light, just a little. Only then… calamity. Her second daughter, Susanna, until recently a student at Oxford, kills herself. Her mother finds her body, and feels – wrongly, but there it is – that she has failed.

I read the chapter about Susanna’s death twice, and wept both times. It is so plainly and beautifully told: a description, but not, as Tomalin notes, an explanation. Again, though, there is a rallying. Now she joins the Sunday Times as literary editor, where she vomits during lunch at the Savoy with VS Naipaul and sticks up pictures of seductively posed men (her way of protesting the photographs of half-dressed women which then adorned the newspaper’s offices). In 1983, Andrew Neil arrives (my first editor, and her last) and somehow, she resists his demand that she use “famous names”. However, when the paper abruptly moves to Wapping in 1986, the better that its proprietor Rupert Murdoch might break the print unions, she resigns (with a blistering letter to Neil) to become a full-time writer.

Some people may, Tomalin writes, find her career cheering, for she did not begin writing biographies, her true (and prize-winning) vocation, until she was nearly 40, and she was in her mid-50s by the time she was able to concentrate on doing so full time. Perhaps too, though she does not say this herself, some will take heart from the fact that she did not marry the playwright Michael Frayn, with whom she has found lasting happiness, until she was 60. But that’s as may be. I can only tell you that her story, as she unfurls it, banner-like, filled me with a kind of awe. Every page is valiant, every paragraph full of pluck. 

Rachel Cooke is the author of “Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties” (Virago)

A Life of My Own
Claire Tomalin
Viking, 334pp, £16.99