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31 August 2017

Claire Tomalin’s Diary: Going to prison and talking about Jane Austen

Planting trees in the yard is a poor subsitute for reducing the prison population. 

By Claire Tomalin

To Wandsworth, south London, by train to meet a group from the Howard League for Penal Reform. There were no buses at the station, so I walked a mile through the near-empty streets, raising the eyebrows of passers-by when I asked them how close I was to the prison. I’d been there once before, in the 1980s, when I judged a competition and spoke to a few men, and I came away depressed. Things are probably worse now, because Wandsworth was built for 963 men (in 1851) but now holds 1,600.

This time, I met a well-spoken prisoner who assured me it was lack of discipline that brought so many to prison, adding that he had been caned 60 times during his schooldays and it “never did me any harm”. Then I was ushered into a cell shared by two young Albanians with flashing eyes and smiles but no English. They had just about enough room to turn round beside their bunk bed, TV, lavatory and small cupboard. A tiny window. At least having a visitor was a break in the monotony of being locked up hour after hour, day after day. Later, I was told that they were serving 12-year sentences. I tried not to think what they might have done.

Some good news: the black asphalt exercise yard is to be planted with shrubs and trees, and chickens are to be kept and cared for by the prisoners. Another improvement would be to halve the prison population.

Berry go round

Sunday morning blackberrying with my husband, Michael, in the sunshine in the meadows around Ham House near Richmond. I’ve enjoyed the old occupation of gatherer since my mother took me looking for wild berries and mushrooms as a child during the war. This is a bumper year: we picked three pounds of blackberries in an hour and a half. Some I threw straight into my biggest saucepan with the windfalls from our apple trees, to be cooked to a rich, purplish stew. The rest were washed, weighed and put into plastic bags for the freezer. They will give us a taste of sunshine as we eat them through the winter months.

Lost in Austen

I’ve been giving talks on Jane Austen, who died 200 years ago. She came from an enterprising and hard-working family. Her great-grandmother, widowed with six sons and no money, found herself a job as housekeeper to the headmaster of Sevenoaks School, taking as payment the education of all her boys.

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In Jane’s generation, the Austen children were observed to be high-spirited and “disposed to be pleased with each other”. It’s an attractive description and must have encouraged the budding novelist to write the outrageously funny stories she handed out to her siblings. But she was a private person, and the four novels published in her lifetime appeared anonymously. Now she is a world celebrity, her work filmed and televised, given sequels, prequels and spin-offs of ever greater vulgarity – you can order Mr Darcy Steals a Kiss: A Pride and Prejudice Sensual Variation for your Kindle, or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Paper mountain

To the French consulate to get a new French passport. I have failed to renew my old one for years, thinking that it would always be easy, but today French bureaucracy makes it a very demanding process. I have in my favour a document in my father’s hand registering my birth with the French consulate in 1933. Both of my parents were French then, because my mother had automatically lost her British nationality by marrying a foreigner. I am British only because I was born in London.

All the same, the French authorities require me to provide documents relating to the births and deaths of all my children and of my first husband, who died in 1973, and of his parents and grandparents as well as mine. It is taking time to track down these details but I am determined to do it. I love England and France, their languages, literatures and landscapes, and I want to assert my dual nationality in the face of what is happening in this country. I am a proud European.

Life in the Green Lane

Three days in Paris with my niece, travelling on the Eurostar. We arrive just in time to get to Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, one of the oldest churches in Paris, where a piano recital of Schubert’s impromptus is just starting: a delight. The next day, to Giverny to see Monet’s garden. People arrive in threatening swarms but somehow the gardens absorb the crowds. The dazzling, multi­coloured beds are planted more thickly than I have ever seen flowers growing. I find a gardener and ask if the garden looked like this in Monet’s day. “Perhaps not entirely,” she says, “but it is a garden for the public now, and they expect to see a lot of flowers.” Still, they are thinking of restoring it to something nearer to what it was like in his lifetime.

The next day, we walk on the Coulée Verte – the Green Lane – made in 1988 on an old raised railway line from the Bastille to Vincennes. It is raining so we are almost the only people on this beautiful path lined with lime trees and hazels and planted with flowers. There are birds in the trees, an elegant green pond, arbours covered with scented roses, sights across Paris (including huge sculpted women on the top of a police building). We come to tunnels and go through a small wood, then past an area of meadow grass and flowers. It’s free and amazing. Not to be missed.

Bought and sold

Back in England, I call on old neighbours in north London and take a look at the house where I lived for 40 years, working and bringing up my children. We bought it for £8,500 in 1963 and sold it in 2003 to a friend. The profit, normal for the market then, seemed extraordinary but, ten years later, the friend was offered four times what we got – the value was now in the mid-millions. Since then, it has stood empty. The life has been driven out of our modest old house by the Midas touch of money.

Claire Tomalin’s memoir, “A Life of My Own” (Viking), is published on 7 September

This article appears in the 30 Aug 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The decline of the American empire