A Life of My Own

Claire Tomalin

Published by Viking 7 September 2017

352pp, hardback, £12.99

Reviewed by Jessica Mann

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Claire Tomalin, former literary editor, former publisher and above all, a prize-winning biographer, has written a curious autobiography. In parts it is candid and confiding, but sometimes an unexpected reticence intervenes in this story of a long, productive life in which there have been many triumphs, but also dreadful tragedies.

Claire Delavenay was born in 1933, one of two daughters of a French father and a Scottish mother who was a gifted musician. Her parents parted acrimoniously when Claire was in her teens.

After a conventional day school she spent a year at Dartington Hall, and then went up to Newnham College, Cambridge. Being clever, charming and beautiful, and also female in an era when there were only two women’s colleges (‘Ten men to every girl,’ I was gleefully told when I went to Newnham a few years later), Claire was much in demand. One male undergraduate took her out to lunch to show his friends that he knew her, ‘so rare a thing was it to know a girl in Cambridge.’ Equally rare was a young woman who, in the early 1950s, dared to ask and actually succeeded in persuading the college doctor to prescribe her a Dutch cap contraceptive. After Cambridge, a job in publishing, marriage to the journalist Nick Tomalin, babies and domesticity.  ‘What was coming next? The Sixties.’

The family moved to Gloucester Crescent, near Regent’s Park, a street where almost every house was soon occupied by someone with a name worth dropping, and which was brilliantly satirized  in Mark Boxer’s long running 1960’s cartoon,  ‘Life and Times in NW1’  featuring the Stringalongs and the Touch Paceys.  Claire was herself the model for one of the characters, though the cartoon is not mentioned here.

The Tomalins had three daughters, one of whom tragically took her own life in her twenties, one son who died soon after birth and another who was born with spina bifida. Nicholas was serially unfaithful, and, Claire writes, ‘I did not lack admirers.’ They parted and moved back together. In 1973, reporting on the war in Israel, Nicholas Tomalin was killed by a Syrian missile.

A year later, Claire’s first biography was published. Since then she has written nine important, prize-winning literary biographies, been the Literary Editor of the Sunday Times and married the playwright and novelist Michael Frayn. How full her life has been! And what high-achievers her friends are; many are mentioned in this book. One list includes Eric and Marlene Hobsbawm,  Terry Kilmartin, David and Sue Gentleman, Peter Jenkins ‘now married to Polly Toynbee’, Jonathon and Rachel Miller, John and Sheila Hale, John and Miriam Gross and others, but no information about them is included. Will the names of these writers, editors and scholars mean much to readers who know nothing about London’s cultural establishment? And would Claire Tomalin, as editor, have permitted one of her authors to leave them unexplained?

Never mind. Even with gaps, this is a fascinating, impressive account of the life and achievements of a remarkable woman.

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