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A Life Composed

Patricia Craig

A Life of My Own, by Claire Tomalin, Penguin Viking, 334 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0241239957

“Writing about myself has not been easy,” Claire Tomalin declares in her opening sentence; and indeed she approaches her subject ‑ herself ‑ rather more gingerly than she has the subjects of her acclaimed biographies, Mary Wollstonecraft, Samuel Pepys and Katherine Mansfield among them. Having tackled these lives, and others, with thoroughness and aplomb, she reserves for her own life a measure of detachment, a necessary circumspection. She is not in the business of unbridled disclosure.

The facts are all here, however. Claire Delavenay (as she was then) was born in London in 1933, the second daughter of a French expatriate intellectual who joined the BBC in 1939, and a musically gifted mother, Muriel Herbert from Liverpool. Like those of her Cambridge friend Karl Miller, though, and of her future husband, Nicholas Tomalin, Claire Delavenay’s parents signally failed to remain married to each other. A somewhat disjointed childhood for Claire and her sister followed their parents’ separation and divorce, and wartime conditions contributed to the sense of instability. Claire had a tremendous resource, however: reading. “My mother told me that whatever happens to you, however unhappy you may be, you can escape into a book.” And so she did. From The Tale of Tom Kitten to Tom Brown’s Schooldays, books had a bolstering effect. Her only complaint about Hitchin Girls’ Grammar School ‑ one of several which she attended as a boarder during the war ‑ concerned its prohibition of reading in bed.

Frequent changes of school seem not to have been a trial to the young Claire. She knuckled down and fitted in, and derived a lot of benefit from the various courses of study on offer. Her last school, co-educational Dartington Hall in Devon, where she “settled into a calm and generally cheerful life”, perhaps suited her best, with its atmosphere of tolerance and kindness, and its plentiful objects of infatuation, such as the young history teacher Ted Fitch. “My education was broadened and I was happy.” She was happy too reading English at Newnham College, Cambridge, which followed in 1951, and where attention was paid to social as well as intellectual activities.

On a personal level, she remained close to her mother, whose changes of heart and fortune are indicated (“My mother stopped threatening suicide and accompanied me to the airport”); she became reconciled to her stepmother when she visited her father and his second wife in Manhattan in 1948 (“Once there, I was overwhelmed by America”). Then came Cambridge, resulting in a First, some romantic entanglements, and the key encounter with Nicholas Tomalin, whom she was to marry in 1955. (In his memoir of 1993, Rebecca’s Vest, Karl Miller lists among the undergraduates connected with the magazine Granta, “Nick and Claire Tomalin, as they became”, as if their conjunction was an inevitability, as perhaps it was.) Their first daughter was born in the following year, and shortly afterwards a house was acquired on Croom’s Hill opposite Greenwich Park. (Cecil Day Lewis and his wife Jill Balcon would be near neighbours.)

So far Claire Tomalin’s life has followed an expected course, and all its progress is recounted efficiently, step by step, with a pleasant composure and impassivity. The difficult years lay ahead ‑ the birth of a son who died and then a second son with spina bifida, the unreliability of a husband addicted to infidelity, the same husband’s shocking death on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur war of 1973, the suicide of a beloved daughter ‑ though there were enormous compensations too. Greenwich was fine, but towards the end of the 1950s a move northwards was indicated, for all sorts of reasons, and the family gravitated towards an absolutely appropriate environment: appropriate, that is, in terms of like-minded neighbours and an avant garde atmosphere. Gloucester Crescent, NW1 was the place, with its plentiful parties and smarties, its beau monde ambience and media connections. It was 1963. London was buzzing, and NW1 in particular was buzzing with all kinds of new ideas, fashions, sophistications etc. Escaping “the unhappiness of the Greenwich times” was a factor in the new beginning too. At the same time, Claire Tomalin was moving towards her proper work as a biographer and literary editor. She got into her stride as a reader at Jonathan Cape, working under Tom Maschler, and as a reviewer for the Observer and Times Literary Supplement. In the early 1970s she was employed part-time at the New Statesman; shortly afterwards, she acquired an agent and began researching her book on Mary Wollstonecraft. After her husband’s death, she took on the literary editorship of the New Statesman, before going on to occupy the same position at The Sunday Times, where she soon gained a reputation as an upholder of high standards in literary journalism. (Consistently high-principled, she resigned from the paper following the enforced move from Gray’s Inn Road to Wapping in 1986 ‑ a move imposed by Rupert Murdoch, which she, and many other journalists, deplored.)

She managed all this, and all her domestic commitments, with poise and dedication. She engaged in an active social life and enjoyed a number of sexual liaisons (most famously with Martin Amis), before settling, late on, into a happy second marriage with the playwright Michael Frayn (an old Cambridge friend and also a friend of Nicholas Tomalin). Through the worst of times, she kept going, and kept her family going. As she says, “Even when … you would like to give all your attention to grief, you still have to clean the house and pay the bills; you may even enjoy your lunch.” Her slightly formal, unevocative prose strikes the right note to deal with sorrows and adversities ‑ though it’s less effective when it comes to capturing the sense and flavour of time and place. When she tells us, “I lived pretty levelly much of the time”, you can’t help thinking she writes pretty levelly much of the time too. Thoughtful, judicious, interesting, perceptive and concise though it is, A Life of My Own seems at times to the ungrateful reader to cry out for a touch of idiosyncrasy, a more wayward approach.

1/2/2018

Patricia Craig is an author and critic. Her books include A Twisted Root: Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland.

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