Jillian Edelstein

Claire Tomalin, London, 1989

Asked in 2011 if there might be a memoir in her future, Claire Tomalin, the author of sterling biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys, and Charles Dickens, among others, demurred. She had lived for too long through her subjects. She retained little sense of herself. “I know it sounds pathetic,” she told her interviewer, “but I don’t know who I am.” It stood to reason. The biographer has devoted years to thinking with someone else’s mind. While she has lived any number of lives she has traveled each time as a stowaway. Better than most, she knows that we are strangers to ourselves, omniscient only when it comes to others.

Seven years later Tomalin has reconsidered. She claims to have been driven in part by curiosity. “What would I learn about myself?” she wonders. Might she finally come to know the author of her books? As for the other parts, score-settling, record-straightening, and self-aggrandizing plainly figure nowhere among them. Of a subject’s late-life confidences Tomalin years ago observed: “Few people like their past to be entirely and permanently obliterated.” Or as Diana Athill put it in a very different out-from-behind-the-curtain memoir, one recoils instinctively at the prospect of being “deleted with one swipe of the great eraser.”

Another thing about other people’s lives: they have plots. History, Tomalin has noted, “is always a matter of choice and control.” Her own past strikes her as surprisingly short on design. Rather she has been the subject of her time, “as powerless to resist as a migrating bird or a salmon swimming upstream.” Causes align only obliquely with effects. As she sees it, regular infidelities on her husband’s part drove her to “progress”—how many other writers would have resisted the word “succeed”?—in her career. The more he left her in the lurch the more she realized independence was all. She would discover her true vocation only in her fifties. “My story,” she writes, “should be cheering to anyone who is finding it hard to establish a career they find congenial.” She has divined the terror in every millennial heart.

Tomalin begins with her parents, whom she introduces—the biographical instinct dies hard—by their Christian names. Émile Delavenay was French; the foreign last name bestowed on his daughter a kind of freedom, confesses Tomalin, “because the English could not easily place me.” A brilliant son of the Haute-Savoie, Delavenay early on identified Great Britain as the promised land, having fallen in love with London at fifteen. He devoted himself to English literature at the École Normale Supérieure, where his tutor duly informed him “that he would not be properly bilingual until nobody in England complimented him on his good English.”1 He rose to the challenge.

In 1926 a friend introduced Delavenay to a slight, stunning, raven-haired music student eight years his senior (which he would not immediately discover). Already she was a published composer. A Liverpool native, Muriel Herbert had won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music; she afterward wrote primarily for voice and piano. If ever a couple were destined to produce a daughter who would beg for an OED on her thirteenth birthday, it was these two. They courted by way of volumes of poetry. Tomalin’s father made a point of reading the text before a Shakespeare performance. Her mother spent the honeymoon setting Joyce’s poetry to music and performed her composition for him in Paris.

We would assume the talented, attractive ex-provincials bound for a bohemian idyll were it not for the fact that Tomalin has already cut us off at the pass. Early on she warns that her father will undergo a change in fortune that will drive him to the brink of madness and that her mother will be partially destroyed in the process. Trouble begins on the honeymoon, when the birth control evidently provided more amusement than the sex. Only the latter proved effective: a baby girl arrived ten months later. In Tomalin’s retelling that child is not her older sister but “their daughter Marguerite.” She seems to distance herself from the family she has not yet joined, or instinctively to reach for safe biographical ground.

The marriage quickly unraveled. Émile found Muriel moody, irrational, jealous. He withdrew or raged; she blamed him “for turning her from a gentle and lovable creature into a hellcat.” Tomalin catalogs the flying objects, the suicide attempts, the misery, but assigns no blame. Her father longed for escape. Her mother longed for another child. By September 1932 the relationship had soured to the point that while walking along a high Cornwall cliff husband contemplated pushing wife over the edge. Homicide yielded to a different urge that evening: Claire Tomalin may be the first person serenely to describe having been conceived “not only without love but with the gritted teeth of murderous loathing.”


She learned of the Cornwall episode in her late fifties, after her mother’s death, when her father kindly shared the pages of his own memoir.2 “Was he ridding himself of the guilt of having had a murderous thought by making this secular confession?” she asks. For reasons she finds herself unable to fathom, she would never pursue the matter with him. The candor continues to mystify all the same. Her father had concealed plenty in his pages. Was he attempting somehow to explicate his hatred of her as a child?

From her mother she heard only of the much-desired daughter who had arrived precisely on schedule and without complication. Early on Tomalin grasped that there were alternate narratives just as there were mismatched religions, opposing 1938 views of Chamberlain, even French and English Napoleons. There was to be another essential legacy. “My mother told me early,” writes Tomalin, “that whatever happens to you, however unhappy you may be, you can escape into a book.”

Family life effectively ended when Tomalin was eight; her parents never spoke to each other again. Literature was the constant companion as she shuttled among schools, depending on which parent got his or her way: she knew the Wordsworth poem before she first laid eyes on daffodils. In her late teens, just before her Newnham College interview, a beloved headmaster rebuked her for having, after a small mishap, behaved “like a tragic opera heroine.” It was less a scolding than an inoculation. Tomalin brings to these pages the same equanimity she does to her biographies and, at times, yet more restraint: no Tomalin subject would be likely to get away with so slender an account of an exhilarating romance with Martin Amis. (Tomalin was forty. Amis was twenty-five, not yet a man of the world, though already he sounded like one. She introduced him to Der Rosenkavalier, to which he did not take. The love affair ended unhappily.) This is in many ways a private book, hardly the most selling word in memoir but no less gripping for it. One does wonder if Tomalin treads lightly, nearly shyly here given the sting of her father’s pages.

The beloved headmaster would turn up later for a Cambridge visit, leaving a flustered Tomalin, after lunch, with a kiss on the mouth. It is but one reminder of an earlier world, one in which it was assumed that female Cambridge undergraduates could at best expect to become schoolteachers. (Convinced her First in literature prepared her for the typing pool, Tomalin’s father enrolled her in secretarial school.) Throughout there is a lust for knowledge, if not necessarily for the lunging men who dispensed it. In 1955 Tomalin interviewed for an editorial position at Heinemann—a job she secured, she learned later, at least in part for her looks: she had scored a seven out of ten. Her assessor, a poet by trade, would not be alone in his admiration. Saul Bellow enthused about her legs.

In her third Cambridge year, shortly after she had determined to devote herself wholly to George Eliot, Dickens, and Coleridge, she found herself hailed one evening from an upper-story Trinity Hall window. A disembodied voice asked if she might have any poems for Granta. Nick Tomalin materialized the next day to collect them. Tall, dashing, carefree, he too hailed from an unorthodox, artistic family. Here in particular the coursing current took over: “I let myself be carried along,” she writes of Nick, before the engagement, “although I knew there was something missing.” Despite doubts she felt powerless to reroute events. Around this time emerged a second regret. Tomalin had banked on a future as a poet. Dissatisfied with her voice, she stopped writing after Cambridge. The decision, she confesses, “left me with an emptiness in my life which has never quite been filled.” It is an uncommonly plangent note for these pages.

There is little emptiness to the early years with Nick. In the first five came four babies, one of whom the family buried weeks after his birth. Nick’s journalism career took off at a gallop, but so did he; Tomalin’s spirits sank accordingly, though she may be more forthcoming elsewhere than here. In her 1994 review of Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, Tomalin allowed that “one of my most vivid memories of the mid-l950s is of crying into a washbasin full of soapy grey baby clothes—there were no washing machines—while my handsome and adored husband was off playing football in the park on Sunday morning with all the delightful young men who had been friends to both of us at Cambridge three years earlier.” She had hoped she might actually do something with her life. Instead she watched ambition circle the drain.


The soapsuds make no appearance here, nor is Nick any longer the charming bolter who “fell for the office vamp.” Tomalin is decidedly less pointed in her memoir than in the short pieces that serve as connective tissue to her 1999 collection of criticism. (She is also less naughty: we no longer catch her, while employed by his publisher, steaming open Graham Greene’s mail.) She defers regularly to her diary, which effectively keeps the emotions at bay. “I wrote in my diary, ‘I think Nick will destroy me,’” she notes, veering into a discussion of real estate, calculated to restore marital harmony. The relationship with Nick was very much on-again, off-again; Tomalin rails to find herself the wife of a faithless husband, a role that offends for its utter banality. It does not help that Nick shows her a letter from her father in which he confided that “he had not been able to live with my mother and so understood why Nick could not live with me.” While it may have qualified as “male solidarity,” Tomalin dryly observes, “it was not the act of an affectionate father.” She sounds nothing at all like a tragic heroine.

With three children at home she found work as a reader for several British publishers; before long she began reviewing, initially for The Observer. With the Mary Quant wardrobe, the twist, and the Profumo affair the moral climate shifted, Tomalin along with it. As her birthday approached in 1963 she had an epiphany: “I decided almost on the spur of the moment that, as une femme de trente ans, I might lunch with an admirer and embark on an affair.” When Nick learned of the indiscretion he attempted to punch Tomalin in the face. She ducked. Her mother had taught her well: her first thought was of the Countess in Figaro, unable to enjoy the same adventures as her husband. Nick next tried to run over his wife’s lover. On a later occasion he slapped her so hard she required stitches.

You have to admire a woman whose first thought after an assault is of Mozart. You want to rescue the one who admits she needs thenceforth to be alert to violence whenever her husband is angry, who covers up a beating for the family’s sake, who blames herself. Therapy helped. Work arguably helped more. “Couples,” Tomalin would observe, writing of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories, “are like cannibals.”

Family life was to be restored, ruptured, restored again. Ultimately Tomalin left the decision of whether Nick should be allowed another chance to her eldest child, then twelve. “I want Daddy,” came the reply. Nick returned. Tomalin had by then begun working part-time as deputy literary editor of The New Statesman; it was around this time that the same daughter would observe—though not in this memoir—that her mother came recognizably into her own. Indeed Tomalin may be at her best here, attempting to make sense of a life from the inside, about as foolproof as applying make-up without a mirror. She was thirty-six, deep into the family Middlemarch-reading and marmalade-potting, eager to salvage a marriage.

Soon enough she was again pregnant. Without a wink at the reader she implies that a riotous production of The Two of Us—she is today married to its author, Michael Frayn—sent her into labor. Tom would be born in August 1970 with spina bifida. Henceforth the literature and the medical reports overlap. Many of us thank our children in our acknowledgments. Tomalin thanks her babysitters.

Tom’s early years coincided with his mother’s first start as a biographer. “I knew I had at last found my vocation,” she writes, intensely happy, nearly forty, and in the close company of Mary Wollstonecraft, who seemed more and more modern, the kind of woman who—like the trailing biographer—carried her baby on business trips. Tomalin was at work on the page proofs when, early in October 1973, Nick headed to Israel to report on the Yom Kippur War. Just over a week later three somber emissaries turned up in her office: Nick had been killed by a Syrian missile in the Golan Heights. Before the memorial service, Tomalin’s mother informed her that the death affected her more profoundly than it did her daughter and that “whereas I might build a new life, she could not.” Muriel was right on the second count. Also before the memorial service the widowed mother of four had to decide whether to replace John Gross as The New Statesman’s literary editor. There was to be no more current carrying her along unwillingly: with the grief arrived a sense of release. Tomalin felt finally in sole charge of her life. She took the job.

As a critic Tomalin is large-hearted, bracing, incisive, effortlessly epigrammatic. Little attuned to the emotions of others, Dickens is given to issuing “Mr Toad-like accounts of his own brilliance.” To her husband’s dismay, Mrs. Milne “was for romance and against sex”; Jean Rhys “wrote like an angel and lived mostly like a monster.” Well before the biographical career Tomalin demonstrated a marked interest in female lives and writers: the enthusiasms range from Muriel Spark to Alice Munro to Anita Brookner, of whom she writes, “No one is so good at making you feel your own fingernails are slightly grubby.” She should know. No one can make you feel as intellectually rumpled as Tomalin. The style is cool, light, crisp—linen on the page.

She has reduced the writing life to six words: “silence, hard slog, loneliness, old clothes”; were she to confess to the cold coffee and the chocolate wrappers she would have a haiku. The loneliness weighed especially heavily. The years with Wollstonecraft made Tomalin long for the camaraderie of the office. Back she went, as the powerful literary editor of The Sunday Times, leaving a life of Katherine Mansfield by the wayside. A tour of the British literary firmament follows: if you want to know who wrote long, who wrote fast, and who wrote only when not drinking, here is your chance. Success does not translate into the most successful pages, however, inevitably producing at least a few that sound like mad parodies of Christmas cards. (As V.S. Pritchett noted, “The second part even of Rousseau’s Confessions is dull.”)

Granted, it is difficult to avoid the hailstorm of proper names when the nannies go on to become prize-winning poets or best-selling novelists, when Alan Bennett lives across the way. In one respect Tomalin hews more to the elegant restraint of her biographies. Michael Frayn sidles in from the wings without a last name and nearly without introduction, unless you count the earlier cameos. Tomalin does confess to having inspired a memorable running gag in Noises Off. At times it is difficult to tell whether she means to spare us or herself.

She can do neither when her second daughter succumbs—just before Tomalin sets Mansfield aside—to “a cruel and inexplicable blackness” while at Oxford. A prominent psychiatrist claims never to have treated a more depressed patient. With medication the darkness lifts; Susanna joins the family in France for their 1980 summer vacation. The morning after their return, delivering a cup of tea, Tomalin finds her lifeless on the floor of her room. She had left a brief note. “I should have protected her, and I failed,” writes Tomalin. The grief never evaporates: “The best things I saw, heard, read, felt, often brought me to tears because they came with the knowledge that my daughter was never going to return to share them. She had gone forever.”

Tomalin resigned abruptly from the Times in 1986, having come to blows with management. Here only she allows herself a sliver of score-settling: “I could not stomach Murdoch’s mixture of bullying and bribery,” she professes. She was fifty-three. It was, she would write later, “the end of my brilliant career.” In truth, the exemplary biographies still lay ahead. Early on she ventured to suggest that there might be an advantage to sharing a gender with one’s subject. Someone who had similarly bushwhacked her way through the male world, “taking a traditional female role, but also seeking male privileges,” might be expected to find Mansfield “less baffling than even the most understanding of men.” Having begun with largely invisible women, Tomalin would make her way, beginning with Pepys, to colossally conspicuous men.

The painter turns up in some corner of every portrait, but glimpses of Tomalin in her work are causes for special celebration. Of Austen in 1805, orphaned and without prospects, she writes, “These were not things you wrote down; if possible you did not allow yourself even to think about them.” In Samuel Pepys she mischievously sticks her head over the biographical parapet to describe her hero’s erotic bluster. Indeed there had been unrealized adventures. But Pepys is confident that each one of those unseduced women would have been his had the circumstances only been different. “We don’t believe him, and he probably doesn’t really believe himself,” muses Tomalin, “but it looks good on the page and cheers him up.”

It is unclear if self-exposure has cheered her or if after 331 pages Tomalin sees herself any more clearly. We certainly do. With the Mansfield came an echo of an earlier description of her charmed New Statesman years: “It was like having the best of a woman’s life,” Tomalin wrote her father, “and a man’s too.” She proves indomitable on both fronts, as brave as she is eloquent, sustained by comic opera, the heroine of her own life after all. One smiles anew at her description of Dickens, all charm and moxie, having perfected his “trick of putting aside agony and exhaustion and reappearing suddenly, like a clown from behind the curtain, full of energy, amazing everyone with his good humour and laughter, and his determination to get on with the chief work of his life.”