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…
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