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Claire Tomalin

Claire Tomalin

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Claire Delavenay was born on 20th June 1933. According to Emma Higginbotham: "Tomalin had a difficult childhood; her mother and French father were often at loggerheads, and separated when she was 7. She sought solace in books, and had devoured the complete works of Shakespeare by the age of 12."

Claire attended Newnham College. She later recalled her time at University of Cambridge: "At Cambridge we had generally enjoyed our sexual freedom before marriage, girls as much as boys, but I think we saw sex as something entirely different from the bloodless, easygoing style of Bloomsbury, and imagined we had discovered its importance in a way unknown to our parents' generation.... They were years of turmoil,” she admits. “There were 10 men to every woman in those days, so you’d get involved in love affairs, and the difficulty of combining love affairs with work was considerable! But of course it was an overwhelming experience. It formed my life.”

After graduating from university in 1954 she moved to London where she rented a room from the artist, Roger Hilton. Claire later recalled: "My father pronounced that shorthand and typing were always useful to women, and offered to put me through a secretarial training course. I took it, and afterwards applied to the BBC: I was bilingual in French, with good secretarial skills, and a First, but the response was a short letter informing me" that the "competition for General Trainees is confined to men."

Claire then went for a job at the publishers Heinemann where she was interviewed by James Michie. "Later he told me he had been awarding me marks for my looks. Seven out of ten, he gave me, just enough for the job of secretary/editorial assistant, at £5.10s. a week. This was how things were done in 1954."

Claire Delavenay married Nicholas Tomalin , a journalist working for the Daily Express, in September 1955. "We found a two-room flat on primrose Hill and spent a week's honeymoon in his aunt's cottage in Suffolk. Soon I was pregnant; we planned to have six children. I worked through most of my pregnancy, and translated a book in the evenings to improve our finances... There was no maternity leave. But I was invited to return to Heinemann... My second daughter was born less than eighteen months after my first, and by then I was working at home as a reader... It was a shock to young women I think; when you seem to have been on absolutely equal terms, and then you have a baby, and then another baby… You don’t really realise what you’re in for, and it must be said, you’re in for life! Children never stop tugging at your heart, if not at your help.”

After spending a couple of years in New York City where her husband was working for Lord Beaverbrook, the family arrived back in London in 1959. Soon afterwards Katharine Whitehorn, who had also been at Newnham College, gave her books to review for The Observer. Another university friend, Ronald Bryden, arranged for her to review children's books for The Spectator.

Claire Tomalin later commented: "By the time I was twenty-eight I had four children. The work I was doing was precious to me because it gave me something to exercise my mind while allowing me to stay at home. You can breastfeed and read at the same time, and write reports and reviews when the children are asleep... Nick - my charming and successful husband - became a bolter. He fell for the office vamp, and that started him on a series of affairs. I learnt not to be surprised if he did not come home at night. One day he would insist that our marriage had been a mistake, and that a divorce would be the best solution. A few weeks later he would change his mind, bombard me with flowers, rings and letters insisting that he was really happy in the marriage, and wanted more children. For a while all would be well, until another irresistible girl appeared. So it went on. Looking at an old diary reminds me what a heap of dejection I let myself be reduced to."

In 1967 Tomalin was appointed by Charles Wintour as a journalist on the Evening Standard. She also reviewed novels for Ian Hamilton at The Times Literary Supplement and Terence Kilmartin at The Observer. Another friend from university, Julian Jebb, who was working for the BBC, invited her to take part in a books quiz programme on television. Soon afterwards she was appointed to work under Anthony Thwaite, the literary editor of the New Statesman magazine.

Nicholas Tomalin, who was now working at the Sunday Times, eventually returned to the family home: "It was a busy, complicated time. In 1969 Nick again decided he wanted to live with me and the children, and, although I was doubtful about the prospect, I agreed. I had kept a dream of family life. we started again. There were still times when we delighted one another. we decided we would have another child. Nick was now on the Sunday Times, and away a great deal on foreign assignments. In effect, I ran the house and the family, while he pursued his brave and dazzling career; he was a skilful and brilliant journalist, winning awards and admired by his peers."

Anthony Howard took over from Richard Crossman as editor ofNew Statesmanin 1972. Soon afterwards she was appointed as literary editor of the journal. "I was happy to inherit the best established contributors, but I wanted to make something new, and I looked for younger writers." This included Neal Ascherson, Paul Theroux, Clive James, Alan Ryan, Shiva Naipaul, Jonathan Raban, Alison Lurie, Julian Mitchell, Hilary Spurling, Marina Warner, Timothy Mo and Victoria Glendinning.

Claire Tomalin was especially impressed with Martin Amiss. "Amis was a contributor and then my assistant. His first novel made me laugh with pleasure at its high spirits, and because he had that rare thing, a voice of his own, not borrowed from anyone else. His speech was unmistakable too, the deep smoker's voice coming as a surprise from his slight frame. He had the presence of a star already. Sure of himself and sure of his taste, he was rude about what he didn't admire, as assured as the most arrogant young Oxbridge don."

Nicholas Tomalin was killed in the Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War in 1973. "Nick was killed by a heat-guided Syrian missile on the Golan Heights, where he was reporting on the Yom Kippur War. He was not quite forty-two. For his children and his parents the loss was irreparable. For his many friends and contemporaries it was a black moment, made worse when our fellow journalist Francis Hope died very soon afterwards in an air crash. Two of the brightest lights of our generation had been put out, reminding us all of our mortality. I grieved for Nick and still mourn his terrible death. I wish he were alive now, fulfilling his promise, lighting up the lives of so many who loved him. I should like him as a friend, even though our marriage, begun with such expectations, had gone so wrong. But if it hadn't, I might not have been pushed into finding the work I enjoyed; and without his encouragement I might not have written my first book."

Claire Tomalin began work on a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft. “I’m really a historian; what I really wanted to read at Cambridge was history, but for various reasons I didn’t.... But that’s why I turned to biography, which is history, of course. Historical research is what interested me, and I began being particularly interested in the history of women... I felt when I started that women didn’t appear all that much in history... And I really, really enjoyed it. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, writing a biography – you’re discovering things and putting together the bits. I thought it was terrific.” The book, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft was published in 1974.

Tomalin leftNew Statesmanto become a full-time writer but in 1979 Harold Evans persuaded her to become literary editor of Sunday Times. She appointed Julian Barnes as her assistant and employed Peter Ackroyd, John Carey, Raymond Mortimer, Anita Brookner, David Lodge, Anthony Storr, Christopher Ricks, Jonathan Raban, Marina Warner, and Victoria Glendinning, as reviewers. She clashed with the editor, Andrew Neil, and left the newspaper in 1986 when Rupert Murdoch attempted to destroy the print unions. "I didn't care for the way things were done. No doubt the print unions had to be brought under control, but the humiliation of the journalists by proprietor and editor made me unwilling to go on serving such masters."

Tomalin now concentrated on writing biographies. This included Nelly Ternan (The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, 1991), Percy Bysshe Shelley (Shelley and His World, 1992), Katherine Mansfield (Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life, 1987), Dora Jordan (Mrs Jordan's Profession, 1994), Jane Austen (Jane Austen: A Life, 2000), Samuel Pepys (Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, 2002), Thomas Hardy (Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man, 2007) and Charles Dickens (Charles Dickens: A Life, 2011).

Claire Tomalin is considered as one of the country's best biographers and has won several literary awards including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (1990), the Hawthornden Prize (1991), the Whitbread Book Award (2002), the Rose Mary Crawshay Prize (2003), and the Latham Prize of the Samuel Pepys Club (2003). She has admitted that she is "solitary and obsessive as most writers are".

Claire Tomalin, who is married to the playwright Michael Frayn, is Vice-President of the Royal Society of Literature and of the English PEN. She is also a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery and the Wordsworth Trust.

Other books by Tomalin include a collection of book reviews and journalism, Several Strangers: Writing from Three Decades (1999) and The Poems of Thomas Hardy (2007) and The Poems of John Milton (2008).

By the time I was twenty-eight I had four children. Looking at an old diary reminds me what a heap of dejection I let myself be reduced to.

Janet Malcolm's book is not really much concerned with Sylvia Plath, and not at all with her poetry. It is deeply concerned with the nastiness of biography, and with interviewing, and the impossibility of objectivity. There is a good deal of knockabout stuff, like the statement that biography is "the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world". The biographer is a burglar, rifling through drawers, driven by voyeurism and busybodyism, and seeking stolen goods. Biographer and reader, each as despicable as the other, tiptoe down corridors together, "to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole". Sometimes they do; but then again, not always. Biography may concern itself with the shape of a life, with its human, historical and cultural context. It may wish to do justice to one who has not yet received it. It may uncover aspects of history that have been overlooked, or examine the interaction between the events of a life and the work produced. And sexual secrets may legitimately be discussed: how could Andrew Hodge's superb life of Alan Turing have been written without considering Turing's homosexuality? You don't have to be the slobbering voyeur Malcolm loves to conjure up to think that a more complete portrait of a human being is better than a less complete one.

Pepys's language is surprisingly close to ours and presents few real difficulties; and whoever he thought he was addressing, it turns out he has something to say to all of us, even across three hundred years. What is it the best writers do? They infuse the world with their energy, making it more real, more immediate, more troubling than most of us can be bothered to notice most of the time. That infusion of energy, quite as much as the historical record, is Pepys's great gift to us.

Dickens maintained that he never felt any jealousy of what was done for her, he could not help but be aware of the contrast between his position and hers, and of their parents' readiness to pay handsome fees for her education, and nothing for his. It is such a reversal of the usual family situation, where only the education of the boys is taken seriously, that the Dickens parents at least deserve some credit for making sure Fanny had a professional training, although none for their neglect of her brother.

Tomalin went back to work, becoming literary editor of the New Statesman, then holding the same post at the Sunday Times. She left in the mid-80s to write full-time, with her biographies charting the likes of Shelley, Katherine Mansfield and Thomas Hardy.

So why Dickens now? “Well when I was writing The Invisible Woman, a friend of mine said ‘Claire, why are you writing about Ternan and not about Dickens?’ And I said “Because I’ve got a very good story to tell, that needs telling.’ She was his companion for the last 12 years of his life, and was one of these women precisely who I thought had been written out of history.

“But I remembered that. And I’ve always loved Dickens; I’ve always thought he was an extraordinary figure, so it just seemed to me it was a very absorbing way of spending four or five years.”

It’s a long time to focus on one person – doesn’t she ever feel fed up with her subjects? “It is tiring,” admits Tomalin. “I sometimes feel as though I’m walking around with a great stone on top of my head. But then of course you feel sad when you’ve finished.”

Will she ever write her autobiography? “No,” she replies, bluntly. Why not? “I don’t think I’m a sufficiently interesting person.” Even though you’ve had such a vibrant life? “I’ve had quite a sad life, actually.”

This is something of an understatement. Tragedy seems to have followed Tomalin at every turn; there was the death of her baby; then her first husband was killed by a missile while on assignment in Israel in 1973; she also lost her daughter, who committed suicide at the age of 22. Has she never wanted to write about these momentous events? “No. I’m not very keen on misery memoirs.”...

Does she have a favourite among her subjects? “Not really. What I feel is I’ve got a family that never go away. Mary Wollstonecraft is, as it were, my eldest child, and so I love her especially. And of course I go on being interested in them, and people go on asking me about them.

Claire Tomalin - History

Before the 17th Century naval administrator Samuel Pepys got the Claire Tomalin treatment to award-winning effect, Tomalin had written acclaimed biographies of literary figures including Wollstonecraft, Shelley and Austen.

Her fans must now be hoping an autobiography is near the top of her list of priorities after a life of success and tragedy, of which the Whitbread prize is the latest chapter.

At first, she used poetry to help her through the war, the break-up of her parents and years spent moving between homes and schools.

"I fell in love with Shakespeare when I was 12 and I read the whole works. Yes, I was precocious," she recently said.

Accepted at Cambridge a year early, she was in the year above Sylvia Plath and emerged with a first.

Despite her academic prowess, one profile said she was rejected by the BBC, who told her "the competition for general trainees is confined to men".

She finally got a job elsewhere as an editorial assistant, apparently because her bosses liked her looks.

In a strange twist of fate, her future husband, Michael Frayn, sent her into labour the fifth time.

''In the summer of 1970 my husband was away in New York and I'd been to the theatre with my mother and daughter, to see a tremendously funny play by Michael Frayn. It made me laugh so hard that I went into labour," she said.

Her first professional writing jobs came in the form of newspaper book reviews, and she agreed to write a biography, of radical writer Mary Wollstonecraft, after having an article on her published.

The Tomalin household even inspired a cartoon strip in The Listener, The Stringalongs of NW1, a parodying trendy literary life.

But in 1973, the year she finished the book, her husband was killed by a missile while reporting for the Sunday Times from the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur war.

Professional success followed personal tragedy when her Wollstonecraft biography won the Whitbread first book prize and she was offered the job of literary editor of the New Statesman.

"I was a widow, he was a bachelor. I think it's quite normal for people to have love affairs," she said.

She moved to become the literary editor of her husband's former paper, the Sunday Times, in 1979, shortly before her daughter, Susanna, committed suicide while at Oxford.

But she did not become a full-time biographer until she left the Sunday Times in 1986.

Her departure came after parts of the workforce had been engaged in a bitter battle with owner Rupert Murdoch, and Tomalin fiercely defended those below her.

"It was more than just a job to her - it was the paper her husband had worked for, and died for," a former colleague said.

'Problems and pleasures'

She married Frayn in 1993, and added biographies of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Charles Dickens' secret lover Nelly Ternan and King William IV's mistress Dora Jordan.

"I'm interested in history, in trying to relate the past to the present and to understand how people thought about their problems and pleasures," she said.

Now approaching 70, the Whitbread spotlight has illuminated her seemingly comfortable marriage to Frayn, and the pair have even been dubbed the "Posh and Becks of books".

The not-so-gentle art of Persuasion

W hen Jane Austen's brother Henry wrote the first 'Biographical Notice' about the author for the posthumous publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in 1818, he clearly thought it would be the last word on the subject. 'Short and easy will be the task of the mere biographer,' he wrote. 'A life of usefulness, literature and religion was not by any means a life of event.' One hundred and eighty years and possibly as large a number of books on Austen later, her fame and her readership worldwide continue to grow and however 'uneventful' and ill-documented her life, there are always plenty of biographers queuing up to write it. Without any new manuscripts having come to light, or any miraculous discoveries (of a diary, say, or a hidden stash of uncensored letters), there seems more to say about Jane Austen than ever.

Austen was a prolific correspondent, but most of her letters were destroyed after her death by her sister, Cassandra. The Victorians used the letters to corroborate the popular cult of 'Divine Jane's harmless gentility', and now the same material is called as evidence to prove that she was 'Noisy and Wild', 'Profligate and Shocking' and a regular 'Wild Beast', to quote three chapter headings from David Nokes's book.

We are used to revisionism in biography and tend to equate it with progress towards truth. What is fascinating about the two latest biographies of Jane Austen, by Claire Tomalin and David Nokes, is that they seem to be revising in concert, using just the same material, and come to pretty much the same general conclusions, but their emphases and subtler interpretations are remarkably unalike. Austen hated Bath, or loved Bath, had a happy or unhappy childhood, did or didn't resent the good fortune of her rich brother Edward or neglect her mad brother George, depending on which book you read.

Mysterious contradictions emerge. According to Nokes, Austen's relationship with her friend Mrs Lefroy 'was marked as much by suspicion as by affection', while in Tomalin's version she is Austen's 'dear friend' and role model, 'the ideal parent'. Both conclusions are supportable by evidence, but obviously not all the evidence. The result may not be very illuminating about Jane Austen, but speaks volumes about the art of biography. Nokes, a well-known academic and the biographer of Swift and John Gay, sets out vigorously 'to challenge the familiar image of (Jane Austen) as a literary maiden aunt'.

He tackles the problem of our over-familiarity with Jane Austen's works and life by devoting a great deal of his book to some of the colourful secondary characters in her family circle, such as Jane' s cousin Eliza Hancock, her kleptomaniac aunt, her dashing sailor brothers and that other 'lost' brother, George. Nokes's research is splendid, but spoiled for me by his method of dramatising it. However amusing it may be to open a life of Austen in the following way, 'It is the rainy season in the Sunderbunds. Inside his lonely makeshift hut the Surgeon-Extraordinary sits writing a letter home. ', this kind of semi-fictionalised reconstruction simply will not do.

In his introduction, Nokes attempts to justify 'some degree of invention' on the grounds that it can produce interesting insights, but seems confused about his own methodology, stating in the same paragraph both that his biography is 'written forwards' without the conventional 'objective' reliance on hindsight and that he has 'drawn quotations from the later published works as indications of earlier unpublished preoccupations' (whatever those may be).

This is not at all the monumental scholarly biography one might have expected from such a writer (and which is needed). Nokes is in sympathy with the anarchic energy of Austen's juvenilia, but his treatment of the novels is sketchy, and over the length of 500 pages, his relish for cynicism in Austen's letters begins to look like special pleading in the cause of killing off the maiden aunt. I think he is right to draw attention to the satiric verse about St Swithin that Austen wrote on her deathbed (and which Tomalin only glances at), but why does he have to repeat his point three times and in almost exactly the same words? And why is he so confident that 'the sole purpose' of Austen's choice of pseudonym, 'Mrs Ashton Dennis', was to enable her to sign off letters to an unresponsive publisher with the initials MAD? Claire Tomalin's approach is far less dogmatic or sensational.

But what Tomalin lacks in pyrotechnics is more than made up for by the confidence in her judgment that her thoughtful and honest approach inspires. Her reading of Austen is highly intelligent but never showy, and I consider her very reasonable suggestion that the precise dating of Jane's compositions by Cassandra may point to the existence (and destruction) of a diary a really masterly stroke. The lacunae in Austen's papers have always tempted speculation about her inner life: romance, malice, incest, depression and lesbianism are some of the suggestions dealt with by both biographers here, but no one before Tomalin has, to my knowledge, exercised their ingenuity and imagination so well on the life of the body the 'lost unrecorded history' of physical discomfort, menstruation, travel, food and appearance.

Both authors are at pains to point out that though Austen's own life was outwardly uneventful, she was surrounded by drama, even scandal. Nokes covers the trial of Jane's aunt Leigh-Perrot in fascinating detail, and takes great interest, as did Jane herself, in the naval careers of her brothers. Tomalin has a lengthy section on the Comte de Feuillide, the cousin-in-law who was guillotined in the French Revolution, and both writers enjoy the glamour surrounding Eliza Hancock, Warren Hastings's '(god)daughter' as Nokes teasingly refers to her. Earlier biographies only hinted at some of these stories, but no one will be able to write about Austen again without allowing for the context they provide and the insight into her worldly novels, which as Tomalin says, are 'ways of looking at England'.

'What is become of all the shyness in the world?' Austen wrote in a letter to Cassandra, noting the inquisitive manners of a young visitor who wanted to examine the treasures of her writing-desk drawer. Manners and moral fashions change, and as Austen's world slips further and further out of our understanding, Tomalin and Nokes between them have done a great service by keeping the lines of communication open.

Having read both books in succession, with their thorough use of the same well-known and well-loved quotes from the novels and letters, only reminds the reader how inexhaustible Austen is. We think we keep reinventing her when, like any great artist, she is reinventing us.

All life is here

T he Whitbread Book of the Year Award is due to be announced on Tuesday and, as the betting hots up, William Hill have made Claire Tomalin the 5-4 favourite. If Tomalin does win the £25,000 prize for her biography of Samuel Pepys, she will be just the third female winner since the Whitbread was introduced - a fitting reward for someone who has spent her writing life rescuing women from obscurity.

Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self has already won the Whitbread Prize for biography, and this is not the first time Whitbread judges have commended Tomalin's work. She didn't write her first book until she was 40, but when her biography of Mary Wollstonecraft was published in 1974, the Whitbread First Book award was invented for it.

That, she says, was 'absolutely amazing. And I did feel, just . because my life was so emotional at that time - I'd just been widowed and I had small children. It seemed to me an amazing piece of luck.' Though she would never say so (Tomalin is both modest and resolutely unself-pitying), Wollstonecraft's story, which, in Tomalin's description, 'mixed personal tragedy with high achievement', was not unlike the story that was to become Tomalin's own. It was partly this, perhaps, that made the book - and those that followed - so impressive.

The distinguished academic Elaine Showalter thinks Tomalin's book on Wollstonecraft is 'the greatest. She was both so exact and so sympathetic. Wollstonecraft set up a career as a literary woman in London, and how any woman writing about her, who has taken some of those same steps, has got to identify with this very powerfully, and realise that in a sense much of it hasn't changed.'

Claire Tomalin was born Claire Delavenay in 1933, to a French father who worked for Unesco, and an English mother who was a musician. Claire went to the French lycée in London from the age of four. When she was seven, her parents separated. She started writing poetry and took refuge in books. Over the coming years, during a bitter custody battle and shifts between numerous schools, reading, she has said, became her 'solace'. When she was 15, her mother sent her to Dartington Hall as a cure for teenage rebellion, and it was there that a teacher suggested she apply to Cambridge a year early. She was accepted, and went to Newnham College, where she was a year ahead of Sylvia Plath, and was taught English by the same professor. She later wrote that she kept 'somewhere under my skin a sisterly sympathy for that young woman who was defeated by the misery of married life, alongside awe for the creature who rose out of her own death, triumphantly, as THE poet of her generation.'

When Claire left Cambridge, in 1954, she found a room in the house of artist Roger Hilton. Her boyfriend Nick Tomalin was living round the corner, at Patrick Heron's. Nick became a journalist for the Express, and she was unsure of what to do. Journalism, she said, seemed very masculine at the time, and though she had secretarial skills, fluent French and a first in English, she was rejected by the BBC on the grounds that 'the competition for general trainees is confined to men'. Eventually she got a job as an editorial assistant at Heinemann because the bosses gave her seven out of 10 for good looks.

She and Nick married in 1955, and had two daughters, Josephine and Susanna, in quick succession. 'One of my most vivid memories of the mid 1950s,' she wrote in her collection of essays, Several Strangers, '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. I HAD wanted to do something with my life - I thought I had SOME capacities, and here they were going down the plughole with the soapsuds.'

Things did not get easier. Tomalin gave birth to a third child, a son, who never came home from hospital - he died when he was a month old. Her fourth child, Emily, was born on what would have been her missing brother's first birthday. Nick Tomalin had a series of affairs, and was absent for long periods. A fifth baby, Tom, was born with spina bifida. Aged 28, Claire Tomalin was mourning a son, sporadically losing a husband, and looking after four children - one of whom was paralysed from the chest down.

She began to review books - for the TLS and The Observer - was offered a job on the Evening Standard, and then became deputy literary editor of the New Statesman. She was approached by agents and publishers after she wrote an article about Mary Wollstonecraft, and agreed to write her biography, which she finished in August 1973. Tom turned one. They went on holiday. One month later, Nick Tomalin was killed by a Syrian missile on Golan Heights while reporting for the Sunday Times.

Shortly afterwards, she became literary editor of the New Statesman, a job she has implied she was offered partly as an escape from grief. She threw herself into work and her deputies included Julian Barnes, Timothy Mo, and Martin Amis (with whom she had an affair).

In 1979 Tomalin became the literary editor of the Sunday Times. Sean French, her deputy at the time, remembers that period as 'a very intense experience. I couldn't imagine working for anyone else where it would be so fulfilling and demanding. Everything was on the line - there was this idea that literature involved everything, it wasn't just something you do and then go off and play tennis.'

When she had started at the Sunday Times Tomalin's daughter, Susanna, committed suicide, and Tomalin sought refuge, she has said, in her work. But work was not just a way of sweeping things under a carpet. 'I think some people must think that she's got on by forgetting about things,' Sean French says, 'but that's absolutely the opposite of what's true. She embraces everything. She's incredibly open, and she also has a real gift for people being terribly open to her, because all the normal constraints are down. It's one of the qualities that helps her as a biographer.'

In 1986, when the Sunday Times moved to Wapping, Tomalin and her entire department walked out. 'She was so protective of everyone beneath her,' French says, 'though it was very painful for her.' Another colleague, also a refusenik, remembers her confronting the member of News International management who laid down the deplorable new terms to the staff: 'She said, "I've never heard anything more disgraceful in all my life", and walked out. It was extraordinary, because it was more than just a job to her - it was the paper her husband had worked for, and died for.'

After leaving the Sunday Times, Tomalin wrote several highly acclaimed books - on Shelley, Katherine Mansfield, and Jane Austen. Her best, and most influential, were two books on women who had previously been unseen: The Invisible Woman, about Dickens's secret lover Nelly Ternan, and Mrs Jordan's Profession, about an actress who was the mistress of King William IV, and bore him 10 children. Tomalin has made an enormous contribution to the rediscovery of hidden women.

'The Nelly Ternan book was part of a group of books that came out at a similar time about women who led invisible lives, the women behind the scenes,' says Showalter. 'The women's movement had developed an awareness of the importance of [such] lives, and yet we needed examples. I think the book on Nelly Ternan particularly was extraordinarily timely in that regard.'

Tomalin met her husband Michael Frayn in 1980, and he moved into her house in Camden town. They live a life of 'strenuous equality', as she puts it. Both are contenders for the Whitbread Prize this week (Frayn is the second favourite), and they are about to move from the house Tomalin has lived in for the past 40 years to one in Petersham, where they will both work from home for the first time.

Tomalin remains modest about her work. 'I'm usually convinced that what I'm working on is a total disaster,' she says. 'I certainly was with Pepys. I thought no one would ever read it and it was an absolute total failure. I must say I feel slightly at odds with reality now - I'm incredibly pleased that people like it, but I tend to wake up in the morning and think: there's been some mistake.'

When asked recently how, as a feminist, she could cope with Pepys's infamous womanising, Tomalin came up with the wry remark: 'Every man is not like Pepys. But a lot of men are.'

When they are they usually affect the lives of women and Tomalin has documented such lives extraordinarily well. Her comment combines the intellectual rigour and warmth of understanding that make her an outstanding biographer and, at last, a justifiably visible woman.

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Dickens’ Secret Affair

In 1953, when future biographer Claire Tomalin was studying English literature at Cambridge, she came across intriguing references to a figure named Ellen “Nelly” Ternan, a stage actress of minor reputation. Edmund Wilson’s essay about Charles Dickens, “The Two Scrooges,” and Edgar Johnson’s distinguished two-volume biography, Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, “both mentioned this girl hanging about [the author], and they were both scathing about her,” Tomalin recalls, sipping tea at a café near her home in Petersham, Surrey. “She was [described as] this mercenary, who made Dickens’ kids unhappy, but to whom he seemed very attached. I sensed there was a story there.”

From This Story

Ellen "Nelly" Ternan, in 1870, was a figure lost to history. (Charles Dickens Museum)

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Three decades later, Tomalin, then literary editor of the Sunday Times, mentioned her interest in Ternan to David Parker, curator of the Dickens Museum in London. He encouraged her to write Ternan’s biography, adding, “I’ll give you whatever help I can.”

Tomalin spent the next few years piecing together clues in letters, address books, diaries and photographs—some held in the Dickens Museum—as she traced the arc of the secretive 13-year liaison between the great author and the actress. The result was her celebrated 1991 book, The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, the only biography of the shadowy figure, who, Tomalin wrote, seemed to have “vanished into thin air,” although she had “played a central part in the life of Dickens.”

Ternan met Dickens in 1857, when she, her mother and sisters were actors in a play he was producing. Dickens was 45 Ternan was 18. Anxious to preserve his image as a pillar of Victorian morality, Dickens purchased a house for her near London, where he visited her secretly. Dickens seemed both to revel in and regret the affair.

Dickens and Ternan apparently destroyed all correspondence between them. The “lack of the letters was heartbreaking,” Tomalin says, but “there was plenty of material,” including details about Ternan in missives by Dickens’ children: Both his son Henry and daughter Katey, for example, “confirmed that [the couple] had a child, and it died.” Tomalin believes that Nelly and the child, said to be a boy who did not survive infancy, had been sequestered in France.

In 1876, six years after Dickens’ death, Ternan, then 37, married a clergyman 12 years her junior they had two children, neither of whom learned of the relationship with Dickens until long after their mother’s death.

Having been rescued from obscurity by Tomalin, Ternan is about to take center stage a second time Ralph Fiennes will direct and star in a film adaptation of The Invisible Woman, with Felicity Jones in the title role it will begin shooting perhaps this spring.

Claire Tomalin Moves 'Between The Trivial And The Tragic' In 'A Life Of My Own'

Hear The Original Interview

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. In telling the story of her own life, our guest, Claire Tomalin, has tried to tell a larger story of British women of her generation. She was born in 1933. In her memoir, "A Life Of My Own" - now out in paperback - she describes herself as having been carried along by conflicting desires to have children and a worthwhile working life. She eventually had both. She gave birth to five children, worked for British publications as a book reviewer and editor and, later in life, found her true vocation as a biographer, writing books about Jane Austen and Charles Dickens and the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.

In writing about her life, Tomalin also writes about grief. She lost a son to a congenital disease and a daughter to suicide. Her first husband, the British reporter Nick Tomalin, was killed in Israel by a Syrian missile while covering the Yom Kippur War. And because she thinks it's important for people to know what it's like to be the parent of a disabled child, she writes about raising her son Tom, who was born with spina bifida, leaving him unable to ever stand or walk.

Tomalin remarried at age 60 to the British playwright Michael Frayn. She spoke to Terry last year when her memoir was published in hardback.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Claire Tomalin, welcome to FRESH AIR. I really love your memoir. And I'm going to ask you to read the first few lines of your introductory note.

CLAIRE TOMALIN: (Reading) Writing about myself has not been easy. I have tried to be as truthful as possible, which has meant moving between the trivial and the tragic in a way that could seem callous. But that is how life is. Even when you are at the worst moments and 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.

GROSS: I think that will give our listeners a sense of where you're going to be going in this book and also how well you write. Did writing biographies help you understand the story of your own life and find the parts that you thought may be of interest and value to others?

TOMALIN: I suppose it did encourage me to try and write about my own life. I think particularly working on Samuel Pepys, the diarist - the 17th century diarist - because what is so extraordinary with him is that he shows life is all one from the very first page when he talks about the political situation and mentions his wife having her period. And that moment, you know that this man really is involved thoroughly in what we are all involved with - a mixture of things that is our life. And so I sort of thought I would try and approach my own life somewhat in that way, seeing what a mixture things are.

GROSS: In your introductory note, you write about how you were carried along by conflicting desires to have children and a worthwhile working life and how long it took you to get going with your work. You went to Cambridge University when there were few women there. Then when you started applying for jobs, you applied to the BBC. Tell us what you were told about applying as a woman to the BBC.

TOMALIN: Oh, yes, yes. They had a management trainee program which sounded pretty good to me, so I wrote in applying for it. And I had done very well at Cambridge. And I simply got a letter back saying, dear, Ms. Delavenay, it is not the policy of the BBC to consider women for the general trainee course. And I'd added in my letter, well, perhaps secretarial work. And they said, you could apply for a secretarial job, but I don't think you would get it (laughter). So that was a pretty smart put-down from the BBC.

GROSS: Why didn't they think you would get it?

TOMALIN: I never asked them (laughter). I really don't know. Perhaps they just thought I was unsuitable in some way.

GROSS: And you were judged on your looks, too. Weren't you graded a 7 out of 10?

TOMALIN: Well, that was very funny, yes. I then applied for a job in publishing. And I was to be interviewed by the man who'd be my boss if I got the job. And I had to go through an outer office for my interview, and there was a younger man working there. So I went and sat down in front of and talked to the man who was - who might be my boss.

And as we talked, the younger man came in with a piece of paper silently and put it down in front of his boss and - the man who would be my boss - and went out of the room. I had no idea what it was. I didn't even think about it again until several months later when I was working with them and we were all friends. They explained that they'd agreed he would give me marks out of 10 for my looks. And it was 7 out of 10 (laughter). It was very funny.

GROSS: And that was good enough to get the job.

TOMALIN: (Laughter) Just about, yes.

GROSS: So you married when you were young. You were 21, and your husband Nick Tomalin, who was a journalist, was 23. You had two daughters. And then you had a baby who was born with sores or growths over his whole body. Why that happened - no one ever explained what the cause was. No one ever was able to explain. This baby died very soon. Can you talk a little bit about the quality of grief for a baby that lived so briefly?

TOMALIN: It was extremely painful because he was brought to me wrapped up. So I saw his head and held him. And he had dark hair and dark eyes, and of course I loved him. He was my baby. And I knew there was something wrong. And then after some days, one of the nurses - I think she was an Australian nurse - did something which she was not supposed to do. She unwrapped the baby. She said, I think you need to see your baby properly. And so I saw all these terrible growths around his shoulders and his chest.

And of course the doctors were - I think she got into trouble, but I defended her because I thought she did the right thing. And then he died. And yes, I don't even like remembering it. And so I thought then it's like falling off a horse. I better have another baby straight away, or I shall lose my courage. And, in fact, I did. And my daughter Emily was born on Daniel's birthday a year later, so that was pretty good.

GROSS: So at the same time you were having all these children, your marriage wasn't working out. Your husband Nick became a famous reporter in England. He was gone a lot of the time. He started having affairs. And you write, my role now was as the boring suburban wife with too many children who held him back. So if you thought he saw you that way, did you start to see yourself that way, too?

TOMALIN: Well, I find it hard to remember. I was terribly upset when I realized he was having affairs. He was very charming, clever, handsome. He was editing the London Star in London, surrounded by brilliant young men and women who adored him. And the contrast, I suppose, between that and the fun he was having and what was going on at home, even though to me the babies were interesting and delightful, was very great.

GROSS: So but did you start to see yourself as a boring suburban wife?

TOMALIN: I don't think I did (laughter). I was beginning to do some book reviewing - children's book reviewing, the first offer you get usually in those days if you're a woman. Colleagues from Cambridge who were becoming literary editors sent me books to review. And yes, I didn't think I was worthless. And I had a lot of friends, too, very good neighbors. We were living in Greenwich at that point - lots of young families.

GROSS: You write, the collapse of our marriage was not all his fault. We were too young to marry. You were 21. He was 23 when you got married. And I was not the right wife for him. I was too serious, too critical. I was charmed by him, but I did not adore him, and he fell in love with girls who either did adore him or who knew how to convey adoration. I saw him changing into an almost unrecognizable person, and I had no idea how to respond.

What about responding to the women he was having affairs with? Were you angry with them, and did you wonder how they could have affairs with a married man?

TOMALIN: Yes, I didn't feel friendly towards them. (Laughter) I remember one of them coming to dinner in a white skirt, and I spilled coffee all over it (laughter).

GROSS: Accidentally or on purpose?

TOMALIN: On purpose (laughter).

TOMALIN: That's not in the book. You're making me remember things that are not in - but it's true. I did not adore him. I see there is a difference. There is a big difference between getting on very well - we got on very well. We were - we had fun together. We enjoyed things together. And he loved the children, but he tended to forget about that, of course, once he was running off with some other young woman and suddenly saying he wanted a divorce and the whole marriage had been a mistake.

GROSS: Well, you say he kept leaving home and then returning.

TOMALIN: Well, he did that fairly often, yes, yes.

GROSS: Your parents had divorced when you were young. How did that affect your decision to try to keep the family together in spite of the fact that he was not only having affairs he was leaving you for other women and then coming back?

TOMALIN: Well, I suppose I resisted the idea of divorce. On the other hand, when he said he wanted the divorce, I did finally say all right. I mean, he told all his family, all my family. But he always changed his mind, you see. He'd suddenly say he'd made a mistake, and he'd start bombarding me with love letters and sending me flowers and rings. And it was a great deal of up-and-down behavior. It was difficult to deal with.

But what I felt in the end over these periods of years was that each time there was a crisis, it made me think, I must become independent. I must get really good work of my own. And I did so that - there is a sort of passion there that the more he departed and, you know, decided he wanted a separate life, the more I was encouraged to think about building up my own career. And that was very good for me.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Claire Tomalin. She's best known for her biographies of people like Dickens and the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. But now she's written her own memoir, and it's called "A Life Of My Own." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Claire Tomalin. After years of being a book reviewer and editor in England, she became a biographer with acclaimed biographies of people like the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and Charles Dickens. Now she's written about her own life in a memoir called "A Life Of My Own."

At some point, your husband Nick became more violent to you. He hit you. You needed stitches on your lip once. After you had a brief affair - and that followed after him having had several affairs - he hit you again, and he tried to run over the man you'd had the affair with.

GROSS: I'm curious about the decision to stay with a man who could be violent 'cause you write you had to adjust to the fact that he could be violent, and you prepared yourself for more possibilities of that.

TOMALIN: Well, I mustn't exaggerate it. He did, yes. The first time he hit me was when someone had told him I was having an affair. I was having a very, very mild affair with another journalist. And he came back into the house. I was standing under the kitchen door with a roller for a roller towel. I don't know if you have those in America in the kitchen.

And I - and he came up with his wrist raised to hit me, and he bashed his fist down, and I ducked, so he hit the roller towel and broke it. And I've kept that roller towel (laughter) ever since as a memorial. I have it on my kitchen door now. As it happened, I actually realized something - that I was living with a man who thought it was all right for him to have affairs but it wasn't all right for me.

GROSS: After you reunited again in 1970, you decided to have another baby. Why did you decide to have another baby when you knew that there was something shaky in the foundation of your marriage?

TOMALIN: Well, I suppose I just wanted to have another baby. And I suppose I had a very strong sense of the family. I - the reason I always took Nick back was that I thought the family was so important. And when Tom was born, it worked so well even though he was handicapped. And by then, we had a wonderful young nanny who came to help. And it was a very happy group. It was a good family.

GROSS: Your baby Tom was born with spina bifida. Would you explain what that is?

TOMALIN: Spina bifida happens when the spinal cord doesn't close properly. And in Tom's case, it was quite severe. And after he was born, almost immediately I was told I must decide whether I wanted them to operate to close the open place on the back. And I said, well, if we decide not to have the operation, what will happen? And they said, well, he may be more severely handicapped. So I said, well, you're not giving me a choice then, are you? Clearly you've got to operate. You've got to close his back.

And I think it wasn't really quite the truth they told me because I think - because I have a friend who had a similar baby about a year later, and they were told, don't have the operation. The baby will live for a few months. You will love the baby, and then the baby will die, and then you can have more children. It was their first baby. So we had the operation. We had two operations for Tom. And then various other things had to be watched like hydrocephalus in the head.

GROSS: That's, like, a swelling of the brain.

TOMALIN: Yes. And I remember I used to have to go and see the brain surgeon regularly with Tom. And this brain surgeon was a very sweet man and saw Tom a lot. And he said to me, you're so lucky to have Tom. I would love to have children, and I don't have any children. And I've always thought about that man (laughter) and how he envied me, my situation, you know? He didn't think it was a terrible disaster having a handicapped son. He thought I was really enviable to have this beautiful baby. He was a very beautiful baby, too.

GROSS: So you mentioned your friend who had a baby with a similar problem was told, don't have the operation your baby will live a few months and then will die.

GROSS: And you write that you wondered if your son Tom could possibly have a life worth living. Do you think that the doctor should have offered you the chance to have what's sometimes described as a merciful death for your son?

TOMALIN: Well, no. I'm not going to say that because Tom is now 48 years old, and he's - extraordinary character. He's the courage of a lion. And he's battled with such bravery through life that he's an example to many people. So I'm not going to say that.

GROSS: Tom has never been able to walk or stand. And you wrote at some point you stopped taking him to the playground because it was painful for him.

GROSS: . And for you to watch the other children being able to do things that he'd never be able to do.

TOMALIN: Yes. I can remember him looking at the other children. And quite recently he said to me - I was talking to him about this, and he said, well, I believed then that when I grew up, I would be able to walk. And it literally broke my heart when he said that. It hadn't sort of crossed my mind. But of course children have no idea what is coming for them or what there is in the world. It was quite natural that he should think that. He has had a hard life, a very hard life and quite a lonely life except for his family.

GROSS: Your husband Nick, who had, you know, in the '70s become a pretty famous journalist in England - he went on a reporting trip to Israel just after the start of the Yom Kippur War when Syria and Egypt launched a surprise attack on Israel on Yom Kippur, which is the holiest day of the year in the Jewish calendar. And he told you that he thought he'd be safe. He told you, I wouldn't go anywhere dangerous now with four children but the Israelis know how to look after journalists, and I'll be perfectly safe with them.

While driving toward the front lines, he was killed by a Syrian heat-guided missile. And one of the things that really horrified you about his death was the idea of him dying alone. Could you talk a little bit about why that was such a horrible thought for you?

TOMALIN: I don't think anyone should die alone. I think when you're dying, you really do need someone with you. And it's - the German reporter who was there rang - telephoned me after he got back and said that he heard Nick calling out, saying, ich sterbe. Of course he didn't call out ich sterbe. He didn't speak German. So what he called out was, I'm dying. And - terrible, terrible that he should die alone, awful. I don't like to think about it to this day - terrible thing.

So I absolutely insisted on his body being brought back to England. They wanted to bury him out there. And I said, no, he's got to come back, otherwise for the children. If they don't see - couldn't see his body but they could see the coffin and his parents also - otherwise, it would be just as though he'd gone off once again and just not come back. There had to be a funeral. There had to be somewhere where he was buried. That seemed to me very important. I mean, these sort of formalities are important in life, I think.

GROSS: You write it changed your life when you realized you were now in charge of it. How did it change your life?

TOMALIN: Well, yes because I was now in charge. I could now decide a lot of things, like what sort of car to buy. I bought my first car that was my car, (laughter) which was absolutely wonderful. And I was - then John Gross, who was at the New Statesman, said, I must come. He wanted to go to the Times Literary Supplement, and he thought I should come and be literary editor for the New Statesman. And I had to decide whether to do that, whether to take a job or whether I would stay at home with the children. And I talked about this with everyone, and we all sort of debated about it. And I decided - and I think the children agreed - that it would be better for me to have a job.

GROSS: Why did you think it would be better to take the job?

TOMALIN: Because I think mothers who stay at home and live entirely through their children - I mean, some people are very happy doing this, but I didn't think it was a very good idea. By then, my daughter - my eldest daughter, Jo, was actually ready to go to Cambridge. So they were - you know, they were big girls.

DAVIES: Claire Tomalin speaking with Terry Gross, recorded last year. Tomalin's memoir, "A Life Of My Own," is now out in paperback. After a break, she'll talk about other struggles she faced in life and about how outliving her friends has affected her attitude toward death. Also, we remember opera soprano Jessye Norman, who died Monday. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're listening to the interview Terry recorded last year with Claire Tomalin. After writing biographies of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, Tomalin's written a memoir called "A Life Of My Own" which is now out in paperback. Through her story, she tries to tell a larger story of British women of her generation. She was born in 1933. She writes about her conflicting desires to have children and a satisfying working life. It took a while, but she eventually had both, although there were many family tragedies which she's endured.


GROSS: So your first biography was a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, the early feminist who wrote "A Vindication Of The Rights Of Women," which was published in 1792, and argued that women were the equals of men. How did this historical look at feminism and Wollstonecraft's life affect your understanding of your own life? Did it?

TOMALIN: Well, it was rather interesting. I wrote it because when I was taking maternity leave to have Tom, the editor of the New Statesman - I'd been working already as deputy literary editor. And he said, please keep writing pieces for the New Statesman while you're taking your maternity leave. And that's how I wrote a page about Mary Wollstonecraft for the New Statesman. And when it was published, I got letters from agents, publishers saying, you must write a biography of her. And so I didn't know what to do.

And Nick and I sat down together with a piece of paper and pencil each. Pros and cons - should I go back to the New Statesman, or should I try and write this book? And we both concluded that I ought to try and write the book. And so that's why I decided to do that. The book is sort of associated with Nick in that way. I was - it was helpful to me, that - his advice. And in fact, when he was killed, I was just finishing writing the book. So it was - the book was sort of bound up with that period of the end of his life, and it was quite emotional.

GROSS: So did Mary Wollstonecraft's writing and how she lived her life affect how you lived your life after your husband was killed?

TOMALIN: Well, studying her was amazing to me because I discovered this woman in the 18th century who seemed to be living a life very, very much like mine. She was living in North London. She was working on a magazine. She was having difficult love affairs, as it were, or - and once she had a baby, she was having to deal with trying to work and have a baby. And this walking the same streets of London that she had walked, it seemed absolutely amazing to me. And she was so vivid in her letters and her writings. And she went - was going over to Paris to see the French Revolution, and I, of course, went over to Paris, learned quite a good deal of the French family.

And so I - it sort of reinforced my interest in women's history, and it made me think much more deeply about how little really useful information we got about women's lives in the past, how - you know, we had biographies of queens, and we had sort of books about actresses. But really close looking at what women's lives in the past were like - was rather - in rather short supply. And I thought that is something I would really like to get my teeth into.

GROSS: Did her biography also give you a sense of strength or courage in pursuing an independent life?

TOMALIN: Yes, it did. And she was so interesting because she was a rather sort of severe, hardworking young woman who threw herself into all sorts of work. She worked as a governess. She tried to run a school. She even helped one of her friends whose family was very poor doing sewing work. And she nursed people. She took on practically every job that a woman of her generation could take on. So she qualified herself to comment on the situation of women.

And then she had this extraordinary love affair. She went to Paris during the revolution. And she didn't believe in marriage, so she had a baby with this - her American lover. And she had a bad time with him. He was (laughter) faithless to her. And so she's done - she sort of slightly turned into a romantic heroine. She is completely fascinating figure to me still.

GROSS: I want to ask you about another tragedy in your life. Your second-oldest daughter, Susanna, got profoundly depressed in 1979 while she was attending Cambridge University.

TOMALIN: No, she was at Oxford.

GROSS: At Oxford - I'm sorry. Thank you. And then she took her life in 1980.

GROSS: And you found her depression - it sounds like everyone who knew her found her depression unfathomable because it was such a sudden, inexplicable change from how she had been in the past. Have you ever found any explanation?

TOMALIN: I've just been looking again at Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar," and it suddenly struck me - this is just this last week - that what she describes in that book, the depression she falls into, is very like Susanna, what Susanna fell into, inexplicable to the family, to the friends. But they had something in common, I think. And it amazed me suddenly seeing that what Sylvia Plath described so brilliantly. How she described her own descent into depression I don't know, but she was wonderful. And I thought Susanna was like that.

In all my efforts to help her, to comfort her, to cheer her, she would say, well, it may make you feel better, but it doesn't make me feel better. And the first time she took an overdose I describe in the book. I found her. We got her to hospital. She was in intensive care. And I watched all those lines, you know, show you how the breathing and the heart and everything - and I saw her reviving. And when she seemed better, I went out into the corridor in the hospital. And the male nurse came out and said, don't rejoice, she will do it again. That was pretty grim, wasn't it?

GROSS: It turned out to be true, though.

TOMALIN: It was true, yes. It was true.

GROSS: You know, and in her suicide note, she wrote that she was sorry, but, quote, "it could get worse."

TOMALIN: Yes, that's right, but I suppose that.

GROSS: So I guess she was really afraid of that.

TOMALIN: Well, I think that's right. And another friend of mine who suffered from depression said, if you haven't had depression, you don't have any idea what it's like. This was a Roman Catholic friend of mine. She said, it's worse, I'm sure, than being in hell.

And I think if you think of Virginia Woolf, who had this recurrent depression and then killed herself - I used to think if we'd saved Susanna, that if we'd managed to save her, I think she might have perhaps lived another 10 or 15 years and done some more of the - she was - she could have been a very good writer. She wrote some very good poems. And even if she'd, like Virginia Woolf, then killed herself later - if only she'd had some more of her life because she was - of course, all mothers think their children are wonderful.

But she was an exceptional person. And it was recently her 60th birthday. And her wonderful boyfriend she'd had, who is happily married with family in his 60s, sent me an email on the morning of Susanna's 60th birthday and said, all over the world, people are remembering how clever and lively and wonderful Susanna was. Isn't that an extraordinary thing?

GROSS: Yeah. You write, the grief has to be set aside, but it does not go away. It arrives each morning as you wake, lies in wait in the familiar routines of the day, takes you by surprise. Does it still?

TOMALIN: I think writing the book has helped. A lot of people have written to me about that passage, people who've lost someone they loved, and said, yes, that is how it is and sort of sharing with people the experience. I don't grieve in the same way that I used to grieve year after year. I am pretty well at peace. But it still - of course, it hits one to - you hear a piece of music, you see something that reminds you - just - I see her face. I see her beautiful blue eyes. So, of course - of course the pain is less, but she's certainly not forgotten. She's not forgotten by her friends.

GROSS: Why don't we take a short break here? And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Claire Tomalin. She's a biographer who's written books about Mary Wollstonecraft, the early feminist, and Charles Dickens. Her new memoir is called "A Life Of My Own." We're going to take a short break. Then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Claire Tomalin. She was a longtime book reviewer and editor for publications in England, and then she became a full-time biographer. Her biographies include books about Charles Dickens and the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Now she has a memoir called "A Life Of My Own."

So, you know, we've talked a lot about raising your family and about your first marriage, which had a lot of rocky periods. And then your husband was killed while covering the Yom Kippur War. He was killed by a heat-seeking missile, a Syrian missile. At the age of 60, you remarried to the playwright Michael Frayn, who's best known for - in America, anyways, I think he's best known for "Noises Off."

He was married when you started seeing each other, and you write you tried to end it several times. But finally, his wife was understanding, and they separated. And you married Michael Frayn. Since you had been through your husband having so many affairs and then coming back to you, what was it like for you to be the woman who was having the affair with a married man?

TOMALIN: Well, that's a very good question. Of course, it was very difficult and painful. And it went on for quite a long time. And as I say, we tried to stop seeing each other. We went through all sorts of processes of agreeing we wouldn't see each other, and somehow we just kept not being able to bear not seeing each other. And all the more so that Michael and Jill, his wife, had three daughters - just the way I had three daughters. Wonderful, wonderful girls.

So it was very agonizing. And I can't say I feel I behaved very wonderfully. But in the end, Jill did decide that she thought it was best if they separated. And I'm happy to say that we are now all on a - I'm very close to his daughters. I love them dearly - and his grandchildren. And Jill and I are on reasonably cordial terms. And the pain of all that process, I think, has been worked through. It's not for me to say it's wholly worked through, but I don't think I can say much more about it than that.

GROSS: I don't know if this is anything you can crystallize, but I was wondering if you could talk about the quality of love as an older woman, compared to the quality of love in your 20s when you married your first husband. And I ask that in part because, like, sexual lust isn't - do you know what I mean? - isn't part of the equation in the same way when you get married when you're 60, as it is when you get married.

TOMALIN: Well, I'm not sure that I would.

TOMALIN: . Agree with that (laughter).

TOMALIN: I think sexual love is very fundamental - is a very important part of life. And for me, I was certainly - in some ways, more important when I was 60 than when I was 20.

GROSS: That's a very interesting answer (laughter). So you're 85 now.

GROSS: Your book strikes me as a very honest book. I don't really know you, so I'm not the best judge. But as a reader (laughter) - as a reader, it strikes me as an honest book.

TOMALIN: It's certainly meant to be an honest book, yes.

GROSS: Yeah. And I'm wondering if that level of honesty is something that you feel freer to have in your mid-80s now. Like, you know who you are now. You know what your life has been. You don't have to impress anybody. You don't have to worry about your reputation. It's already made.

TOMALIN: I do feel that. And also, to be brutally honest, of course, a great many of the people I'm writing about, they're all dead, so they can't answer back. They can't say, oh, you've got that wrong, Claire. And I realize that's rather unfair, isn't it? But that's how it is. Because I've lived a long life, I can see it's easy for me, isn't it? I mean, in some cases, I have asked the people. I've sent people what I've written and said, is this all right?

Apart from Susanna, whom I'm glad I wrote about because I think she was wonderful, I said to my daughter, I'm not going to write about you much. But then about Tom, I did write. And my youngest daughter Emily said, Tom won't like what you've written, you must read it to him.

So when the book was in proof and could still be changed, I said, I've written about you, would you like to hear? And he was in hospital at that time. And I went in, marked up the proof, and I read it to him. And he really liked it. He was really pleased. And I think he saw that I had written about him with the love I feel for him and the admiration I feel for him. And I think he felt, actually, that it was something good, that there he was described.

GROSS: I want to quote you again - "when you have seen many of your friends and family die, it is not so hard to think calmly about your own coming death. You will be following the path they have already taken. You need no belief in an afterlife to feel comforted by that thought." Why do you find that thought comforting?

TOMALIN: That I'd be following after those who died before me?

TOMALIN: Well, it's not logical because I think when you die, you cease to exist. But all the same, you can't help thinking that by the time you reach my age, 85, so many people you love have died, you can't help seeing that, as it were, they've gone out through a door. And the idea that you, too, will soon go out through that same door, it's not a literal belief, but it's a way of seeing it which makes some sense to me.

And then I think of words with writing about it - (unintelligible) with earth and stones and trees, the idea that what's left of you is still part of this wonderful earth in which we live. Even if you're reduced to ashes or whatever, you have been part of it. And in some sense, you will always be part of it.

GROSS: Well, Claire Tomalin, it's really been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much. And I'm glad you decided to write your own story.

TOMALIN: Thank you. It was a delight talking to you.

DAVIES: Claire Tomalin speaking with Terry Gross, recorded last year. Tomalin's memoir, "A Life Of My Own," is now out in paperback. Coming up, we remember celebrated soprano Jessye Norman, who died Monday. This is FRESH AIR.


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At home in his socks

Some 30 years ago Claire Tomalin reviewed Robert Gittings's landmark biography of Thomas Hardy. This established the familiar glooming outline of the great Wessex writer we still know and, with some anxious reservations, still love. Here was the sensitive novelist who turned out to be a neglectful husband the tender confessional poet who cunningly "falsified" his own biography the twinkling public man who notoriously believed in a malignant universe. "The biographer's problem with Hardy," Tomalin wrote, "is how to relate this dry, defensive man to the diffident but super-responsive presence felt in the poems and novels." There has been a great deal of scholarly work since Gittings, notably Michael Millgate's fine edition of the Letters, recent studies by Paul Turner (1998) and Ralph Pite's The Guarded Life (2006).

But there is a sense in which the problem, the deep divided mystery of Hardy, remains. One is fascinated to see if Tomalin, who wonderfully "saved" Samuel Pepys's rackety reputation in her recent prize-winning biography, can work the same magic for Hardy. It is intriguing that her subtitle - The Time-torn Man - comes from a Hardy love-poem, where the full line reads: "Once you, a woman, came to soothe a time-torn man."

Tomalin's skilful handling of narrative time announces both her originality and her immense experience as a biographer. It is subtly shaped away from conventional "plodding" chronology (as Virginia Woolf once mocked it). She opens not with Hardy's birth in 1840, but with the death of poor, neglected Emma Hardy in 1912, and the startling declaration: "This is the moment when Thomas Hardy became a great poet."

The intensely upsetting scene that follows - the body heaved down from the attic, the coffin placed at the foot of Hardy's bed for three days - is used to show the sudden astonishing release of Hardy's great elegies for Emma in the Poems of 1912-13, which are compared to Milton's Lycidas. From then on it is clear that Hardy's poetry and his marriage will be used to transform the familiar story.

The exact nature of that marriage is one of the most notorious problems in 19th-century biography, more fraught than Carlyle's, more anguished than Dickens's. No love letters remain between Emma and Hardy, except two fragments copied by Hardy into his notebooks. In one she wrote prophetically "Your novel seems sometimes like a child, your own and none of me." Otherwise there are no letters at all from Emma before 1890, when she was 50 years old and the marriage was already deeply in trouble. There are none because she burnt them all in the garden at Max Gate.

Most earlier biographers here suffer from prolepsis - anticipation: the marriage was doomed from the start. Yet Tomalin produces an unforgettably fresh and vivid chapter about their first meetings in Cornwall, entitled "Lyonnesse" (after his famous, chant-like poem). Her exuberant presentation of Emma, with her mass of golden hair, her horse-riding along the dangerous edge of Beeny Cliff, the tender walks and the seductive picnics, brilliantly establishes the lasting power of the romance for Hardy which illuminates the whole biography.

She boldly describes Hardy's erotic drawing of Emma on all fours searching for their lost picnic wine-glass in the waterfall. "She is deliciously dressed, hatted and curled, with her bottom sticking up, her sleeves rolled and her breasts clearly outlined."

She gives barometric care to tracing the fluctuating emotional rhythms between writer and wife. "The shifting feelings in a marriage . are as complex and unpredictable as cloud formations." No other biographer has done this so well. Tomalin enters deeply into the marital weather, does not take sides, but feels from the inside. When fame comes after 1880, and the marriage slowly begins to fall apart, Tomalin recognises the pain on both sides. You can almost feel her struggling to keep them together. "He preferred silence to quarrels, which might have cleared the air and sent them into each other's arms."

Yet there are still numerous continental tours, Paris visits, London parties, and the famous epic bicycle expeditions - he on his "Red Cob", she on her "Grasshopper" with the matching green velvet costume that the Dorchester locals found so ludicrous. Tomalin relishes, rather than derides, these eccentricities.

Sometimes this seems a shade too kindly, too brisk. Tomalin is very brief on the tragedy of their childlessness, though she acknowledges its importance, particularly for Emma's fraught relations with Hardy's family. Pite gives a whole chapter to possible causes, sexual difficulties and Hardy's fantasy life. Tomalin prefers to leave such speculations, and concentrates on Emma's growing estrangement. Her tremendous denunciation of husbands in 1899 is memorable: expect "neither gratitude, nor attentions, love, nor justice . " This dauntless imaginative effort to recover Emma feels similar to Tomalin's earlier work on those two other "lost" women, Ellen Ternan and Mrs Jordan.

The parallel portrait of Hardy is equally affectionate and engaging, yet even more original in its way. Tomalin's evocation of music in his early childhood - the fiddle-playing, the "endless jigs, hornpipes, reels, waltzes", the singing of Dorset folk songs and hymns - is beautifully fitted to Hardy's instinctive gift for poetry. Later there are brilliant digressions on his intellectual mentors - Horace Moule, who taught him Greek tragedy and then demonstrated it by committing suicide in his Cambridge college rooms and the severe, sorrowing Leslie Stephen, who turned Hardy into "an evolutionary meliorist".

Once again there are subtle time adjustments here to the story-telling. Almost unnoticed, the great professional novel writing period of 1880-1895 is compressed into not much more than 50 pages. This allows for the expansion given to the poetry both at the beginning and the end of the book. If you look carefully, you see the biography has the structure of an hourglass, with its curve and elegance too.

There are also deflections of time. Tomalin refuses to speculate about the romance with his vivacious cousin Tryphena Sparks, to which Gittings gave a whole chapter. Similarly, she gives short shrift to the other alleged flirtations with Hardy's succession of muses: Helen Patterson, Rosamond Thomson, Agnes Grove. Yet there is surely an obsessive quality in Hardy's desire to possess - or rather repossess - young women. This is partly what makes his fictional heroines such vivid physical creations, comparable to their great continental contemporaries - Emma Bovary, Effi Briest or even Maupassant's Boule de Suif.

Tomalin only once appears truly angry with Hardy: not over Tess, as one might suppose, but over Jude. Here she believes Hardy deliberately batters his characters, "coercing his plots" to torture them all. Reading it is "like being hit in the face over and over again". She quotes Gosse, one of Hardy's greatest admirers: "What has Providence done to Mr Hardy that he should rise up in the arable land of Wessex and shake his fist at his Creator?"

Yet it is Tomalin's triumph to provide a sympathetic narrative answer to this question. She never tries to explain Hardy away discursively, either psychologically or sociologically. In a central passage she simply meditates on the abiding mystery of Hardy's "raging, wounded inner self who chastised the values of the world he inhabited". This is surely the true power of biography, over literary criticism or social history.

Tomalin's fine, fresh handling of Hardy's poetry breathes through the whole book. She refers to more than 100 individual poems, and quotes stanzas from nearly 60. Her little nudges of commentary are wonderful. She spotlights key phrases: "the original air-blue gown [from "The Voice"] lifts and lights the whole poem".

She is never trapped into tedious identity-hunting - who was that girl? - the bane of much previous Hardy scholarship. She sees how the bitter or gloomy conclusions of so many poems have a musicality that lifts them towards something transcendent. The reader can go back to the beginning, and "call up the delight again".

One of the reasons she accepts the second Mrs Hardy, the doe-eyed and manipulating Florence, is the tranquillity she (along with the dog Wessex) evidently brought Hardy in his late 70s and 80s, allowing him still to write great poems such as "Proud Songsters". These last pages are another tour de force. They provide a brilliant piece of reportage, as if Tomalin had come straight from Max Gate. Who can forget Hardy writing poetry in his socks? The outstanding quality of the biography is the easy, confident flow of Tomalin's narrative style. I know no other biographer currently writing quite like this. She is deeply at home in the period, generous, meticulous, affectionate, full of common sense, occasionally tart, but always thoughtful. Continuously one thinks: yes, this is how life - how a writer's life - is. That is a rare achievement.

· Richard Holmes's Shelley: The Pursuit is published by HarperPerennial

Claire Tomalin: Literary editor and biographer

Claire Tomalin says her mother instilled a love of poetry in her when she was a child.

Claire Tomalin’s life has been as productive as it’s been eventful. She lost two of her seven children as well as her first husband. After a notable career as a literary editor of the New Statesman and the Sunday Times, she began penning award-winning biographies. Now nearing 80, the author lives in London with her second husband, playwright Michael Frayn.

BOOKS: You became a serious reader as a kid?

TOMALIN: My mother, who was a composer, read poetry with me. Then I could read on my own when I was 5 or 6. My mother said to me, “Whatever happens you can always escape into a book.’’ It’s true.

BOOKS: Is that still true?

TOMALIN: I feel quite ill if I don’t have a few books on the go. The last five years, I’ve been rereading Dickens’s novels, but I kept reading Anthony Trollope for contrast. I liked “Phineas Finn’’ very much. I like the political ones, like “The Duke’s Children.’’

BOOKS: Did you read any recent fiction while writing your book?

TOMALIN: I haven’t read much modern fiction in a while, but I read Simon Mawer’s “The Glass Room.’’ It’s a very interesting novel. I read Julian Barnes’s most recent book, “The Sense of an Ending.’’ He’s an old friend. It’s quite a departure, a very sharp and sinister story.

I love reading history and liked Oliver Rackham’s “Woodlands.’’ It’s an amazing book entirely about trees and the woods.

BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

TOMALIN: I always read poetry. I had to do an event in Ireland, so I took my Yeats on the plane and confirmed my feeling that he was the most wonderful poet when he was young, but when he was older he got a bit too ornate. I’ve also been reading the English poet Wendy Cope. Her newest book is “Family Values.’’ I read every thing she writes. Another poet I read is Christopher Reid, who wrote a beautiful book called “A Scattering’’ about the last hours of his wife’s life.

And I reread Shakespeare a lot. My favorite sonnet, 143, begins, “Lo a careful housewife runs to catch’’ a hen. It describes a woman running off after the hen while her toddler runs after her. It’s absolutely written from life. I memorized as many sonnets as I could when I was young. I’m glad I did because it’s difficult to memorize anything when you are old and now they are a great resource in life. If you’re alone you can say a Shakespeare sonnet to yourself.

BOOKS: When did you first discover that favorite sonnet?

TOMALIN: My mother gave me a complete Shakespeare for my 11th birthday. I thought it was the most wonderful present I’d ever had. I just read, read, and read Shakespeare. I wrote long poems imitating his “Venus and Adonis,’’ believe it or not.

I found that Dickens knew Shakespeare well. He could recite it when he was young. When he went to America the first time a friend gave him a pocket volume of Shakespeare, which he read all the time.

BOOKS: Was Dickens much of a reader?

TOMALIN: Yes, he was. He wasn’t regarded as an intellectual but he liked Alfred Tennyson’s poetry. He was a great friend of Robert Browning, but I have to say I found no reference to Browning’s work in his letters.

BOOKS: When do you read?

TOMALIN: If I’m working I have to limit myself, of course, not do it during working hours. I never go out without a book, not even if I’m taking the bus or the underground to go shopping.

BOOKS: You’ve had such a busy life, has there ever been a time you didn’t have time to read?

TOMALIN: No. You can even read while you’re breast-feeding a baby if you feel like it.

Got suggestions for future Bibliophiles? Find us on Facebook or follow us @GlobeBiblio on Twitter.

Reviews in History University of London

Reviewer: Daniel Snowman
Citation: Daniel Snowman, review of INTERVIEW: Noble Endeavours: Stories from England Stories from Germany, (review no. 1534)
Date accessed: 24 April, 2017

In a new development for Reviews in History, Daniel Snowman talks to Miranda Seymour about her new book, Noble Endeavours: Stories from England Stories from Germany, her career as a historian, historical novelist and biographer, and the issues surrounding collective biography and prosopography.

Miranda Jane Seymour is an English literary critic, novelist, and biographer, and Noble Endeavours is a cultural history of Anglo-German relations from 1613 to the present day.

Daniel Snowman is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster on social and cultural history.

Full hour-long conversation

INTERVIEW: Noble Endeavours: Stories from England Stories from Germany - EXTRACT

Institute of Historical Research

Book: Noble Endeavours: Stories from England Stories from Germany
Miranda Seymour
London, Simon & Schuster, 2013, ISBN: 9781847378255 512pp.
Price: £20.00

Reviewer: Daniel Snowman
Citation: Daniel Snowman, review of INTERVIEW: Noble Endeavours: Stories from England Stories from Germany, (review no. 1534)
Date accessed: 24 April, 2017

In a new development for Reviews in History, Daniel Snowman talks to Miranda Seymour about her new book, Noble Endeavours: Stories from England Stories from Germany, her career as a historian, historical novelist and biographer, and the issues surrounding collective biography and prosopography.

Miranda Jane Seymour is an English literary critic, novelist, and biographer, and Noble Endeavours is a cultural history of Anglo-German relations from 1613 to the present day.

Daniel Snowman is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster on social and cultural history.

Extract from the interview

INTERVIEW: Claire Tomalin talks to Daniel Snowman - SHORT

Institute of Historical Research

Book: Charles Dickens: A Life
Claire Tomalin
London, Penguin, 2011,
ISBN: 9780141036939 576pp. Price: £9.99

Reviewer: Daniel Snowman
Citation: Daniel Snowman, review of INTERVIEW: Claire Tomalin talks to Daniel Snowman, (review no. 1602)
DOI: 10.14296/RiH/2014/1602
Date accessed: 24 April, 2017

In the latest of our occasional Reviews in History podcast series, Daniel Snowman talks to Claire Tomalin about her work as a historical biographer.

Claire Tomalin (born Claire Delavenay on 20 June 1933) is an English author and journalist, known for her biographies on Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Pepys, Jane Austen, and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Daniel Snowman is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster on social and cultural history.

Short version of the interview.

INTERVIEW: Claire Tomalin talks to Daniel Snowman - FULL

Institute of Historical Research

Book: Charles Dickens: A Life
Claire Tomalin
London, Penguin, 2011,
ISBN: 9780141036939 576pp. Price: £9.99

Reviewer: Daniel Snowman
Citation: Daniel Snowman, review of INTERVIEW: Claire Tomalin talks to Daniel Snowman, (review no. 1602)
DOI: 10.14296/RiH/2014/1602
Date accessed: 24 April, 2017

In the latest of our occasional Reviews in History podcast series, Daniel Snowman talks to Claire Tomalin about her work as a historical biographer.

Claire Tomalin (born Claire Delavenay on 20 June 1933) is an English author and journalist, known for her biographies on Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Pepys, Jane Austen, and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Daniel Snowman is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster on social and cultural history.

Full version of the interview.

INTERVIEW: Anthony McFarlane talks to Felipe Fernandez-Armesto - SHORT

Institute of Historical Research

Book:Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
New York, NY, W. W. Norton, 2014,
ISBN: 9780393239539 416pp. Price: £17.99

Reviewer: Professor Anthony McFarlane
University of Warwick

Citation: Professor Anthony McFarlane, review of INTERVIEW: Anthony McFarlane talks to Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, (review no. 1606)
DOI: DOI: 10.14296/RiH/2014/1606
Date accessed: 24 April, 2017

In the latest of our occasional Reviews in History podcast series, Anthony McFarlane talks to Felipe Fernandez-Armesto about his new book, Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto (born 1950) is a British historian and author of several popular works of revisionist history.

Anthony McFarlane is Emeritus Professor at the School of Comparative American Studies at the University of Warwick.

Watch the video: Charles Dickens A Life Book Trailer: Claire Tomalin (June 2022).


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