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. 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.
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.