Claire Tomalin has forged an impressive reputation writing biographies of some of Britain’s most distinguished literary figures, among them the novelists Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy, and the diarist Samuel Pepys.
But for her most recent book she turned the spotlight on the person she must know better than any other: herself. Her autobiography, A Life of My Own, was released last year and has recently come out in paperback.
On the strength of her discussion with Professor Christopher Bigsby at the University of East Anglia, held as part of this autumn’s UEA Literary Festival, Tomalin’s life has been no less interesting than those of the distinguished names she has written about in the past.
She decided to produce her autobiography on the suggestion of others who said she had “a story to tell”.
“I began to think about it. I’ve lived through an interesting period. I had the experience of the war child of being evacuated. I went up to Cambridge when only 3.4 per cent of the population went to university and there were ten men for every one of us girls, which gave us an exaggerated idea of our choice,” she said.
Tomalin also wrote the book “to see if I could find something out about myself”, while her experiences as a biographer were another influence.
“I also wrote it for historical reasons. I knew how precious direct testimony is, for people to write it down for themselves,” she said.
Now 85, Tomalin was born in London, the daughter of a French academic, Emile Delavenay, and an English mother, Muriel Herbert, a composer. “I had a very loving mother. I have memories of her reading poetry to me. My mother said however bad things are, you can always escape into a book, which has proved absolutely true in my life,” she said.
Although born into what could be seen as a privileged background, there were tensions at home, with Tomalin’s parents having a turbulent relationship.
“I was conceived in my mother’s love and my father’s hatred … I knew as a child he didn’t love me, but we did become friends,” she said.
“After my sister was born, he took against my mother. He disliked her sentimentality; she had very powerful emotions. She very much wanted to have another child; he very much didn’t want to.”
Tomalin escaped into the world of words, starting to write poetry when she was still only about seven years old and continuing until early adulthood, when she decided she had not developed her own voice. She still regards poetry as the highest form of literature, saying to be a poet is “the top thing, the best thing”.
Tomalin married Nicholas Tomalin, a journalist, but as well as being turbulent on a personal level – both had affairs – the union was also struck by tragedy, as they had a son who was born with multiple medical problems and lived only just over a month.
Exactly a year after the birth of her disabled son, Tomalin had a healthy baby girl and, meanwhile, was “building myself up in the literary world” by writing reviews and other pieces, something that eventually saw her became literary editor of The Sunday Times, “a wonderful job”.
“It was a very good time and it was old technology. One of the bits of history in the book is that you had hot metal printing,” she said.
Although she enjoyed her journalistic work, Tomalin was keen to become an author herself and began writing about women “because women hadn’t always been addressed well in historical biography”. The book she is most proud of, though, is about a man.
“Pepys, I think it’s my best book. I think the 17th century is the most interesting century in our history. We got rid of the royals, we got rid of the House of Lords. Although they came back, they didn’t come back with quite the same force,” she said.
Further difficulties struck Tomalin when her son Tom was born with spina bifida, while her husband was killed in 1973 while covering the Yom Kippur War, also called the Arab-Israeli War.
It was to be two decades before Tomalin remarried, this time to the novelist and playwright Michael Frayn, although the difficulties that the break-up of Frayn’s first marriage, to his “extremely nice first wife”, are “still a sadness, although she and I are on cordial terms”.
“It’s something one doesn’t quite forgive oneself for. We tried and tried and tried not to stay together and we failed,” she said.
Still happily married to Frayn, and now in her ninth decade, Tomalin has not hung up her pen: she is looking to write a biography of H.G. Wells’ early life.
“He wrote these stories of genius and he wrote these wonderful early novels,” she said.