A Life of My Own
By Claire Tomalin
Penguin Press, 2018
It’s always a tricky, on-your-guard kind of thing, when professional writers decide to write about themselves; it feels like a violation of some basic axiom about artists separating the source of their inspiration from the source of their raw material. And if this is true for writers just in general, how much more pointedly might it be true for biographers?
Claire Tomalin is an extremely accomplished biographer, having written books on Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Katherine Mansfield, Mary Wollstonecraft, and, to bestselling acclaim, both Jane Austen and Samuel Pepys. She has long since mastered the arts of good biography: the painstaking consultation of sources, the avoidance of unwarranted speculation, the strong preference for documentation over theorizing. If anything, these arts are strengthened when the subject in question, somebody like Pepys of Mansfield, likewise wrote copiously about themselves.
Writing biographies, in other words, works better than almost anything else to make a biographer wary of biographies. So Tomalin’s new memoir, A Life of My Own, comes with its own ready-made warning labels.
This is the story of her life, both professional, as a London literary editor first at the New Statesman and then at The Sunday Times, and personal, as the wife of high-profile journalist Nick Tomalin and mother of a family of young children, including a disabled little boy. It’s the story of her working on books, working with editors, working with other writers, all while maintaining a home, seeing to her children’s education, and, beginning early on, dealing with her husband’s infidelity:
Suddenly I found myself living through the most banal of stories, as the neglected wife of a faithless husband. Nick had fallen in love with one of his office beauties. He told me later that she could look across a table adoringly like no one else. My role now was as the boring suburban wife with too many children who held him back. The diaries I kept then tell me how I reacted. One day I advised myself, “Don’t be jealous, don’t be frightened, don’t disapprove.” After a party I wrote, “I think he likes projecting an image of himself as the bold, sexy, philandering journalist, which other people take at face value and I find appalling.”
Readers hoping for more than a somewhat clinical backward glance will note something about that passage immediately: there’s no direct recounting of what must have been a storm of guilt and anger and outrage; instead, Tomalin, ever the careful researcher, consults the primary sources. It’s elegantly written, but it employs exactly the same combination of exactitude and reserve that a biographer might bring to bear on Margaret of Anjou long dead in her grave.
This happens throughout the book’s more heavily autobiographical sections, most noticeably when Nick is killed on assignment in 1973, leaving Tomalin alone to raise a family of four. The very first thing she mentions about receiving this shattering news is that she was careful about how she broke it to Nick’s mother. The second thing she mentions is that she was careful about how she broke it to Nick’s father. She insists that her husband’s body be shipped back to England:
The coffin arrived within days and was taken to the undertakers. His parents were able to visit it. I also sat beside it alone, and thought about Nick: how gifted he was, and generous; how delightfully unpredictable and wretchedly unreliable; how much he loved his own children and how good he was with other people’s; what happy times we had shared. Whatever the failings of both of us in our marriage, it felt now as though the sun had been eclipsed.
She sits alone with Nick, and she relates what she thought about him, a kind of parting biographical assessment. She tells the reader about that moment alone with the body, but they are not admitted to share the moment. The sun has been eclipsed; eclipses are temporary.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, A Life of My Own consequently comes most alive when Tomalin is writing about writing. Her chronicle of literary London reads less vivaciously but rings truer than similar ones written by more roistering types, and her account of the daily juggling acts of a working literary editor at the Sunday Times is a priceless combination of warmth and precision:
Paul Theroux made unpredictable and welcome appearances. Alan Ryan took on sociology and politics with an easy, authoritative sweep. Christopher Ricks gave occasional inspired scholarly insights into poetry and poets. Adam Mars-Jones embarked on his career as a literary critic with tough and original voice. Richard Cobb wrote sublimely but always at twice the length I had asked for, so that I had to perform major surgery. John Mortimer usually meant meeting for lunch, with a bottle of wine and no hurry: “Are you doing anything this afternoon?,” but of course a literary editor was not free in the afternoon.
“A few critics wrote on the premises. I don’t know how they did it,” she adds. “I remember Ian Hamilton settling at a typewriter and in under two hours, with all the office noise about him, producing a well-thought-out review ready to go to the printers.”
Readers have always gone to Claire Tomalin’s biographies for this kind of clear, careful atmosphere-building, often used as the perfect tool to disclose the nature of her chosen subjects. There’s an irony to the fact that this tool, amply used in A Life of My Own, usually fails to bring Tomalin herself into any clearer focus. But not all hearts are made for ready viewing; that irony is almost certainly intentional.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and theAmerican Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website ishttp://www.stevedonoghue.com.