Claire Tomalin is a prize-winning biographer who published her first biography, The Life and Death of Mary Woolstonecraft, in 1974 at the age of forty-one. I remember reading it in 1976 and being amazed at the depths of her research, and her sympathetic portrait of a woman, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, who, however able she was, got very little credit in her own time. Tomalin went on to write nine biographies, among them lives of Jane Austin, Pepys, Hardy and Dickens. She also researched and wrote about the lives of hidden figures like Nelly Ternan, Dickens’ mistress, and Dora Jordan, the morganatic wife of King William 1V, third son of George III.
Her book, Mrs Jordan’s Profession, brought to light the fact that they had had ten children and lived happily together for twenty years when the future king was the Duke of Clarence, until he was persuaded by the royal advisors to abandon her. Tomalin’s rigorous and sympathetic presentation of this brave woman’s life resulted in her being able to bring Mrs Jordan out of obscurity and to mount an exhibition about her life.
Now, at the age of eighty-two, she has done what she said she would never do, and written an account of her own life. She begins with a frank account of the relationship between her parents, her French father a linguist and scholar, and her English mother the talented musician and composer, Muriel Herbert. A passionate meeting soon lapsed into dislike verging on hatred. Her father was twenty and her mother twenty-eight when they married and they quickly had a child. Just before Claire was conceived her father even contemplated killing his wife. She found this in his memoirs, written many years later:
…walking in silence on a high cliff, he felt such hatred that he seriously thought of killing her. He reasoned that if he pushed her over a cliff edge no one would ever know it was not an accident.
That night she was conceived. The thought that she was conceived ‘not only out of dislike but with the gritted teeth of murderous loathing’ never left her. Strange, then, when she speaks about her own marriage, she can only remember liking Nick Tomalin, and feeling she should go through with it because they were such good friends.
Her marriage too was very difficult. There were some dizzying high times with friends from the literary and artistic worlds. She worked in publishing and was the editor of The Sunday Times. Nick Tomalin was a brilliant and popular journalist and author, but unfaithful and of uncertain temperament. They lived together and then apart. Her greatest love was her four children, and she was heartbroken to lose one child not long after birth. Her last child, Nick, was born with spina bifida, and with his mother’s steadfast support, has grown to be an independent man with a fulfilling life.
Her husband was killed on an assignment in Israel in 1973. It was the year after this Claire published her first book, her life of Mary Wollstonecraft. She knew this was the work she loved, and after juggling editorial posts, she was eventually able to work from home as a biographer. This is all interesting to read about, but at times it feels like a mad whirl through a frantically busy woman’s diary. Holidays, friends, family, children, new friends, until one of her beloved children, the happiest, most stable and talented child is struck down by serious mental illness. Tomalin is frank about her suffering, her feelings of impotence and grief. The reader gains a deep insight into her inner strength and honesty.
I came away from this book moved and exhilarated by the encounter with a brilliant mind, with a resolute woman who accepts life’s blows with uncomplaining fortitude, and one who never loses her joy in life.