The acclaimed literary editor and biographer offers an extraordinarily candid autobiography.
Readers hoping for background on how Tomalin (Charles Dickens: A Life, 2011, etc.) chose the subjects of her acclaimed biographies—Mary Wollstonecraft, Samuel Pepys, Thomas Hardy, among other major figures—may be somewhat disappointed, but this is an elegant, significant book nonetheless. The author does not mention launching biography writing as her vocation until more than halfway through the book. Readers seeking a detailed account of Tomalin’s influential life within British letters will certainly celebrate her honest perceptions of herself, her parents and in-laws, husbands, children, other authors and editors, publishers, tycoons, and other important historical figures. After she married journalist Nick Tomalin, the author’s life felt adventurous almost every day. Nick was a talented writer, a handsome charmer, and a philanderer whose romantic exploits Claire usually tolerated. She undertook extramarital romances, as well, though far fewer than her husband. Still, she and Nick had four children before he died in 1973 during a battle in Israel, where he had been sent on assignment by a British publication. About the period, she writes, “suddenly I found myself living through the most banal of stories, as the neglected wife of a faithless husband….My role now was as the boring suburban wife with too many children who held him back.” As a widow, Tomalin found love with a much younger Martin Amis, among other suitors. She provided for her family with full-time editing jobs (New Statesman, Sunday Times, etc.), part-time freelancing as a literary critic, and her biographies. Her life has also seen tragedy: Her son (“an inspiration to me”) suffers from a lifelong severe physical birth defect as well as learning disabilities, and one of her three daughters committed suicide. At age 60, the author married again, this time to accomplished playwright Michael Frayn.
Gossipy at times, mostly serious about literary life, and always