Book of the Week: The life of Claire Tomalin, toast of London literati

Marion McLeod reviews a memoir by author Claire Tomalin, who is candid about her affair with Martin Amis but maintains a classic English reserve.

Sixties London. Claire Tomalin is the wife of Nick Tomalin, a brilliant, handsome young journalist and war correspondent. Claire is too modest to say so in her autobiography, but the photos show that she too is extremely attractive. The Tomalins are the 1960s personified: a gilded young couple, dancing at The Establishment, Peter Cook’s new club, or at a party given by Mary Quant.

In 1961 Claire and Nick have three daughters. A son had died shortly after birth; a second would be born later. When Claire goes for a post-natal check, her doctor takes a packet from his desk, leans forward and smiles: “You might like to try this new form of contraception – it’s a pill you take. Very easy to use.” Recalling the moment, Tomalin writes: “A new era had arrived . . . it would change the balance of power between the sexes.”

But the new era wasn’t quite what she expected. “Suddenly I found myself living through the most banal of stories, as the neglected wife of a faithless husband.” Nick has fallen in love with the office beauty. Claire lives and re-lives this scenario. Her husband moves as rapidly from beauty to beauty as he does from newspaper to newspaper.

Claire’s response to her husband’s serial infidelity seems to me amazingly dispassionate and forbearing. Mind you, she’s telling it from five decades out. Now 84, she is happily married to playwright and novelist Michael Frayn.

Nick left and returned, left and returned. It was the 60s. The moral climate was changing fast. The Profumo case hit the headlines. “My behaviour changed too. I could say that Nick’s carryings-on over the past few years had had their effect, but it may be that I simply moved with the times.

Claire Tomalin in the 1960s. Photo from her memoir

Claire’s 30th birthday was just around the corner when she was wooed by “a clever and likeable journalist” and decided “almost on the spur of the moment” to embark on an affair.

Predictably enough, given that Nick was then a gossip columnist, he got wind of this state-of-affairs. Claire was alone in the kitchen when he arrived home. He advanced on her with clenched fists raised to punch her in the face. “I ducked. His blow broke the wooden bar that held the roller towel on the larder door, where I was standing – I have kept it ever since as a reminder.”

The marriage continues. Domesticity occupies most of Claire’s time, though paid work occasionally comes her way – book reviews, reading for a publisher, even a role in a literary television show.

Both work and play involve meeting famous writers, some rather intimidating. “Philip Roth, whom I first met at this time, remarked that I looked like a literary person.” This, Claire understood, was not a compliment.

She was still first and foremost Mrs Nick Tomalin. When Nick was literary editor of the New Statesman in the mid-sixties, Kingsley Martin, the magazine’s former editor, and his wife invited the Tomalins to lunch at their home on the Sussex Downs. Claire recalls a pleasant enough visit. She passed the time watching the birds playing on the bird tables outside the window and took little part in the conversation. ”Afterwards we went on to tea with Leonard Woolf.”

Now there’s nothing inherently funny about that sentence but it made me laugh extravagantly and I quote it as warning. Or enticement. This is a book liberally sprinkled with celebrities, most of them, though not all, scribes. Sprinkled isn’t quite the word Claire Tomalin would use – the prose is dense with literati. Of course it is. When the young Tomalin family moves into a house in Gloucester Crescent, ten minutes from Regent’s Park, their neighbours include Jonathan and Rachel Miller, Freddie Ayers, the philosopher, and Ursula Vaughan Williams, the composer’s widow. George and Diana Melly move into the street shortly afterwards, followed by publishers Colin and Anna Haycraft (Alice Thomas Ellis) and Beryl Bainbridge. And a few years later Alan Bennett.

It’s not name-dropping – just a matter-of-fact account of the ‘hood. And, as Claire Tomalin’s career takes off, the circle extends to her many literary colleagues.

When Philip Roth told Tomalin she looked like a literary person, he clearly foresaw what she was to become: first, literary editor of the New Statesman and the Sunday Times, and then acclaimed author of thorough and thoroughly readable lives: Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley, Katherine Mansfield, Dickens, Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys, Thomas Hardy.

And now a life of her own, a selfie.

Claire Tomalin when literary editor at the London Sunday Times. Photo from her memoir

Tomalin is Anglo- French. She was born Claire Delavenay in 1933 in London, the second daughter of Emile Delavenay, an academic from Savoy in the French Alps, and his wife Muriel Herbert, a composer from Liverpool. Claire found the French name Delavenay very useful: “Having a foreign name . . . gave me a special sort of freedom, because the English could not easily place me.”

Emile and Muriel met in London: both students, both lonely. Marriage made them lonelier still, though their first child Marguerite brought joy to both. Not so Claire. Her mother loved her but her father vehemently rejected her: he had not wanted a second child. “As soon as I was aware of anything I knew my father disliked me. He did his best to make my sister his ally against me. We became a divided family.”

Both parents, as Claire remembers it, existed on the brink of madness. “She made scenes, embarrassed him in front of other people, threw things at him, threatened suicide. Yet, as soon as they were separated, she pulled herself together and behaved with admirable courage and good sense. “

Claire seems remarkably untrammelled by it all. She behaves with admirable courage and good sense through childhood, adolescence, and custody battles. Who knows? Perhaps the early conflict prepared her for drama to come.

Or perhaps it was all that reading. By eight, Claire is at boarding school, a confirmed bookworm: the Brontes, Black Beauty, Dickens, the Golden Treasury. For her 13th birthday she asks her mother for the two-volume Shorter Oxford.

Claire Tomalin aged four. Photo from her memoir

She studied English at Newnham College in Cambridge. She became a good friend of Karl Miller (founder of the London Review of Books) who became co-editor of Granta, then the student newspaper. His co-editor was the charismatic Nick Tomalin. She married him in 1955, for better and for worse. Though she doesn’t quite come out and say it, she should have married Karl Miller, with whom she remained close to for 60 years.

Claire got a First, of course, but nobody suggested she go on to research. Her father booked her into a Secretarial Training College in London. Despite her shiny new shorthand typing, the BBC rejected Claire. They didn’t take women. The next alternative was an interview at Heinemann’s: her father knew one of the directors.

“This was 1955. As I walked through an outer office to the room where Roland Gant, who would be my boss, was sitting, I passed another man. After fifteen minutes’ talk with Roland, this man – he was James Michie, a poet – came silently in and put down a folded piece of paper on Roland’s desk. I thought nothing of it, but later, when we were all friends, they told me that they had agreed that James would give me marks out of ten for my looks. I got seven, just enough to be offered the job as secretary/editorial assistant.”

They were pulling her leg, surely. Apparently not.

Claire was engaged that year, married shortly afterwards, and soon a mother. The family scenes are the warmest in the book, nicely counterbalancing the work life and providing a rhythm to the narrative. Tomalin has practised and perfected this art by writing the lives of others. She knows how to shape.

When she was 36, Claire gave birth to a fifth child, a second son, Tom, who had spina bifida. Claire fell in love with him and his life changed the family for the better as a series of nannies joined the family. One very successful and much-loved “nanny” was a young Chris Reid – the poet Christopher Reid, who in time became Poetry Editor at Fabers.

The Tomalin marriage lasted, in up-and-down fashion, till 1973. But it was death which finally parted Claire and Nick. He was killed by a Syrian missile while reporting on the Yom Kippur war from the Golan Heights. He was 41, just two weeks from his 42nd birthday.

Claire writes frankly of her reactions to Nick’s death. She grieves but she also thinks, “NOW!” (her caps). Now she could start again. Everything was changed. ”I knew I had to make my own working life, and my own independent emotional life.”

Like her mother before her, Claire was resilient and hard-working. A couple of years earlier she had written an article about Mary Wollstonecraft. Publishers had written asking Claire to write a full-length study book of the eighteenth-century feminist who was suddenly fashionable. Tomalin signed with an agent and began research. At full tilt: “I knew I had at last found my vocation.”

This hugely simplified summary of Claire Tomalin’s life leaves out much. There were tragic times. The suicide of a child is discussed with great candour. She deals straightforwardly, too, with various liaisons – her well-known affair with Martin Amis, for instance. “He was twenty-five and I was forty and we surprised one another.” Later, her friendship with Michael Frayn turned to something more, and the couple started living together. “Middle-aged love proved stronger than anything I had known before, and enduring.” It also caused pain for Frayn’s wife and three daughters but his wife was generous – Tomalin stresses this – and slowly the situation was resolved.

I suspect it is much easier to write somebody else’s life than to write one’s own. The research required for a biography may be more time-consuming. But perhaps less complex. Writing of the illustrious dead – of Dickens or Pepys or Jane Austen – obviously allows for detachment. Having done the detective work, the biographer is then free to deduce motivation and emotion.

When you’re writing about yourself, you’re first and foremost mining memory. Tomalin wants to play fair. She wants to be honest, which tends to grow harder with distance. She remains measured and dignified – cool, even. There’s a curious detachment.

I enjoyed Tomalin’s Life (and Tomalin’s life) very much. She writes deft, immensely readable prose. If I have a reservation, it’s very slight and quite unfair. It’s her reticence, that English reticence. I admire it enormously but frequently wish it gone.

A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin (Penguin/Viking, $55) is available at Unity Books.

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