In 2013, to celebrate and encourage others to discover the work of Claire Tomalin, one of our most accomplished British biographers, I will be reading and blogging about all ten of her landmark books. This post will become the hub of my reviews and musings on these books.
Born in 1933 as Claire Delavenay, she went to Newnham College, Cambridge when she’d just turned eighteen. She gained a First, married a journalist, Nick Tomalin, and juggled early motherhood with reading for publishers and reviewing. She went on to become the deputy literary editor at the New Statesman and then later the literary editor. After Nick’s death while working as a war correspondent she was persuaded to become the literary editor of The Sunday Times for six years and juggled this role with writing biographies. In her editorial roles she encouraged and employed writers such as Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Clive James, Victoria Glendinning, Anita Brookner and Alison Lurie.
After quitting her job as editor in 1986 she focused solely on writing full time.
She is now married to the author and playwright Michael Frayn. In 2003 they were both shortlisted for the Whitbread Book Award (now called the Costa prize) – Frayn for his novel, Spies, and Tomalin for her book on Pepys, The Unequalled Self. Tomalin won but apparently there was little rivalry between the pair – they were just delighted by the increase in sales of both books.
Tomalin has received and been shortlisted for numerous prestigious prizes and is widely respected for the detail and care that goes into her research and writing, often over several years. She announced shortly after her 2011 book on Charles Dickens was released that it would be her last biography. It had taken her five years to complete and as she is now in her eighties she wants to spend her remaining years concentrating on her family and reading other people’s books.
Tomalin’s books initially focused on women who had been overlooked or somehow marginalised by history – Wollstonecraft, Mansfield, a teenage mistress of Dickens, Mrs Jordan – and Shelley who was rather unfashionable at the time.
From 1997 and her work on Jane Austen onwards, Tomalin has shifted focus to re-examine more famous authors – Austen, Pepys, Hardy and Dickens – and set them in a more closely researched, less hallowed context. For example, her description of Pepys is far more nuanced and (although scrupulously fair) critical than almost all earlier works on him.
Links will be added to my reviews as they are posted.
1974 – The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft
1980 – Shelley and His World
1987 – Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life
1990 – The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens
1994 – Mrs. Jordan’s Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King
1997 – Jane Austen: A Life
1999 – Several Strangers: writing from three decades
2002 – Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self
2006 – Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man
2011 – Charles Dickens: A Life
I imagine that over the space of the year I will write more about Tomalin’s work and subjects, links to these extra posts will appear here:
Links to interviews, interesting snippets and other background reading will appear here: