A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin - review by Valerie Grove

Valerie Grove

Portrait of the Author

A Life of My Own


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Claire Tomalin has uncovered many secrets during her long career as a biographer. She shed light on the life of Dickens’s young mistress, Nelly Ternan, and also revealed the clandestine liaison between the future William IV and the actress Mrs Jordan, who bore him ten children. Now she turns her attention to her own life. What revelations might emerge from a trawl through her own letters and diaries?

The gifted child of warring parents, Claire Delavenay was conceived through the ‘gritted teeth of murderous loathing’, as her French father, Emile, later admitted in his own memoir, regretting his marriage to Muriel Herbert, a composer who had set Yeats and Joyce to music. By the time they separated, Claire had been evacuated from London with the rest of the French Lycée to the Lake District, which inspired poetry. She ended her schooldays at Dartington Hall in Devon. She took a first at Cambridge, where she was something of a femme fatale, pursued by the brightest undergraduates, among them Granta editors Mark Boxer and Karl Miller, and Nick Tomalin, president of the Cambridge Union, whom she eventually married. The BBC, which she hoped to join, took no women trainees in 1954 so she opted for publishing. She got a job at Heinemann, passing the poet James Michie’s looks test with seven out of ten. By 1967 the Tomalins were being caricatured as the String-Alongs in Mark Boxer’s satirical strip cartoon in The Spectator that parodied their north London literary set. 

Since then, Tomalin’s reactions to Kipling’s two impostors, Triumph and Disaster, have required considerable strength of character. Witness three ‘disaster’ episodes that were surely hard to write about, but which are described here vividly and powerfully. In 1970, she was pregnant with her fifth child at the age of thirty-six.

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