Claire Tomalin narrates her story with a prototypically English stiff upper lip, and a reticence about the personal.
A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin. Penguin Press, 334 pages, $17.70.
By Helen Epstein
Before the 21st century established the memoir as a popular literary form, thousands of people who did not view themselves primarily as writers wrote “memoirs” in their retirement. These works are typically long, loose recollections of military, political, scientific, artistic or sexual careers that interpret significant events from the author’s point of view, feature cameos of famous personalities and pepper the narrative with lots of gossip. The Memoirs of Giacomo Casanova come to mind, or The Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, or Emma Goldman’s Living My Life. Contemporary literary memoir has more psychological depth, is usually more skillfully crafted, and often focuses on one event or theme. We have come to expect the kind of intensity and artful structure from memoir that one expects from works of fiction.
Claire Tomalin, the 85-year-old British literary editor and esteemed biographer of Samuel Pepys, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Mary Wollstonecraft, might have been expected to write a contemporary memoir. Instead, A Life of My Own reads like a throwback to the earlier “memoirs” form. “Writing about myself has not been easy,” she begins her book. “I set out to describe as best I could my experience of the world, how it was for a European girl growing up in mid-twentieth century England, how I got my education, how I made friends and related to different families who were good to me, how I was carried along by conflicting desires to have children and a worthwhile working life; and how long it took me to get going with the work I most enjoy and value: researching and writing historical biographies.”
Claire was born to a highly educated and unhappy couple. Her father, Emile Delavenay, raised in southeastern France, was quickly tracked into the French elite education system, and wound up studying in London. Her mother, Muriel Herbert, was a rare female composer, graduate of the Royal College of Music. They married in 1928 and soon had a daughter who is an elusive presence in the memoir. By the time Tomalin was born in 1933, the marriage was falling apart. The parents formally separated in 1941 after Emile began an affair with his secretary and, in Tomalin’s account, her mother and father never spoke to one another again. Claire grew up shuttling not only between embittered parents but between cultures.
Tomalin is allusive rather than explicit about most of this. It’s soon apparent that she will narrate her story with a prototypically English stiff upper lip, and a reticence about the personal. That may be refreshing in our time of Too Much Information, but robs her memoir of feeling as well as deep insight.
She drops many names of literary people and places, but characterizes them only superficially. and provides minimal cultural context. That’s odd for any biographer but particularly for Tomalin since the contexts in which she lived out her life are dramatic. She grew up in a single-parent household in the ’30s when divorce was rare. She was one of the children evacuated from London during the war and was sent to a series of British schools of the ’40s, ending with the progressive Dartington Hall. She attended Cambridge University in the ’50s, just before Sylvia Plath.
The deepest insight Tomalin provides to her early life and to her writing style may be, “My mother told me early that whatever happens to you, however unhappy you may be, you can escape into a book.”
At Newnham College, one of two women’s colleges at Cambridge, she describes her tutors as “all women, scholars and lovers of literature, serious, formidable and thoughtful” and the shock of her encounter with the erotic poetry – license my roving hands and let them go before, behind, between, above, below — of John Donne. “Donne set down what young men feel and want,” she writes. “Perhaps our unmarried tutors thought we should know about this as we entered a social world in which there were ten young men to each one of us – that is how it was in Cambridge in 1951…The young men were reading Donne too, and could and did quote him to us.”
Claire dated and enjoyed the company of several of these young men but chose to marry Nicholas Tomalin. In a sentence typical of her style, she writes, “We were young and carefree and somehow I allowed him into my bed one afternoon.” And, “In our postwar generation early marriages were the norm, and, although we thought we were making our own decisions, we were swimming with a powerful tide. Nick was lovable, a charming wooer, full of ideas and plans: I let myself be carried along, although I knew there was something missing.” She was 21; he was 23; they got engaged.
Their first daughter was born in 1956. “Learning to look after a baby brought the usual problems, not only sleepless nights but the realization that the total dependence of a small creature means you are no longer free to go where you please or do as you like. My diary notes some low spirits. In spite of this I was so enchanted with Josephine that I decided I must give her a companion as soon as possible.”
Tomalin continues in this light, semi-detached, entertaining vein as she gives birth to three more children, including a son born with spinal bifida; tolerates her husband’s infidelities and domestic abuse for years; and loses one of her daughters to successive depressions culminating in suicide. Her marriage finally ends when her journalist husband is killed by a Syrian missile while on assignment in Israel in 1973. She continues earning her living as an editor, takes a series of lovers, and eventually settles down with her second husband, the playwright and novelist Michael Frayn. She mostly leaves it to the reader to imagine her feelings about any of these events, just as when she describes receiving a “First” on university exams and her father arranging for her to continue her studies at a secretarial training college. She had wanted to be a poet, Tomalin writes, but she stopped writing “very sensibly, given that Sylva Plath was about to arrive in Cambridge.”
Really? There are doubtless anglophile readers who will find Tomalin’s tone charmingly dry, witty, and tastefully understated.
I found it frustrating.
A Life of My Own interested me most when Tomalin betrayed some degree of emotion, as she does when describing her work as an editor and biographer. She published her first book, on Mary Wollstonecraft, when she was in her early 40s but it was not until she was was 53 that she left journalism to spend the next 30 years as a writer – what she cites as the best time of her professional life.
Her subjects are an interesting literary group: Katherine Mansfield, Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys, Thomas Hardy, and Charles Dickens. It’s a pity that she doesn’t devote more space to discussing her choices and how she went about her research:
Working on a biography means you are obsessed with one person and one period for several years. You have looked into the context of their lives in every aspect, examined their family beliefs, their tastes, their eccentricities, their friends and enemies, their ambitions, achievements and failures, their quirks and mysteries, their betrayals and unhappiness, their political allegiances, their medical histories, their finances, their children, their reputations both in life and posthumous. You will have been surprised by them, maybe disappointed, amused, amazed. Your interest is so strong it can be called a passion.
I would have liked to have seen that kind of passion in A Life of My Own.