A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin

This evening I went to Blackwells to hear Claire Tomalin talk about her latest book, and it reminded me that I have yet to write about it. So… well, I suspect you’ve worked the rest out for yourself. Here we are, and here we go.

Since I moved house, I’ve had to start driving to work. Driving for about 40 minutes and walking for half an hour, actually, which has given me an awful lot more time for audiobooks and the like. I already listen to a lot of podcasts, but this has spurred me on to trying audiobooks more actively – starting, because why not, with Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own (2017).

I say ‘why not’ – I can actually give a pretty good reason why. I’d signed up for a trial with audiobooks.com because I wanted to hear The Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero. And it turns out that the recording was only available in North America. Doh! (I have subsequently been given and have read the book – watch this space.) So I had a credit to use… and my first thought was: who would I want reading to me in the car? The answer, naturally, was Penelope Wilton. And when A Life of My Own came up in the search results, I remembered that I’d been keen to read it. I might talk more about the crooked path of audiobook selection another day…

I’ve only read two of Tomalin’s many biographies – on Jane Austen and Katherine Mansfield – and, other than knowing about some of her titles (and the fact that she’s gone for enormous, much-biographied names like Hardy and Dickens), didn’t really know anything else about her. Oh, except that she is married to Michael Frayn, and is the grandmother (or, as it turned out, step-grandmother) of twins who used to run a YouTube channel, called Jack and Finn. It was quite fun going into an autobiography ‘blind’, as it were.

The problem with audiobooks, of course, is that I don’t have any quotations to share, and I can’t flick back through to see what I wanted to write about. But I do recall that she starts by talking about her parents – which I almost invariably wish any biographer would skip, since I’m not that interested. With an autobiographer, it is a least coloured with a real human connection – whatever the opposite of ‘dispassionate’ is (because ‘passionate’ doesn’t feel quite right – and it’s with genuine emotion that Tomalin describes her mother’s musical genius, her parents’ hasty courtship, and the bizarre honeymoon she learned about properly from her father’s latterday memoir, during which it became more or less clear that the marriage was a mistake.

Tomalin has a great gift, in this autobiography, for describing people and her relationship with them with complete honesty which is subjective (for how it could not be) yet never feels unfair. She writes about how her father disliked her, and it seems like the scrupulously just conclusions of somebody who was weighed the evidence properly. She has an emotional response to this, but the description is arrived at honestly. The same is seen in her marriage to Nick Tomalin – a man who the reader (or listener) cannot help intensely disliking, given his violence and selfishness, and his many affairs, but Tomalin has no bitterness – she tells us what happened and how it affected her, but clearly still loved him in some way, and excellently portrays the complex emotions and feelings she has towards his memory.

I wanted to read A Life of My Own because I thought it would be fascinating to learn about the craft of writing biographies. My main criticism of the book is what a small part this plays – almost all her books are tidied away discretely and discreetly into a single chapter, and I would have loved to hear more. As some form of compromise offering, there is plenty to fascinate in descriptions of her rise as a literary editor at the New Statesman and the Sunday Times (and the sexism she faced – not least in her supremely unqualified husband having the job before she did).

But Tomalin’s own life is so full and so expertly shown to us that it is certainly an acceptable substitute. As well as describing her upbringing, schooling, and marriage, she writes brilliantly about parenthood – the highs and the very low lows. I don’t know how she managed to write about her daughter’s suicide attempts, which ended with a successful one, but she did so extraordinarily movingly – and writes astonishingly about loving somebody with inescapable depression. Unsurprisingly, this period of Tomalin’s life was not discussed at the event I attended, but it is done with bravery and, yes, honesty in A Life of My Own.

It is such moments that show, I think, Tomalin’s skill as a biographer coming through. She knows that she cannot shirk periods like this if she is to portray her whole life – and something of the biographer’s objectivity weaves its way constantly through the subjectivity. It is deftly handled throughout.

Perhaps almost any life is fascinating, if written about well, and Tomalin’s indisputably is. And to her, I suppose, her success as a biographer is of less interest than her family, so it makes sense that she writes so much better and so much more about that. Go into the book with the right expectations, and I predict you’ll find it brilliant. And if Penelope Wilton is reading it to you, so much the better.


Making Humans

I don’t read Science Fiction, but I think it’s true to say that a lot of it is about making humans. Or creating beings as near as possible to humans – whether robots, or anthropomorphised objects and animals, and so forth. Even games companies are intent on making dolls as much like humans as possible. Don’t they realise that literature is several steps ahead?

I’ve just finished reading Claire Tomalin’s Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life, which has been languishing on my shelves for a few years. Having blogged about short stories the other day, I thought I’d go back and read about the woman behind some of my favourites – and while doing it, I started pondering the whole sphere of biographies. They’re a strange commodity, aren’t they? A writer is given three hundred pages to package up an entire life… what a feat. And what a liberty. Tomalin can be on safe ground when listing the dates of publications, names of relatives etc. etc., but then you get something like this:
“Although Katherine and Murry often presented their relationship as the most important element in both their lives – and it did absorb a huge amount of their energy – there is a sense in which neither sought true understanding of the other. For each of them, the other became a symbolic figure very early on: she the good, suffering, spontaneous genius, he the ideally beautiful scholar-lover without whom neither life nor death could be properly contemplated.”
Sorry, a bit of a long quotation there, potentially breaking all sorts of copyright laws. It was reading this section that made me think “hold up, what?” Tomalin is a very good, sensible writer, on the whole, but strident sentences like this one seem so difficult to justify. How do we know? Even with letters and diaries and the memories of friends, this sort of confessional psychoanalysis could only ring remotely true if it were in the mouth of Mansfield or Murray. And yet it is routine for biographies to depict relationships and mindsets in detail which must be subjective and conjectural.

I don’t have a problem with this sort of biography-writing – there doesn’t seem to be any other sort – but it did make me think, and I thought I’d share my ponderings, and see what people think. With scientists trying to make life, are biographers doing it better, or simply wishing they were?

And onto Tomalin’s Katherine Mansfield, more specifically. As I said, Tomalin is a very competent writer – but I felt the book was quite hollow, in the end. Not in the sense of vacuous, but that Mansfield continually avoided the spotlight. I finished the book without really getting to grips with Mansfield’s personality, though the opinions of all around her were quite vivid, and the biography is perfectly readable. She didn’t seem particularly pleasant, which was sad, but… even so, the big gap in the biography was often the subject herself. Mansfield remained elusive. Which kind of negates everything I wrote above… but surely not Tomalin’s aim?

One final note. You might remember my wish to get the ‘right’ postcard bookmark for each book – for this one, I chose Edward Hopper’s ‘Hotel Room’ (1931)