Claire Tomalin: ‘My mother always said: ‘However unhappy you are, you can always go into a book’’

Claire Tomalin. Picture: Angus Muir

Claire Tomalin. Picture: Angus Muir - Credit: Archant

Best known for her award-laden biographies, Claire Tomalin turns her unflinching gaze inwards for her memoir A Life of My Own to examine an eventful life that has spanned both triumph and tragedy.

Jacket image A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin

Jacket image A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin - Credit: Archant

Long after wresting with her “complicated subjects” Hardy, Pepys, Jane Austen and Dickens have stayed with Claire Tomalin.

“It sounds ridiculous but you never lose them, they remain part of my life, like family,” says the 84-year-old who speaks at the Ham&High lit fest on Sunday.

Having previously batted off urgings to write a memoir, saying she didn’t know herself well enough, it was Pepys who changed her mind

“The more I thought about my own life the more I thought I had a story to tell. Pepys had a huge influence on me, the way he presented himself so honestly I wanted to describe events as honestly as him.”

Tomalin was born in London in 1933 to a French academic father and English composer Muriel Herbert.

“They both came to London it was the city of their dreams they met and fell in love but their marriage was a total disaster.”

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Her father initially disliked the precocious Tomalin who began writing poetry aged seven, but their relationship improved in later life.

“My father kept every letter I wrote from the age of 11 so I had great raw material. Over the years I have written things down, kept letters and emails old appointment diaries and I have a pretty good memory.”

She got a first at Cambridge where she met “charming but badly behaved” journalist Nick Tomalin. They married in 1955 and raised their five children in Gloucester Crescent Camden Town - despite him conducting a series of affairs.

“Writing this I learned that you think you go through life making your own decisions but when you look back you find often you are being carried along on the wave of what everyone else is doing, like getting married and having children immediately after Cambridge was a post-War thing.

“In the 60s moral, social, medical everything changed and my behaviour also changed.” By which she means that she too had affairs, including one with the much younger Martin Amis.

Tomalin describes a grimly sexist 50s Britain; crying into grey babyclothes while her husband had fun with Cambridge pals, ineligible for the BBC traineeship because she was female, and winning her first lowly publishing job after being rated a 7 out of 10 in looks.

But she had the gumption to battle on, becoming Literary Editor of the New Statesman and Sunday Times: “I was in a world of very bright journalists and writers. I got a lot of support. People believed in me and I did believe in myself. I was also passionately enthusiastic about publishing clever but accessible reviews. I cared about books – my mother always said: ‘however unhappy you are, you can always go into a book.’

There was personal heartache; the death of a baby son at four weeks, the birth of another with spina bifida, the suicide of a grown up daughter, and widowhood when Tomalin was blown up while covering the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

“Every time he ran off with another lady leaving me wondering what to do, I went out and got a better job. His bad behaviour forced me to get on with my life. When when most tragically he was killed I had a lot of practice as a single mother with a profession.”

She had wanted to call the book How It Was and says rather than her usual escape into other lives writing about herself was more “a forcing myself to describe how things were. I wanted to think how it was and write honestly. I had a terrible husband to whom I was devoted and who was the father of my children. For him to be killed was both terrible but it was also an opening up of possibilities. I remember thinking ‘now things are going to be different I am going to be a different person’”

Similarly she has tried to describe “how deeply upsetting it is to lose a baby” and “to tell people what it’s like to bring up a child who is severely disabled. If you haven’t lived through it you can’t begin to understand what it’s like.”

She adds:”You do use the same techniques as for biography, context is very important, to describe what it is like living through the 60s – my father coming over from France gazing in astonishment at girls walking around with their frocks skimming their knickers – we’ve forgotten how surprising that was.

“When I was young you never saw a woman eating alone in a restaurant or a group of young girls eating together without a man or a man pushing a pram.

“Now these are the commonest sights. I have lived through such an extraordinary social change.”

Sunday September 17, 2pm.