This very good autobiography by one of our great biographers has a truly terrible photograph of herself on the cover. Claire Tomalin looks tired, as if she’s not been looking after herself; she’s irritated and preoccupied, but also patient. This is the face of a woman who had recently been widowed, with four children to earn for, one of whom had spina bifida. This is the face of the Literary Editor of the Sunday Times who was struggling to resist the crass popularising suggestions of the editor that would have meant lowering the review pages’ standards inexorably to suit Rupert Murdoch’s requirements (he’s the only colleague mentioned in her book whom she refers to only by his last name). No wonder she looked dreadful then, compared to the happier and more glowing photographs from her youth, and when she was older. It’s a brilliant choice of cover image, encapsulating the worst of personal times and the peak of her career as a literary journalist.
A Life of My Own is beautifully written, with care and restraint. It eases us past the disturbing parental quarrels and divorce that blighted Claire’s world as a child, and reords without drama the near misses that she floated past in her teenage years and at university. She maintains the serene, almost distancing tone through her happy but difficult first marriage, and the dreadful deaths in her family.
Her family life in Greenwich and then Camden in the 1960s and 1970s describes a lost time when the well-educated middle-classes began populating formerly working-class districts in near-central London, when ‘everyone’ seemed to be a writer or on TV or an artist of one kind or another. It’s familiar from Michael Palin’s diaries, Katherine Whitehorn’s memoirs, Penelope Lively’s London novels, and old copies of Good Housekeeping. Those London middle classes are now the great and the good of television, film, music, literature, journalism.
In the neighbouring bed in the maternity ward of a south London hospital where Claire had one of her children in the 1960s, was a very young woman from the upper classes whose baby had already been taken away for adoption: she’d gone to that hospital because no-one from her world would ever see her there, only 40 miles away from Kensington or Mayfair. Claire had assured her first London newspaper employer that she was neither rich nor posh, but these epithets are relative: she’s both now, rich in her membership of the cultural Establishment, and privileged in her background and her experiences.
But once stability and happiness came back to Claire’s life, as something she could rely on, her narrative style loses its careful shaping, and becomes almost perfunctory. Lists of meetings, lunches, committees, parties, visits, people begin to take over the pages, as if she was transcribing her engagement diary. Perhaps her more recent past needs more absorbtion before it can be written about as clearly and serenely as she managed for her first fifty years.
I liked this book very much, for the story of her life, and the stories of how Claire became a biographer, how she tackled her subjects and how she saw the stories that no-one seemed to have spotted.