As literary editor of the Sunday Times in the early 1980s, when the rest of the editorial staff routinely papered their offices with mildly erotic female images, Claire Tomalin stuck up pictures of sexy men: ‘Some found it hard to believe I could do anything so shocking.’
Double standards, casual sexism and blanket prejudice were normal at the time, even on a relatively civilised national paper. I know because I had the same job a few years earlier at The Spectator. Men ran the world and women answered the phone. Claire had come down from Cambridge with a first in 1955, but the BBC refused her a job on the grounds that it did not employ female graduates. Her father paid for her to learn shorthand and typing instead, but she got her first job as secretary to a publishing house only after the male editors had vetted her looks (her score was 7 out of 10).
This is a cool, level-headed, unsensational account of a ground-breaking career that clearly owed much to remarkable parents. Claire’s mother, Muriel Herbert, had already built a considerable reputation as a composer when she married, in 1926, Emile Delavenay, a much younger French student who abandoned his studies for her sake. ‘I see my young father advancing towards a fate that will change his prospects and character, driving him close to madness,’ she writes of her parents’ marriage. It was already headed for disaster by the time she was born six years later.
In practice, Claire was brought up by her mother, a single parent struggling to hold down a job and fight off divorce proceedings, scandalous in themselves, and exacerbated in this case by the husband’s allegations that his wife was insane. The taint of divorce hung over Claire and her elder sister, making them seem ‘corrupted, and possibly corrupting, influences’ to their contemporaries at boarding school. Claire responded by adopting a tree in the grounds: ‘I decided that trees were like mothers, and this one was to be mine.’
By the age of 21 she was married herself to a glamorous, ambitious and highly successful gossip columnist, Nick Tomalin, whose career as a foreign correspondent was about to take off. Claire had four babies in five years. ‘My role now was the boring suburban wife with too many children who held him back.’ Fatherhood for Nick meant entertaining his little daughters by giving them rides on his motorbike, or waltzing his car from side to side with them in the back. He spent less and less time at home.
He saw no reason why marriage should restrict his travels, or his passionate affairs with other women, although his response, when his wife took a lover of her own, was to beat her up. In 1968 he started divorce proceedings, as his father-in-law had done before him. Claire earned some sort of living as chief reader for the publisher Jonathan Cape. She also reviewed books for the Observer, whose proprietor, David Astor, rejected her request for a more permanent job on the grounds that it was her duty to stay at home and look after her children.
In the end the Tomalins patched up their marriage, Nick moved back into the family house near Regent’s Park, and they celebrated with a new baby. Tom Tomalin was born with spina bifida, a condition not much talked about in an era when children who had it were still commonly kept in the dark, or parked out of sight in institutions. Claire was 36 years old. Another boy, born almost a decade earlier, had died in infancy. Her commitment to this second son was absolute: ‘When the situation is uncertain, precarious, threatening, the love grows fiercer.’
In 1973 Nick flew off to report for the Sunday Times on the Israeli war, and was killed by a Syrian missile on the Golan Heights, leaving his wife as a single parent with three teenage daughters and a severely disabled three-year-old son. Claire became literary editor of the New Statesman, moving on in the late 1970s to run the Sunday Times’s books pages. She was a bold, decisive and discriminating editor. The alter ego invented for her by Clive James — Clara Tomahawk — reflects the ambivalence of her male contemporaries.
The year after Nick died, she published a life of the radical 18th-century feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, exploring a sensibility in some ways not unlike her own. ‘Those who loved her usually had reason to be a little afraid of her,’ said the publisher’s blurb, summing up the author perhaps as much as her subject. The book was perfectly timed, confronting the historical origins of feminism as a fresh surge of energy and power galvanised the movement.
‘It changed everything for me,’ Tomalin writes, describing the strange, symbiotic, sometimes disturbing relationship between a biographer and the life he or she attempts to possess: ‘I now had a purpose and a field to explore… biography demands wide-ranging research and precise thinking… I was intensely happy.’ Work gave her the courage and will to withstand crushing pressures at home. Gritty and determined as his mother, her son grew up against all the odds to lead an active and independent life. The casualty in their family was the middle daughter, Susanna, whose struggle with the demons of self-doubt and depression ended in suicide midway through her time at university.
The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft was the first of a series of searching, humane and perceptive lives that put Tomalin for the next 40 years at the forefront of what is generally agreed to have been a golden age for biography. In some sense, presumably, these steadily more ambitious lives — of Katherine Mansfield, Jane Austen, Pepys, Hardy and Dickens — fed off her own life, enriched by deepening emotional as well as historical understanding.
The first two thirds of this memoir constitute a dramatic and absorbing survivor’s tale. In the last part, as the author approaches the present and settles into a highly successful partnership with her fellow writer, Michael Frayn, her narrative becomes correspondingly scrappier, more reticent and perhaps inevitably more superficial. Tomalin has, as she says, fought through life on two fronts — ‘taking a traditional female role and also seeking male privileges’ — and she paid a price that later generations treading a smoother path should not underestimate.
Editor's Note: The above was amended to remove the claim that David Astor was involved in the Profumo scandal. Apologies: we got our Astors muddled.