Hilary Spurling

True grit | 14 September 2017

A Life of My Own chronicles a highly successful literary life

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.

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