Book Review: Claire Tomalin: A Life Of My Own






Emily Speaking:

I feel a little silly writing this review, seeing as this book was written by Claire Tomalin, the former literary editor of the New Statesman and the Sunday Times. No biggie. Having read several of Tomalin's historical biographies, I thought it was about time to read about the author herself. Now, I won't go into the finer details and the ins and outs of this autobiography, but I wanted to share my admiration for this incredible memoir.


I have never seen a life so entwined with literature. (I hope my life will one day be this entangled with delicious books). The amount of authors she has met and become friends with is truly remarkable. She's talked with Virginia Woolf's pals and dined with every notable editor in the land. Another of her friends was the author J. G. Ballard before his famous (and rather disturbing) novel. She even lived on the same street as Allan Bennett where the famous 'The Lady in the Van' debacle unfolded. Further, her street was home to creatives of all kinds, a true bohemian delight.


"Among our neighbours, Colin and Anna Haycraft were great publishers and party-givers, filling their house with philosophers, historians, poets and novelists. David Gentleman became a dear and admired friend. Beryl Bainbridge arrived, and a few years later Alan Bennett."

I fully believe that when written down, all lives are interesting and Tomalin proves this. She writes about her childhood with such refreshing positivity that I wanted to read more and more. It's rare these days for a person to be grateful for their upbringing - and grateful even amidst all the hardships she very clearly faced.


Tomalin's life has been filled with death, tragedy, and sadness but again, her memories are not terribly depressing or overly sombre; instead, they are overflowing with a humble thankfulness. Whether it is through the gift of hindsight or not, Tomalin seems to learn from her hardships rather than dwell on them and become bitter. When her marriage starts to break down, she doesn't seem to blame her husband (and his many many faults) but she acknowledges that he needed more appreciation and praise than she was able to give. She realises that purely on a human level, they were not compatible, or at least never destined for a harmonious marriage. When her first husband dies (no spoilers, it's literally written on the blurb) she does not glorify him as we tend to do with the dead but recognises his faults and strengths simultaneously. Although I knew this death was coming, the final pages of his life were hard to read. The final moments with his family were so beautifully written, that I, a stranger, found myself tearing up when I heard the news. But, like her own mother, Tomalin fearlessly begins to build a life of her own, filled with family, duty, meaning, and literature.


"What did this NOW mean? That I was released from a contract. That from now on I was in sole charge of my own life, of my four children, each of whom needed me in a different way; and of the house, and all of the daily, weekly, yearly decisions that have to be made. That I was to start again and live as I chose - not only could but must start again, and choose and make my own life. That everything was changed. That I was already standing alone, and not afraid."

Another thing I love about Tomalin is that her journey of writing biographies began in her 40's. As Rilke once said, "You are not too old and it is not too late." Now, I am in no way near suggesting that being 40 is old, but in this day and age, you are pressed to find your lifetime 'career' by the age of 14 when you pick your GCSE's. Tomalin reminds us again and again that life and particularly careers are very rarely linear. And if you have enough determination to do something, go and do it! Her earnestness in her research for the biographies is inspiring. Pages upon pages of written research, followed by actually travelling to where these historical figures lived, helped her to paint a more accurate picture of these famous individuals. The next time I read a Claire Tomalin biography, I will have a much better appreciation of the sheer amount of blood sweat, and tears that go into her work. I am in awe of this remarkable woman, and I hope to take away some of her tenacity and diligence in my own day to day life and work.


"After the funeral we returned to the flat for food and drink. The youngest children of the party, four great-grandsons, took themselves into the biggest bedroom to play. When I looked in to make sure they were happy, I saw a wonderful sight: all four of them jumping up and down energetically on the bed in which he had died, and where the coffin had been lying a few hours earlier. It was a perfect moment, as life reasserted itself with the unstoppable force of the young."

I give this book 5 Emily Stars!



Peace out pals,

Em x






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