Claire Tomalin was born in 1933 and educated at Dartington Hall and Newham College, Cambridge.
After several years as a publishers’ reader she began working as assistant literary editor for the New Statesman in 1967. She was literary editor from 1974 to 1977 and held the same post at the Sunday Times from 1979 to 1986.
Her books include The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, which won the Whitbread First Book Prize in 1974; The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, which won the Hawthornden Prize and James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography; and Jane Austen: A Life (1997). Her anthology of writing from three decades, Several Strangers, was published in 1999 and, most recently, her acclaimed Charles Dickens: A Life in 2011.
I interviewed her in February 2000. I was very moved by our encounter for I considered her to be a brilliant academic, an engaging literary powerhouse whose courage and fortitude almost left me speechless.
Your father was French and your mother English…what effect did this have on you and your sister?
I think it gave me an advantage in life because I was born in 1933, a time when everybody was somehow ‘placed’ in English society. Since I had a French name which nobody could pronounce it, this meant that nobody knew where I came from. When I was at Cambridge and when I started my career, I was somehow outside the divisions of English society. I liked that; it meant being free.
Do you feel totally English, or not quite?
I think I do feel completely English, partly because the English language has meant so much to me. I started writing poetry in English when I was about seven years old, and Shakespeare was my favourite author by the time I was twelve. I’ve never written poetry in French and I’ve never married a Frenchman either. But I love French, and had I not got into Cambridge I would probably have gone to university in France, and I expect I would then have become French.
I read an article about your childhood in which you describe the happiness of your first years before you moved to Kensington, after which you say your parents were never so happy again. They eventually divorced…how traumatic was this for you and your sister?
Very traumatic, although in fact my parents never got on. The marriage was viewed as a mistake, particularly by my father. He thought that the marriage was doomed, and this had the curious effect of making me feel for a great many years that my father didn’t like me very much. One of the great blessings of my life has been that as my father has lived on we have become very close. When my first husband was killed my father and my stepmother were magnificent, and they took upon themselves a responsibility towards the children. My father, seeing that my children had lost their father, became a very good grandfather to them. The people we love most in our lives are the people who love our children; this is a very strong bond.
You describe your mother as having been ‘obsessively unforgiving’. What did this entail? Did it mean you were denied contact with your father?
There was a period when we had very little contact with my father, because my mother was very bitter. But she was also a wonderful mother to me – she introduced me to the English poets, she encouraged me, she believed in me. She was also a considerable artist herself, and I do feel that in some sense she sacrificed the pursuit of her art to being a good mother. I owe her a great deal. She was the sort of mother Freud writes about – as a child you feel you are the most loved creature and you know life will never defeat you entirely.
But when you say she was ‘obsessively unforgiving’…
I don’t remember saying that, though I don’t doubt that I did say it. No, she never recovered. In that it was in some way your fault, and the anger and bitterness were connected with that.
In fact, later, when your own marriage was in difficulties, your mother said that a failed marriage was always a woman’s fault. Had she come to believe this or was it simply intended as a rebuke to you?
It was part of her culture, it belonged to that world of women. She had a lot of close friends, all of whom were very sympathetic and indignant about the bad behaviour of my father. It was part of their ethos, that somehow a woman ought to be able to manage a man. They didn’t see that sometimes marriages fail.
As an adult did you come to understand your mother’s feelings in a way in which you were not able to as a child?
I think my sister and I both understood them at the time; we were both passionately sympathetic. As we got older I suppose we felt that sometimes things have to be put behind you, that you can’t go on cherishing the quarrel or the grievance for ever. When my first marriage was in difficulties, I went through a period of thinking that perhaps I was re-enacting all those horrors of my parents’ lives. But I quickly realized that I was not, that I was living my own life and that I didn’t have to go through all the same things again.
At sixteen you became rebellious and didn’t want to live with your mother any more, and so you were sent to Dartington Hall. Was it a success? Did you fit in well to that progressive school?
I am extremely grateful to Dartington Hall. It was in a beautiful part of Devonshire, and it was a privilege to be given very good teaching and to find oneself amidst tolerant people, both the other children and the teachers. The headmaster was a wise man, wise in more ways than I realised at the time. I was very happy there and a lot of pressures were taken off me.
The ‘several strangers’ in the title of your latest book refer to yourself at three different stages of your life. You quote Jane Austen’s belief that ‘seven years are enough to change every pore of one’s skin and every feeling of one’s mind’. Of course, as we get older, our attitudes may change, but do we really look back and see a stranger? And then another stranger?
I do see different people. For example, the girl who went up to Cambridge was very brash and callow, and simultaneously very pleased with herself, not very confident, yet wanting to conquer the world. All those things get knocked out of you by life, and I suspect if the person I am now met the person I was then I might not like her very much. I still shudder when I remember some of my attitudes. Girls of my generation very easily became snobbish, and in a sense you were encouraged to look for high-achieving young men. And we were very spoilt in one sense when I was at Cambridge. There were ten men to every young woman, so we were much in demand, we were like little princesses.
When we talk about people changing, I suppose it is a question of degree. We can all look back and see our lives at different stages and know that those stages are in the past, but doesn’t something about us remain essentially the same, something right at the centre of our being?
It may be so. However, one way in which one changes utterly as a woman – I can’t speak for men – is when one is seized by what Bernard Shaw calls the life force. My instinct to have children became the strongest thing in me, and I was absolutely devoured by the need to have children. I sort of held it off when I was at Cambridge and took my degree. I no longer have that impulse, and I really think that I was somebody different then, and that I could not fight against it. There was that whole business of marrying young – and most of our generation did and we all thought we were making individual choices, that we were doing something we ourselves had planned and thought about. But if one looks back at it, I think we were all simply carried along by this overwhelming urge.
And that’s how you see your younger self?
Well, I am now chastened by life, so I look back at that young woman and I feel sorry for her in some ways, and in other ways she’s mysterious to me. I don’t entirely understand what was going on. People say to me, you must have been pretty ambitious, but I don’t remember being ambitious at all.
You graduated from Cambridge in 1954 and the following year you married Nick Tomlain. Did you have it in mind at the time to have your own career or was it enough at that stage to be married and have children?
I had always assumed that I would work – my mother had worked, my French aunt had worked, my French grandmother had worked, so I had plenty of models. I thought that what you did as a woman is that you tried to have work which you could fit in with bringing up your children, and that’s what I did. I was fortunate in having the job in publishing since I was literally able to breast-feed my babies while reading a manuscript. That worked pretty well but I had no real aspirations. One of the rather odd things was that women were not more encouraged when we got towards the end of our time at Cambridge to go out and conquer the world. There was the feeling that probably we were going to get married and not do very much; we might become schoolteachers, or civil servants, but I don’t remember any encouragement to aim high.
You and your husband both wanted to have six children, and in fact you had five. Why so many hostages to fortune? Did that aspect of parenthood never occur to you?
No, we just had this vision of a wonderful, happy family life, children playing string quartets, a very romantic vision, not an impossible one, of course. I think it is rather sad nowadays that people on the whole, rightly, feel that they mustn’t have large families. There is something a bit sad about being an only child. I do remember Nick’s uncle questioning why we were having all these children and wondering how we would afford it. But we were young, and we didn’t think about that. I suppose I slightly thought God would provide somehow, and that if you have the children they will make their way.
That is the Catholic idea, that God will provide…
Well, I’m not a Catholic, I’m not even a Christian. We just use the phrases of Christianity because they are woven into our language and our culture.
In 1973 your husband Nick was killed while reporting on the Golan Heights. By that stage in your marriage he had become what you call a ‘bolter’, and although you grieved for him, you also felt a sense of release and freedom. I wonder if you found the conflict of emotions arising from his death almost more difficult to deal with than the death itself?
I felt and still feel deep grief. It was terrible for him to die as he did. We all loved him, our children, his parents and my parents – there was a community of grief. I didn’t want to claim more sympathy than I felt I should have – that was the problem. Our marriage really was on the rocks by then, and it hadn’t been a good marriage. The position of widows is always one that receives a great deal of sympathy and attention. I felt grateful for that, but it was also slightly worrying given what our marriage was at that point. It was just difficult for me to sort out the various strands: here was a terrific man, a man of huge promise, who had been foully killed. He was also greatly loved and indeed I myself loved him, but no longer in the way I had loved him.
You say somewhere: ‘To all intents and purposes he had left me already.’ Had the grieving already been done in a sense?
The grieving for the loss of the dream of the young marriage had happened a very long time before, yes, but I had come to terms with that. I was very starry-eyed when I got married; I really believed that we would always be together, although I fairly quickly was made to see that that wasn’t Nick’s dream. I think I realized even then, and now with hindsight even more, that he had experienced an extremely difficult upbringing and a very disordered childhood, and that part of what he was playing out was the result of what had happened to him as a little boy. When you get to be old you can forgive practically anything, because if you look back far enough you can see perhaps where it comes from.
Would you consider yourself a romantic by nature?
I have a certain element of romanticism, yes, I’m afraid I have, but I try to keep it under control. I can remember quite consciously arriving at a decision at some point in my forties that, charming as it is to embark on love affairs with people you find delightful, it’s better not to, because you probably will wreck a friendship, or worse. If you are a single woman in society you probably ought just to watch the way you behave.
One can only guess at the grief that you have had to endure as a mother: a baby son who died, a beloved daughter who suffered from depression and took her own life, and Tom born with spina bifida and paralysed. Did you ever feel singled out? That the gods were against you?
Yes, very much so. And of course you blame yourself if things go badly wrong. For somebody who was a passionate mother and who longed to have many children, it was very difficult when my children had such difficulties. But again, these things are arbitrary, and it is very fruitless to sit, like Niobe, and weep. You must get on with life. It helps that my son Tom, who will be thirty this year, has never repined, never complained. He has shown such extraordinary courage and willpower that he is a great lesson to me, and I have learned from him that you mustn’t give up, you mustn’t sit down and feel sorry for yourself. It is easier for me to say that than it is for him, since I can get up and walk out of the room, whereas he can’t; and yet he does, as it were. He travels, he does things, everything he makes up his mind to do.
Your mother was a Christian Scientist, a religion which demands strength and self-reliance. Did your upbringing with her, even if you were not a Christian Scientist, help to breed these qualities in you?
I have to say I think Christian Scientist is a ridiculous religion but I am quite grateful to have been brought up by somebody who made light of physical pains and ailments. My mother, as it happened, had stalwart health and was never ill, and I have pretty good health too. The good thing, I suppose, that I have taken from my mother is that I don’t fuss much about medical problems.
Do you have any religious faith? What has enabled you to remain apparently unbroken by so much tragedy, do you think?
Do I have religious faith? No. I am a humanist like my father before me and I think his parents before him – it may be genetic. I intensely love a lot of Christian art, the King James version of the Bible, the cathedrals of Europe, the poetry of George Herbert. Indeed, there was a very brief period when I was at Cambridge when I flirted with Christianity because I was so entranced by Herbert. But then I moved on to the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment, and I abandoned it again and I have never returned to it. I just lack any sense of what is going on really in the Christian myth. I see its power as a myth, I understand the power of the stories. But I find the whole thing of God’s bargain, Christ dying for us, incomprehensible, and I think the effect of religion on the world has been almost always to make people cruel, intolerant and beastly.
Have you come to believe that the human spirit somehow manages to bear whatever is asked of it?
Alas, that is obviously not true. People go mad, people find what they are asked to bear too much. I think there is a tremendous amount of luck of the draw in what you are born with, what is chemically going on in your brain. Life is random and unfair. It is extraordinarily lucky in terms of life expectancy and education and comfort to be born in England in the mid-twentieth century. Most human beings endure terrible lives and have done throughout most of human history.
Do you believe in fate?
No, I don’t believe in fate. I believe in arbitrary misfortune. I might walk out of this building and somebody on a building site might drop a brick on my head. You might want to call that fate, but I would say it was just chance; and chance is not the same as fate. I think we all try to shape our lives, and we all try to see the shape of our lives. As a biographer I am very interested in this, and I certainly believe as we get older that we wish to construct some shape out of our own lives and make some sense of it. This is one of the very interesting things that people have been doing in the last few hundred years, taking their own lives as some kind of raw material for art or making narrative out of their lives.
Your son’s life was saved at birth by an operation and you have sometimes wondered, given his years of difficulty, if you should have given consent to it. Have you asked Tom how he feels about that decision?
We have talked about it. I suppose what I felt was that I wasn’t actually given the true picture. I had never heard of spina bifida at that point. As soon as he was born I was told he could have his back closed in an operation, and if there was no operation he might be worse off and get more damage to the spinal column. I naturally gave permission to operate, but a year later the neurosurgeon said to me that Tom would certainly have died if we hadn’t done the operation, so I wasn’t given the full information in the beginning. If I am asked a theoretical question about severely handicapped foetuses, I would quite strongly suggest it is better to avoid giving birth to such children. What I have said to Tom in the past is that if he hadn’t been born and I had another child immediately afterwards, it might have been him, as it were, without those problems. But actually, as soon as Tom was born, I loved him as passionately as you can love any child, so the whole question then really ceased to have any meaning. It is obviously not something one talks over at great length. Because what he needs to do is to live his life and not brood about things, and that is indeed what he is so good at.
The suicide of a child is the worst agony that a parent can envisage or be asked to endure. I’m sure that you can never get over it, but what strategies have you employed to come to terms with it?
When it happens within your own family you feel it is the worst thing that could possibly happen, not just to me, but to Susannah’s sisters and brother. What you are left with is this very strange sensation that somehow the life of your child is enclosed within your life. You expect your children to outlive you, yet what strikes me now is that it is nearly as many years now since she died as the number of years she lived. Obviously I never lose the thought of her. I am sure all parents of dead children think the child who died was exceptional; but she was exceptional, exceptionally gifted and full of life, kind, sweet-natured, fiery, passionate, and those who loved her among her friends and within the family all keep her memory very much alive. Sometimes people ask me if I mind talking about her. Quite contrary – I love to talk about her because I loved her so much, and when people die, they’ve gone from the world, and there isn’t much occasion to talk about them.
You say that Susannah’s death blew the family apart and caused her two sisters to turn their backs on the idea that the intellect is supreme and on the idea of success. Are you saying that they blamed you for valuing these ideas?
I find it slightly difficult to speak for my children; it always seems a bit impertinent. What I would say is that they both began to question the whole idea of competition, partly because it was the ethos of the age, and they both turned their backs very strongly on the idea that life was a ladder up which you climbed. I don’t think I myself saw it in those terms either, but on the other if you looked at my life I obviously had been climbing a ladder. And so both Emily and Josephine set off in different directions, and I must say I admire them both very much and have learned a lot from them. But it was a very painful period because they did just go away. They were of an age when they would have been going away anyhow, but having had this large family, the three girls and Tom, all of us particularly close after Nick died, it felt sad when it all just went.
During your years at Grays Inn Road, you write that you became fierce in defence of words and the intellectual values which you felt were sometimes under threat. In the light of what was going on in your personal life, did you ever come to see words and intellect as being utterly inadequate? What I mean is, were you forced to reassess your own values?
In journalism I don’t think you can ever turn your back on words. People say that one picture will tell you more than a hundred words, but I don’t actually believe that myself. I am forever wedded to the written word, and in the context of the literary pages of the Sunday Times I believed it was actually worth running reviews for their intrinsic intellectual interest rather than because the books were on the bestseller list or written by a celebrity. I had to do battle with Andrew Neil on this one, and stuck to my fairly austere Cambridge ideas about the value of good book reviewing. Book reviewing isn’t the most important thing in the world, but critical standards are important, and as a literary editor I regarded them as being of crucial importance, as something worth fighting for.
A lot of your writing has been about women badly treated by men, and you seem to have a fondness for them all. Virginia Woolf seems to be particularly admired and you are able to forgive her occasional cruelties and snobbery. Do you ever think you might be guilty of special pleading?
Virginia Woolf is not a woman I am supremely interested in. I have written only an introduction to Mrs Dalloway. It’s true I have written a good deal about women, but I have also written about men. It so happened that my first book was about Mary Wollstonecraft, the great eighteenth-century feminist. She is extraordinarily interesting because she was a terrific thinker and fighter, lived an extraordinary life, went to Paris during the French Revolution and produced the first real polemic about women’s rights. At the same time she lived the life of a romantic heroine. In her case I don’t feel indignant at the way she was treated by the individual men particularly; it’s the pathos of her personal life that interests me, the conflict between her high intellectual achievement and the rest of her life. In the case of Ellen Ternan, the woman who was probably the mistress of Dickens, again it is her story that is central. Here was a young woman whose life became entangled with that of a great man and the interaction is fascinating. When you publish a book the press very often likes to extract a simple message from it, be it a great scandal or focus of indignation. But books are usually rather more complicated and subtle than that, so while I have been concerned to point out when women were badly treated – and this might have involved a bit of re-writing of history – I have been mainly interested in the lives of those women. Their bad treatment has not been the main point of my writing.
In your biography of Ellen Ternan, you give Dickens his due as the literary giant he was, but I couldn’t help thinking you were quite hard on him as a man. You say: ‘He behaved with inexcusable injustice and cruelty to his wife whose only faults seem to have been that she was fat and dull.’ But we all know that men fall in love with other women even if their wives are neither fat nor dull, and his liaison with Nelly seems, as you say, to have brought him neither happiness nor calm. Do you think you were a little harsh in your judgement perhaps?
No. I agree you can fall in love with other people when you are married but you don’t have to behave as badly as Dickens behaved. Dickens’s problem was that he felt he had to defend his reputation. He had a particular relationship with the English reading public on which he was economically dependent, and this led him to try and show everyone that he was right. He didn’t just make some sort of discreet arrangement with his wife; no, he published great statements in The Times saying that it was all her fault. He just did behave like a madman. We probably all behave in mad ways under the impulse of great emotion at one time or another, but I think it is still allowable to criticize. I don’t take back a single word I said about Dickens. I revere him as a novelist, and indeed I think if I had met him I would have found him the most delightful, perhaps slightly exhausting, man. But I still think he behaved very badly.
In her review of your biography of Katherine Mansfield, Fiona McCarthy detects what she calls ‘a natural affinity for women temperamentally on the cussed side’, and says she sees the lurking figures of your mother and mother-in-law, both, like Katherine Mansfield, ‘talented and gifted outsiders’. Is that right, would you say?
I actually say in the introduction to that book that my mother-in-law, whom I loved, was a rather wild colonial girl who came into English society and had a good time and behaved in quite an outré way. I was thinking of her and I said so, which suggests Fiona McCarthy wasn’t exactly discovering anything; she was simply reading my own introduction to the book. When you are working on a biography, when you are living with a subject, month after month, year after year, you are rather as an actress taking part. If you’re playing Lady Macbeth, for example, you’ve probably never murdered anybody, but you look to your own experience to illuminate, to let you play the part. If you are working on a biography you seek in your own experience, in your own circle, elements that could help you to understand what you are looking at.
Many biographers have made good novelists. I am thinking of Margaret Drabble, Victoria Glendinning and Margaret Foster. Why do you reject so firmly the idea of novel writing?
I don’t think I could do it; it’s too difficult, too brave. To write a novel you have to really believe. You have to believe for long enough that there is some point to doing it, whereas to write a biography you always have a thread in your hand, a piece of string you hold on to which is what you can find out about this life. Biography is safer, and it’s easier.
Victoria Glendinning described biography as ‘an extremely dodgy exercise’, by which she meant that it was often a piece of self-indulgence on the part of the author, that the authoritative tone is highly questionable, that you can never get the whole picture, and so on. What are your own views?
Well, I would say I eschew the authoritative tone. This is a subject I have discussed with Victoria, I may say. I see what she means, but I do think it all boils down to the tone, to the approach you make. There are lots of very bad biographies, bad novels, bad plays, and we might as well all give up if we go by the fact that there are bad examples.
Doris Lessing famously said that there is no doubt that fiction makes a better job of the truth than biography. Do you have any sympathy with that view?
I think there is room for different approaches. I have also noticed that a lot of people who are rude about biography make ruthless use of other people’s work. Tom Stoppard and Alan Bennett, to name just two, are habitually rude about biography, yet they both write plays in which they have either drawn their material from their own biographical researches or from somebody else’s. I suspect that somebody has to do the job. People are interested in other human beings’ lives, and it is a perfectly legitimate interest.
You said of your first husband that he was ‘constantly, irresponsibly and perpetually unfaithful’. Can one be ‘responsibly’ unfaithful, do you think?
That’s a very good question. I suppose one could be more or less discreet. The tradition of bourgeois marriage in which discretion is observed is a more humane tradition than one in which everything is out in the open and everything goes crashing down all the time. It doesn’t mean there is no pain, but then pain is part of life.
You say somewhere that you incline to the Freudian view that in the end all that matters is love and work. Is it in that order of importance, would you say – love first, then work?
I would say they are equally balanced. One is very lucky if one has work which one finds absorbing, and one is very lucky to have the love of a husband, of children, of parents. I regard them as pretty equal forces.
Would you say that work has perhaps protected you to some extent when love has let you down, or when you have experienced the painful aspects of love?
I think my work is certainly an escape. What is wonderful about it is that it may start off as an escape then it becomes productive in itself, and it leads you on. I’ve had a lot of bad things happen, but I have also had a great deal of good fortune, good luck and happiness. My life has been very tranquil for the last twenty years, and I value that tranquillity. As writers, Michael and I both know the need to withdraw into work at times and yes, you need to be tranquil in order to be able to do that. All the same, life throws up delightful things like the birth of a new grandchild, or the marriage of a child, and you must then set aside your work and rejoice. It is important to remember that the younger generation is going through all that excitement that one went through oneself.
Your mother died as you put it ‘extremely distressingly’ of Alzheimer’s disease and you have said you would prefer to be given a pill rather than go through that. Is that something that weighs heavily on you?
I don’t think about it all the time. I did say to Michael some years ago that if I started getting confused he was to give me a pill, and he replied that I was quite confused already.
I wonder what you thought of John Bayley’s account of Iris Murdoch’s last years? His book has been praised as one of the great love stories of all time. Nevertheless the indignities he describes did nothing to diminish the fears about Alzheimer’s and they did upset some readers. What was your view?
I don’t think his book is full of indignities. It’s a very curious account of the marriage all together – it was obviously an odd but very successful relationship. For example, he says somewhere that he only really felt at home when she wasn’t in the house – a rather amazing thing to say. Also, he was obviously describing her mental retreat, but he certainly wasn’t facing the physical problems I had to face with my mother. However, I thought it a remarkable piece of writing.
Do you think that writers have a moral responsibility towards their readers?
I don’t know about my moral responsibility. I hope to interest my readers, to take them by the hand and say, listen, I want to tell you something. Muriel Spark gave advice on how to write a novel to the effect that you should imagine you’re talking to a friend, and that’s what I want to happen. And if in the process I drop in a few comments which help to show why I am interested in the subject, and how my relationship with it has fluctuated and grown and developed, then I hope this will intrigue readers and that they will enjoy reading.
In Several Strangers you talk about the impossibility of observing ourselves accurately. I think it is fair to say that when other people observe you or look in on your life they can’t fail to notice the intensity with which it has been lived and the tragic elements that go with it. Are you conscious of that yourself?
I’ve been uneasy about people thinking I’m a tragic figure. I find that a little unsettling, because I feel that my life has been such a mixture of good and ill fortune. I think perhaps we can give versions only of other people. I would certainly find it very difficult to give an account of myself, very difficult indeed. It’s not a matter of memory, more the impossibility of summing oneself up. I’m English enough not to want to sound bogus or pretentious or pathetic, but I’m very pleased when the spring comes, when the sun shines, and I take cover and put my head down when things are bad. I can see that this doesn’t say much about me, but it is the way that I think of myself getting through life.