A Review of Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own: A Biographer’s Tale

November 10, 2017 § 1 Comment


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By Laura Shepperson

As soon as I saw Claire Tomalin had written a biography, I had to read it. She had been an inspiration to me when I was working on my dissertation; I specialized in creative nonfiction, writing about the relationship between Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf. Not only was Tomalin one of the UK’s pre-eminent biographers, she wrote Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life. My excitement grew when I read that Tomalin came late to biography, becoming a full-time writer at nearly forty. She writes, “how long it took me to get going with the work I most enjoy and value: researching and writing historical biographies.” I am a full-time lawyer, but would love to be able to be a full-time biographer, and I thought this might be a guide in making this shift.

Of course, that was foolish, as I discovered in reading A Life of My Own: A Biographer’s Life. An autobiography is not a how-to guide; it can only be a story of one person’s life. Anyway, I would not swap my life for Tomalin’s, even if it meant never becoming a successful biographer.

Tomalin describes, with the same care she takes for all her subjects, the story of how her life unfolded, starting with her unusual, intelligent, and artistic parents and early marriage, and continuing through her schooling, work as a journalist, then editor, and finally full-time writer. She sometimes takes for granted her successes and fortune, such as assuming she’d be accepted into Cambridge, which she enters and receives the highest possible standard.

She began writing after much personal difficulty: her husband abandoned the family, followed by an untimely death in Israel. At times, the book seems lacking in emotion, particularly in the way she describes how her husband “came in and advanced angrily with clenched fists raised to punch me in the face.” She uses the same tone and well-measured prose as describing how she organized a carpool for her children. However, I did feel her pain and confusion over the death of her husband, a well-known British journalist, and over another family tragedy.

Tomalin is eighty-four now, and the book sometimes sounds like an elderly person reviewing her diaries. Even so, A Life of My Own is an interesting read and a useful historical resource, showing what life was like in the literary media in the 1980s (including the detail that is attracting attention in the British press: her affair with Martin Amis). It is also the story of a woman with “conflicting desires to have children and a worthwhile working life” and achieving both. However, as the title says, the story is Tomalin’s life. The rest of us just have to forge our own.

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Laura Shepperson completed a master of studies in creative writing at the University of Cambridge, in 2015, specializing in creative nonfiction. She wrote a biography of Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf for her dissertation. Shepperson was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish College Fiction Prize in 2017 for her novel, Harriet’s Room.

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