Other Lives, Other Wonders

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Overcoming a life of domestic minutiae, Claire Tomalin, 77, became a celebrated biographer and intellectual pin-up girl, says Nisha Susan

THE COUPLEDOM OF biographer Claire Tomalin and playwright Michael Frayn is irresistible as gossip and social history – dressed up gossip. But like the relationships that Tomalin traces in her books — diarist Samuel Pepys with his wife, Dickens with his mistress, Irish actress Mrs Jordan with Prince William — their marriage is also highly illuminating of the times they’ve lived in.

Tomalin went to Cambridge a year ahead of Sylvia Plath. Like Plath and other bright young women of her generation, she faced the annihilation of her intellect in domestic minutiae and clerical jobs. Her marriage to journalist Nick Tomalin (already experiencing the fissures of differing expectations) floundered as one of their five children died and the other was born with a severe disability. But he was killed while covering the Yom Kippur War just as she finished writing a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, a book so brilliant that the Whitbread committee invented the first book award — for her.

Years later, during which time she was the highly respected literary editor at The New Statesman, she married long-term friend Frayn (also present at the festival). In one of those twists that biographers love and fiction writers shy away from, she had gone to watch a Michael Frayn play while pregnant with her third child. She laughed so hard she went into labour. Today, the couple — gentle, funny and erudite — are affectionately called the Posh and Becks of the literary world. But Tomalin tells you a lifelong anxiety of being sucked away from her work still makes her reluctant to work out of the same house as Frayn.

For all that, Tomalin’s output is astonishing – eight highly energetic and witty biographies, other collections and currently, a critical life of Dickens. To Tomalin, biographies have always been a way of dealing with the fact that life is too short to experience everything — Wollstonecraft’s brilliance, Pepys’ sexual wildness, Austen’s wit. To read Tomalin is to remind yourself how recent and uncertain a robust intellectual life has been for women.

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