The last time I saw Claire Tomalin in Manchester she was battling some sort of rave act in order to be heard. The scene was Manchester Town Hall and the occasion was the Manchester Literature Festival. If memory serves, this was 2011 and she was in the North to discuss her superlative Charles Dickens biography. The city’s premier example of gothic magnificence was a fine choice for an event featuring Britain’s leading biographer, but the organisers hadn’t counted on a Manchestoh party outside on the cobbles. 

In truth, my association with Tomalin goes back further. When I worked at The Times, I was the first journalist to tell the world that she had embarked on a biography of Dickens. I gleaned the information via a National Theatre evening when, as Tomalin promoted a perfectly edited edition of Keats’s poems, the host Andrew Motion told the audience that “I’m sure Claire won’t mind if I say she is writing about Dickens”. You have to wonder if she did mind but, being Tomalin, she demurred with good grace.

After the National’s event, I hovered around the foyer while Tomalin signed copies of her book. Despite being a journalist of some years standing, I was obscenely nervous. Ever since reading Tomalin’s biography of Samuel Pepys, in my eyes she was up there with Steinbeck, Auster and Lawrence in terms of literary achievement. In the end I summoned up the courage to approach her. The queue had dwindled and I was the last one, clutching my book in a sweaty palm. Despite having signed numerous copies, she was politeness itself and I came away with an even bigger crush. 

So when I learned that Tomalin was returning to the Manchester Literature Festival to promote her autobiography, A Life of My Own, I leapt at the chance to talk to her. I had a myriad of questions but top of the list was the obvious one: after spending a lifetime documenting the lives of others, what made you want to finally write about your own?

“I don’t remember what prompted me to do it,” she tells me. “But my father had kept every letter of mine from the age of 11, and emails, so I had this extraordinary amount of information. I realised I had an awful lot of material about my life. So I just began to think about it. Every life has its own story and telling a story is always something that is interesting to think about doing. I suppose having written about other people it seemed perhaps natural to start on myself.” 

Given her prodigious (and award-winning) output, it seems strange to think that Tomalin only embarked on her non-fiction career at the age of 40. Prior to that, she was known for her journalism, including roles as Literary Editor at the New Statesman (where a young Martin Amis was her deputy) and The Sunday Times. I wonder if, after 40 years dissecting the likes of Thomas Hardy, Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen, she found it easier to dip into her own past.

“Well, there’s a lot of research,” she says. “But I’ve kept letters. During my life I’ve kept diaries. And there were various times in my life when I did write, privately for myself, accounts of things that have happened, which I’ve kept. When my daughter Jo was in Mozambique teaching, I was working at The Sunday Times. And I sent her regular letters and I kept carbons of them. So all The Sunday Times stuff I had wonderful accounts of my rows with Andrew Neil and things like that. So I had a lot of material but it’s very, very hard work dealing with it.”

She acknowledges that writing about one’s own life is not remotely like delving into another’s past.

“Well, it’s completely different. I think you have to see yourself objectively. I have very good memories of my childhood, very vivid memories.”

She adds: “I start the book with a long chapter about my parents and that was a very good way of getting into doing it because it’s different than writing about oneself. And I had a lot of material because my father had written a memoir in French and my mother had talked to me a great deal about her life. I was fascinated by these two. He came from France, she came from Liverpool and had a scholarship in composition, he came from the École Normale. So London was where they met and fell in love in the mid-1920s, and had this totally disastrous marriage. But to me it was a very interesting story about two people I obviously knew very well. They divorced and never spoke to each other again. So that got me into the narrative.”

A number of reviews (which, for the most part, have been extremely complimentary), gripe that Tomalin has left out crucial details, not least information about love affairs and people still in the public eye. 

She says: “I set out to be like Pepys and tell everything. I thought the thing is to be totally honest. But you can’t actually quite do that. An awful lot of people I wrote about are dead of course but there are some things you can’t say, but not very much.”

While this is Tomalin’s first official account of her own life, much is already in the public domain. There’s the marriage later in life to fellow author Michael Frayn, the aforementioned tussles with Andrew Neil, and numerous painful personal episodes including her daughter’s suicide and the death of her first husband, the journalist Nicholas Tomalin who was killed in 1973 while reporting on the Yom Kippur War. It feels intrusive to ask, but what was the most difficult experience to write about?

“It was very hard to write about my daughter who committed suicide. But I wanted to write about her because she was marvellous. She had to be there. I was trying to write about what my life has been and what has been important in my life, and then that led onto the attention and care that is given to suicidally depressed young people. It still has a long way to go. I think she could have been saved, probably we could have saved her and we didn’t. Think of Virginia Woolf who was saved and then lived to write and then did commit suicide, but all the same she did have a bit of real adult life. And then my son who was born with spina bifida. He’s now 47 and very active but I wanted to make it clear what it was really like having a disabled child to bring up.”

Claire and Nick TomalinHaving said that, Tomalin doesn’t dwell on her children in her book, far from it. Naturally, she talks about Daniel, born in 1960 severely handicapped and who survived only briefly, and of her other kids, five in all. Bu there’s a sense that some things are off limits. Maybe this is the reason that, until now, Tomalin has confined herself to subjects who are long gone. After all, there’s scant chance of a backlash from Thomas Hardy or Mrs Jordan, George IV’s mistress.

But there’s also the issue of autobiography itself: in a world where the majority of our correspondence is electronic, how will biographies be crafted in the future? Actual letters are already few and far between. Tomalin is optimistic: “Well, there still are letters and emails. I emailed my father and stepmother when they were in France but they kept copies. Emails are like letters, it’s just a matter of preserving them. I think a written record is precious.” 

Thank god, then, for individuals like Dickens, a voracious chronicler of his times and his life. Of his own books, Dickens said that David Copperfield was his favourite child. Which leads me to ask, of her works, which is Tomalin’s favourite?

“It’s very difficult to say. I think my best book is probably Pepys because I really always wanted to be a historian and writing biographies for me has been my way of getting into history. I’d written a lot about 18th century women and early 19th century women but Pepys I really had to get down to doing proper historical work. So I adored writing that book and I also adore Pepys because he is a sort of renaissance man. He was intensely curious about the outside world and he was intensely curious about himself. His diaries give you this marvellous double scene. We see London in the 1660s and we see this complicated and often badly behaved man telling us about himself and that was just extraordinary. 

“In another way, I would say that my first book, Mary Wollstonecraft, is like your first child who you love in a special way because you learn on your first effort. I taught myself in a way how to write biography on that book. When I was writing Mary Wollstonecraft I was already 40 and I found it was just intensely enjoyable. I realised it was my métier, it was what I really wanted to do, to research. And biographical research is so interesting because you’re looking at a life and a person and you’re looking at the context. It’s no good writing a biography without establishing the context. I just love it. Somebody said to me, of course writing biography is a way of escaping from your own life. That is true, you do live in another world a lot of the time but I didn’t do it because of that. I had no wish to escape from my own life.” WITH MICHAEL PHOTO BY HIS DAUGHTER REBECCA

But isn’t reading any book escaping from your own life?

“Yes, absolutely. In my book I say at the beginning, my mother said to me as a child, the thing about books is that however unhappy you are, you can always escape into a book. And she was absolutely right.”

During her varied career, Tomalin has alighted on a wide variety of lives when undertaking biography. I ask, what impels her to choose a particular person to write about? 

“I suppose having had years and years of being interested somebody is one thing that makes you choose them. So one of the things I’ve realised is that all the people I write about are people who start from poverty. None of them are born into privilege. You could say that Katherine Mansfield was born into a rich family but in effect she left them and put herself into poverty. Leaving aside her, and she was actually the only person I was asked to write about rather than deciding myself first. 

Ellen Ternan and Dickens came from the interest I had as an undergraduate at Cambridge. I’d always saw there was a story there and I thought one day, somebody should write that story about Ellen Ternan. And writing about Ternan led me on to writing about Mrs Jordan because I had to look at the world of actresses and I found it completely fascinating that there was this group of women who lived lives utterly unlike the lives of women in respectable society. So one book leads to another.

“But Pepys I decided to do because I actually bought some volumes of Pepys for my daughter Susanna when she was beginning to be depressed, hoping she would become interested in them, but she didn’t. But I then read all the diaries as they came out in the wonderful Matthews & Latham edition and I became obsessed with Pepys. Then the paperback edition came out of the entire diaries and The Guardian asked me if I would review it. And I thought, wonderful, because I don’t let myself write in hardback books. But if have the paperbacks of Pepys then I can make notes in them. So I wrote the review and a Pepys scholar I knew slightly wrote me a letter and said he thought my review was wonderful, and I thought, I wonder if I could actually write a book about Pepys. I was encouraged by that.” 

While there was more than enough material for Pepys, Tomalin doesn’t shy away from subjects less well documented, at least when it comes to their personal lives. Jane Austen, for example. While she is one of the world’s best loved novelists, compared to her peers there is scant detail of who she was, not least because her sister Cassandra burned much of her sister’s correspondence. So, was writing her biography a difficult project?

“Well, no. I’d written about Mary Wollstonecraft and George IV and they were more or less contemporaries. And I’d read Jane Austen all my life. I thought there were a lot things to explore about Jane Austen. She was tended to be presented as her family being very gentile, and her father was a clergyman. But he was a penniless clergyman, he was in debt. When he retired there was nowhere for the family to live, they just had to live in lodgings. Her background was far from posh. One of things I did, I investigated all the neighbours who lived round where she grew up and found they were an extraordinarily mixed bunch. So they weren’t this grand, upper class, English country life at all so I thought there was a lot to investigate with Jane Austen.”

Looking ahead, who is next on Tomalin’s hit list? It’s extraordinary to think that she is 84. But surely she’s not done yet? There must be another person on her biographical agenda. 

“I’m not sure. In theory I’m going to write a book of different biographical essays but I’ve got to gather my strength. I’ve got some ideas and some notes made.” 

By Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul


A Life of My Own is available to buy now