A Life of My Own – Janet Mearns talks to Claire Tomalin
Published: 30 Jan 2018
Perhaps my favourite of Claire Tomalin’s noted biographies is The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, her uncovering of Dickens’ relationship with a young actress. She has produced so many fine biographies it is not surprising that her recently published autobiography, A Life of My Own, is an excellent read. The public may know her for the historical biographies and television appearances, but it wasn’t until midlife that she found this calling. She already had a very successful career in journalism and an eventful family life.
Of particular interest to our Waving not drowning network is the fact that she was pursuing a demanding career and bringing up a family, including a disabled child, in an era when many mothers didn’t do paid work. I was delighted that she agreed to an interview, on behalf of Waving not drowning readers. She was very approving of Working Families’ mission.
Tom, Claire’s youngest child, was born with spina bifida. As Waving not drowning readers will realise, this entailed many hospital visits, operations and the need for carer workers at an age when non-disabled children are beginning to look after themselves.
Claire’s book tells of the strains of growing up in war time England with mismatched parents whose marriage didn’t last. Despite disjointed schooling, she developed a real love of literature and got into Cambridge when there were few places for girls. She got a first but her father still insisted that she then did a secretarial course. She married journalist Nick Tomalin. Children arrived. At one point Nick’s job took them to the US. Back in England in the sixties she became a publisher’s reader then moved into journalism at the New Statesman and later at the Sunday Times.
Of Tom’s birth Claire said, ‘When you have a child with a serious disability, you move into a different category of existence. You are classified differently by other people…’. I asked Claire about caring for Tom and carrying on with work. She told me that she couldn’t have done it without supportive colleagues. Conveniently, Great Ormond Hospital, where Tom had many appointments, was close to the New Statesman’s offices. The Tomalins could afford adaptions to their house and were able to pay for a nanny. She found that as Tom grew older, male care workers, who came from many parts of the world, were appropriate but she explained that not all the care workers she has employed over the years were reliable.
While Claire was caring for young Tom and her older children and developing her career, she felt her marriage was unlikely to last. Nick wasn’t faithful and he was even violent on occasions. Nevertheless, her book reveals the shock when the news came that Nick had been killed by a heat-guided missile while on an assignment in Israel.
Today, Tom lives an independent life. Claire has published a list of acclaimed books, has won literary prizes and contributes to various committees and panels. She is married to playwright Michael Frayn. Her autobiography is not only moving and entertaining. It tells us about her life and about being a working mother in the sixties and seventies when one of your children is disabled. She was generous in providing her time for an interview and I highly recommend her book.
A Life of My Own, Claire Tomalin, Viking, £16.99