Writing a Life

Elena Bowes catches up with English author and biographer Claire Tomalin about her best-selling memoir A Life of My Own. Still working, the 85-year-old author shares her thoughts on moving on from sadness, finding love late in life (she married playwright and author Michael Frayn in 1993 when they were both 60) and her favourite London libraries.

How would you describe what you do in 26 words?

I research and write books about historical figures who interest me – forgotten or misrepresented women, writers whose work I have loved and studied over the years.

In reviewing your biography Thomas Hardy: The Time Torn Man, The Economist credits you in providing an “object lesson in how to write a life.” You’ve written seven highly acclaimed biographies. What inspired you to write about your own life? What unexpected challenges did you confront along the way?

Getting old you begin to think back over your span of life, become curious about how much you can remember and what you can make of it. I thought of Pepys’s diary which so wonderfully demonstrates that you cannot separate working life from personal life, they interact on each other, and I felt I’d like to show how this happened in my life, as a woman living through a period of great change.

What did you learn about yourself in writing your memoir? You say in the introduction that one thing you learned is “that (you were) clearly following trends and general patterns of behaviour” as opposed to making individual choices.  Can you please expand on this?

Well: it struck me that my very early marriage – a year after finishing at college – was part of a general trend in my post-war generation – we were all eager to get on with our lives and have children, and not too worried about how we would afford things. It was easy to find work and easy to find somewhere to live – the welfare state in England made us happy and optimistic. Then with the 1960s patterns of behaviour became relaxed, there was a pursuit of pleasure – lovely new fashions in clothes, dancing, theatre, style generally. And although I was a young mother with children I adored, and a husband who became a bolter, I felt I could enjoy myself too, and did.

You made your way in a man’s world, specifically in the 1950s and ‘60s, by not letting sexist comments or actions get to you. You just got on with things. Where do you think you got this strength of character to relish the good and not dwell on the bad?

I never felt I was being bullied by men although there is no doubt that we women were not treated as equals. So a First Class Cambridge degree did not seem to my father enough as a preparation for a job – he made me study shorthand and typing – well, he paid for it.  It was a bit silly but touch typing has proved invaluable. Because my mother had always worked, and my French aunt and grandmother also, I took it for granted that I would work and manage to combine work with having a family.

What advice would you give your teenage self?

Don’t get married too young.

What tips would you give someone considering writing their own memoir?

Difficult, this – obviously you have to think carefully about presenting friends, family. Ask permission, show what you have written while the book is in proof. It is not possible to include everything, so the way you divide the narrative is important and allows you to cut boring or embarrassing bits – although a bit of embarrassment can be allowed.

What are you working on now?

I am mostly working on talks I have promised to give! But I am trying to get down to writing a short book about the young H.G. Wells – always ill till he was forty, poor, half starved – suddenly a star with The Time Machine. A genius who became rather a bore as a world famous figure.

Which are your favourite London libraries and why?

The London Library and the British Library – I’ve worked in both of them throughout my adult life. The London Library is expensive so I became a life member when I was widowed, on the principle that I would always have somewhere to go and work comfortably. You are free to roam through the stacks, and you can work in the reading room or desks placed near windows in the stacks. Some of the happiest days of my life were spent in the old Readers’ Room in the British Museum, which named itself The British Library in the 1970s and moved to its ugly new building in 1997. It is free and these days very crowded, but of course wonderful.

What do you do for fun?

See friends and grandchildren, walk energetically, travel (mostly in Europe), look at paintings and buildings, go to the theatre, to concerts, to the opera. I like to eat in restaurants but Michael prefers home cooking and luckily I like cooking too – and he helps.

You have led such a full and accomplished life. Is there anything else still left on your to do list?

I’d like to visit Cuba but Michael went there once to report on it and doesn’t want to go back. I hope to cross America again and see more of its spectacular landscapes. I always love to be in France, Italy and Greece. England too, Northumberland, Shropshire, Dorset – and Wales. Life is too short and I know we are lucky to be still around in our mid-eighties.   There are a few other books I should have liked to take on – one about Condorcet, the great French mathematician and politician, the first Frenchman to declare that women are the moral and intellectual equals of men – he died during the 1789 Revolution. But I shan’t manage to write that one. I regret not having written about my other French hero, Stendhal. When you visit the Pantheon in Rome – one of the great buildings in the world – you’ll see nearby on a wall a plaque to Stendhal, who lived in Rome for a time: it always makes me dizzy with joy to be there.

– Elena Bowes

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