(b. 1933)


My inspiration

Claire Tomalin


John Crace
Tuesday November 7, 2000

Claire Tomalin is one of our best known non-fiction writers. She won the Whitbread Prize for her biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and Several Strangers, a collection of her journalism, has just been published in paperback.

'My father was French, so it seemed natural that I should go to nursery at the Lycée Français when I was four. My parents separated in 1940 when I was 7, and I became part of a bitter custody battle which meant I was shuffled back and forth between different schools in Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and London over the next few years. I particularly remember Oaklands, a small private school, with a wonderful Christian Scientist drama teacher, Miss Roberts, who was terribly disappointed when so many of us succumbed to measles.

'The divorce was horrible, incomprehensible and frightening and, apart from one terrible year as a boarder at the girls' grammar in Hitchin, when I was 8, school became my safe place. At Hitchin, we had to go to bed at six, even in the summer, and I wasn't allowed to read which was a disaster - reading was my solace through the bad years.

'In 1942, I was back with my father and was sent to the Lycée, which had relocated to Lake Ullswater. I became ill and the doctor recommended I be allowed to roam free, so for a while I lived a wonderfully Wordsworthian existence writing poetry among daffodils.



Within a year I moved back in with my mother and returned to Hitchin as a day girl. This was a wonderful time; due to the war, the school had kept on a couple of teachers, Miss Hughes and Miss Wells, well beyond their retirement age and between them they brought English and history to life for me and cemented the idea that the subjects were not divided.

'By 15, I had become a thoroughly rebellious adolescent and was having problems with my mother, so it was decided I should go to Dartington Hall. I spent an idyllic year being taught English by Raymond O'Malley who suggested I have a trial run at Cambridge entrance a year early. To my surprise I got in.'



Bio- and Bibliography




Wednesday March 27, 2002    

Under their skins

By Jane Sullivan
March 18 2002

Claire Tomalin looks like a nice English lady in a white dress and hat, but for the past four years she has been someone very different: a small, ambitious, lecherous young man on the make. Her alter ego behaves badly. He hates his superiors because he knows he's much smarter than they are. His career and his marriage go up and down like snakes and ladders. He covets every good job and he lusts after every young woman.

That's what it's like to be Samuel Pepys, who poured all the energy and passion of both his public and private life into the famous diary he kept in the 1660s. Becoming your subject is a byproduct of biography, according to Tomalin: "You're being invited to live inside his skin."

She has also lived inside the skins of one of the first feminists, Mary Wollstonecraft; Percy Bysshe Shelley; Katherine Mansfield; the secret mistresses of the future George IV and Charles Dickens; and, most recently, Jane Austen. Her biographies have won  awards and acclaim, though she tempers this with English self-deprecation: at Adelaide Writers' Week she told a story of going to a literary dinner when she was shortlisted for a new biography prize and thanking her benefactor, an industrialist patron of the arts, as she left. He glared at her: "Who the f-- are you?" he demanded.

There were early signs of this fascination with other people's lives. As a baby she crawled around the study of her father, a French Anglophile scholar with a special interest in D.H. Lawrence, flattening the pages of Lady Chatterley's Lover. When her schoolgirl contemporaries were reading historical romantic novels, she was reading about the life of Elizabeth I.

Yet she didn't begin to write until she was 35, and didn't begin to write a book until she was nearly 40: "It's now a regret," she says. There are advantages, however. "Older people often write better biographies. You have been through so much yourself in life, you are more able to understand how things happen, the price of achievement."

The reason she came so late to writing has a lot to do with the way bright young women just down from Cambridge embarked on their lives in the 1950s. She went into publishing, but at a "very lowly" level, working as a secretary and later as a reader. When she asked for more responsibility, she was told: "But you only work part-time."

She married fellow Cambridge graduate and journalist Nicholas Tomalin and "had a lot of children". Occasionally it occurred to her how unequal things were: she remembers crying into a washbasin full of baby clothes one Sunday while her husband was off playing football with their Cambridge friends. "I had wanted to do something with my life," she writes in her collection of memoirs and reviews, Several Strangers. "I thought I had some capacities, and here they were going down the plughole with the soapsuds."

But it wasn't all draining away. Gradually Tomalin established a career for herself. She began to write book reviews and landed a plum part-time job as deputy literary editor of the New Statesman magazine. When she took time off to have another baby, she wrote a piece for the magazine about Mary Wollstonecraft's love letters, which had bowled her over when she discovered them in the London Library. "Within the next few days I got letters from publishers and agents saying, you must write a book about this person. It was wonderful, like a dream."

The irony of Tomalin's life is that great career opportunities have come up at the same time as personal setbacks and tragedies. At the time her first book was in sight, her son Tom was born with spina bifida: "He had just about everything wrong with him." She sat down with Nicholas and they listed the pros and cons of whether she should go back to her job or write the book. The book won.

The fascination of Wollstonecraft's life was that she was both an Age of Reason radical and also a tragic romantic heroine, because she met "a dastardly American" who ditched her when she became pregnant. "Back then there was a very strong feeling that history was controlled by men," Tomalin says. "I really thought we needed to look at lives of women and acquaint people with them. I suppose I was quietly crusading."

The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, published in 1974, caught the edge of the new feminist wave and was a great success. But the irony of Tomalin's life struck again. The year before her book came out, her husband was killed by a missile on the Golan Heights, where he was reporting the Yom Kippur war. At that moment, she was offered the "fantastic" job of literary editor of the New Statesman.

"Work and death are at opposite ends of the spectrum," she writes in Several Strangers, and work became her refuge. "If you're going to be a widow, some people say you should stay at home and look after the children. I thought not," she says. Her three daughters were well established at school, so she found a nanny for her son and began a job that was "great, great fun".

It was a golden age of London literary journalism and Tomalin set out to explore and mine the talent. Her first pages included a review by Paul Theroux and a special poem from Clive James. She worked with young deputies such as Martin Amis - "formidably clever, very laid back, very charming" - and Julian Barnes. While she left the job to write her Katherine Mansfield book, she was lured back into journalism to become the literary editor of the Sunday Times.

This was "a very grand job", but never as much fun as the New Statesman, especially when she came under pressure from an editor who wanted more commercial literary pages. "I fought quite a lot," she says. "Everybody was interested in bestseller lists and I found that rather dreary. Everybody said, you must use celebrity reviewers. I said the thing is to make people celebrities; if you ask a famous politician to write a review, it'll be written by his secretary. Then Murdoch took over and they moved to Wapping and I decided that was the moment for me to leave."

Since 1986, she has been writing steadily. She couldn't write about a living person, she feels. "But when people are dead, the truth is the biggest tribute you can pay to them . . . It's all a matter of tone. There's this delicate human stuff. I don't want to come clumping in with hobnail boots and I don't want to sound superior."

The book that was the most fun was The Invisible Woman, the story of Nelly Ternan, Charles Dickens' secret mistress for 13 years. "She had been mentioned in biographies and in an Edmund Wilson essay, but dismissing her as nothing. I thought, there's a story there."

When Tomalin delved into Nelly's life, she discovered some of the most extraordinary events had happened before and after her years with Dickens. After the author died, when Nelly was in her 30s, she took 10 years off her age and married an Oxford theology undergraduate. They ran a school together and had two children. She told her family that Dickens had been her godfather when she was a little girl.

Even today, Tomalin says, many Dickens lovers will not accept that their hero, ostensibly a devoted Victorian paterfamilias, had a secret mistress: some refused to read her book.

Her next biography, Mrs Jordan's Profession, again about a woman who had been virtually written out of the history books, ruffled more feathers. At a literary dinner, Tomalin told the story of Dora Jordan: "I was sitting next to Lord Longford. He turned to me and said, 'None of that was true, was it?' . . . He couldn't believe the story of how a royal prince had had a mistress for 20 years, had 10 children with her and then ditched her."

The world of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mrs Jordan led to their contemporary, Jane Austen. "When I was young I wouldn't have dared approach Jane Austen," Tomalin says. "She's the only person I've written about who is an absolute golden genius. Like all geniuses, there is something you can't explain . . . I think it would be very cheeky to try to explain art. You can only describe formative influences.

"People always say nothing happened in her life - they always say that about women. But to her, a great deal happened. You can have a sisterly approach to your subject and see how it would have been: facing up to being a spinster, a little sister, with no money of her own until she was in her 30s. The boys could make their way in the world. Her family were very nice and loving, but everybody took it for granted the girls were just the girls."

She thinks that today's readers love Jane Austen because her beautifully constructed novels and direct dialogue are very easy to read, with a young woman at the centre of each narrative. "And she suggests there's a crucial decision in life for women: when and why and how you marry. It still speaks to huge numbers of women."

Tomalin made her second "crucial decision" in 1993, when she married the writer Michael Frayn: they are in Australia on a double author tour. They had been together for many years and married to celebrate their 60th birthdays. They live in London. "I work in the house and Michael goes off to work in a flat every day. We live the rather dull life that writers have, both terribly absorbed in our work, sharing our children and grandchildren."

When they have finished their work, they show it to each other: Tomalin describes how excited she was to read Frayn's play Copenhagen and his novel Spies. They tend to "drag each other around" on working holidays, visiting places one of them needs to research for a book.

The actual writing of biography still isn't easy for her. It's silent, hard work, mostly sweat and pain and panic. But research is still a thrill. She's driven by curiosity, the tension between reputation and reality, the sheer joy of pursuing a good story. And for her, truth is always more interesting to write than fiction: "It's like having a handicap: the difficulty of not always knowing. Nothing beats that."

Claire Tomalin's biography of Samuel Pepys will be published later this year.


All life is here

The front-runner for this year's Whitbread Prize, the biographer of Samuel Pepys, finds her subject matter in the extraordinary lives of those half-hidden from history - indeed, in lives rather like hers.

Gaby Wood
Sunday January 26, 2003
The Observer

The Whitbread Book of the Year Award is due to be announced on Tuesday and, as the betting hots up, William Hill have made Claire Tomalin the 5-4 favourite. If Tomalin does win the £25,000 prize for her biography of Samuel Pepys, she will be just the third female winner since the Whitbread was introduced - a fitting reward for someone who has spent her writing life rescuing women from obscurity.

Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self has already won the Whitbread Prize for biography, and this is not the first time Whitbread judges have commended Tomalin's work. She didn't write her first book until she was 40, but when her biography of Mary Wollstonecraft was published in 1974, the Whitbread First Book award was invented for it.

That, she says, was 'absolutely amazing. And I did feel, just ... because my life was so emotional at that time - I'd just been widowed and I had small children. It seemed to me an amazing piece of luck.' Though she would never say so (Tomalin is both modest and resolutely unself-pitying), Wollstonecraft's story, which, in Tomalin's description, 'mixed personal tragedy with high achievement', was not unlike the story that was to become Tomalin's own. It was partly this, perhaps, that made the book - and those that followed - so impressive.


The distinguished academic Elaine Showalter thinks Tomalin's book on Wollstonecraft is 'the greatest. She was both so exact and so sympathetic. Wollstonecraft set up a career as a literary woman in London, and how any woman writing about her, who has taken some of those same steps, has got to identify with this very powerfully, and realise that in a sense much of it hasn't changed.'

Claire Tomalin was born Claire Delavenay in 1933, to a French father who worked for Unesco, and an English mother who was a musician. Claire went to the French lycée in London from the age of four. When she was seven, her parents separated. She started writing poetry and took refuge in books. Over the coming years, during a bitter custody battle and shifts between numerous schools, reading, she has said, became her 'solace'. When she was 15, her mother sent her to Dartington Hall as a cure for teenage rebellion, and it was there that a teacher suggested she apply to Cambridge a year early. She was accepted, and went to Newnham College, where she was a year ahead of Sylvia Plath, and was taught English by the same professor. She later wrote that she kept 'somewhere under my skin a sisterly sympathy for that young woman who was defeated by the misery of married life, alongside awe for the creature who rose out of her own death, triumphantly, as THE poet of her generation.'

When Claire left Cambridge, in 1954, she found a room in the house of artist Roger Hilton. Her boyfriend Nick Tomalin was living round the corner, at Patrick Heron's. Nick became a journalist for the Express, and she was unsure of what to do. Journalism, she said, seemed very masculine at the time, and though she had secretarial skills, fluent French and a first in English, she was rejected by the BBC on the grounds that 'the competition for general trainees is confined to men'. Eventually she got a job as an editorial assistant at Heinemann because the bosses gave her seven out of 10 for good looks.

She and Nick married in 1955, and had two daughters, Josephine and Susanna, in quick succession. 'One of my most vivid memories of the mid 1950s,' she wrote in her collection of essays, Several Strangers, 'is of crying into a washbasin full of soapy grey baby clothes - there were no washing machines - while my handsome and adored husband was off playing football in the park on Sunday morning with all the delightful young men who had been friends to both of us at Cambridge three years earlier. I HAD wanted to do something with my life - I thought I had SOME capacities, and here they were going down the plughole with the soapsuds.'

Things did not get easier. Tomalin gave birth to a third child, a son, who never came home from hospital - he died when he was a month old. Her fourth child, Emily, was born on what would have been her missing brother's first birthday. Nick Tomalin had a series of affairs, and was absent for long periods. A fifth baby, Tom, was born with spina bifida. Aged 28, Claire Tomalin was mourning a son, sporadically losing a husband, and looking after four children - one of whom was paralysed from the chest down.

She began to review books - for the TLS and The Observer - was offered a job on the Evening Standard, and then became deputy literary editor of the New Statesman. She was approached by agents and publishers after she wrote an article about Mary Wollstonecraft, and agreed to write her biography, which she finished in August 1973. Tom turned one. They went on holiday. One month later, Nick Tomalin was killed by a Syrian missile on Golan Heights while reporting for the Sunday Times.

Shortly afterwards, she became literary editor of the New Statesman, a job she has implied she was offered partly as an escape from grief. She threw herself into work and her deputies included Julian Barnes, Timothy Mo, and Martin Amis (with whom she had an affair).

In 1979 Tomalin became the literary editor of the Sunday Times. Sean French, her deputy at the time, remembers that period as 'a very intense experience. I couldn't imagine working for anyone else where it would be so fulfilling and demanding. Everything was on the line - there was this idea that literature involved everything, it wasn't just something you do and then go off and play tennis.'

When she had started at the Sunday Times Tomalin's daughter, Susanna, committed suicide, and Tomalin sought refuge, she has said, in her work. But work was not just a way of sweeping things under a carpet. 'I think some people must think that she's got on by forgetting about things,' Sean French says, 'but that's absolutely the opposite of what's true. She embraces everything. She's incredibly open, and she also has a real gift for people being terribly open to her, because all the normal constraints are down. It's one of the qualities that helps her as a biographer.'

In 1986, when the Sunday Times moved to Wapping, Tomalin and her entire department walked out. 'She was so protective of everyone beneath her,' French says, 'though it was very painful for her.' Another colleague, also a refusenik, remembers her confronting the member of News International management who laid down the deplorable new terms to the staff: 'She said, "I've never heard anything more disgraceful in all my life", and walked out. It was extraordinary, because it was more than just a job to her - it was the paper her husband had worked for, and died for.'

After leaving the Sunday Times, Tomalin wrote several highly acclaimed books - on Shelley, Katherine Mansfield, and Jane Austen. Her best, and most influential, were two books on women who had previously been unseen: The Invisible Woman, about Dickens's secret lover Nelly Ternan, and Mrs Jordan's Profession, about an actress who was the mistress of King William IV, and bore him 10 children. Tomalin has made an enormous contribution to the rediscovery of hidden women.

'The Nelly Ternan book was part of a group of books that came out at a similar time about women who led invisible lives, the women behind the scenes,' says Showalter. 'The women's movement had developed an awareness of the importance of [such] lives, and yet we needed examples. I think the book on Nelly Ternan particularly was extraordinarily timely in that regard.'

Tomalin met her husband Michael Frayn in 1980, and he moved into her house in Camden town. They live a life of 'strenuous equality', as she puts it. Both are contenders for the Whitbread Prize this week (Frayn is the second favourite), and they are about to move from the house Tomalin has lived in for the past 40 years to one in Petersham, where they will both work from home for the first time.

Tomalin remains modest about her work. 'I'm usually convinced that what I'm working on is a total disaster,' she says. 'I certainly was with Pepys. I thought no one would ever read it and it was an absolute total failure. I must say I feel slightly at odds with reality now - I'm incredibly pleased that people like it, but I tend to wake up in the morning and think: there's been some mistake.'

When asked recently how, as a feminist, she could cope with Pepys's infamous womanising, Tomalin came up with the wry remark: 'Every man is not like Pepys. But a lot of men are.'

When they are they usually affect the lives of women and Tomalin has documented such lives extraordinarily well. Her comment combines the intellectual rigour and warmth of understanding that make her an outstanding biographer and, at last, a justifiably visible woman.



Tomalin beats husband to win Whitbread prize

Agence France-Presse
London, January 29

Author Claire Tomalin won Britain's prestigious Whitbread Book of the Year title late Tuesday for her biography of renowned 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys -- best remembered for his account of the Fire of London.

Tomalin, 69, beat husband Michael Frayn and three other authors to the 25,000-pound first prize, awarded in recognition of Britain's outstanding book of the year.

"There was quite a lot of discussion but in the end there was an overwhelming vote for the Pepys book," said Ian Hislop, who chaired a panel of nine judges.

"We know a lot about Pepys from his diaries but they only covered nine years and Tomalin has covered his whole life, that is what is so impressive." Hislop added.

Tomalin's "Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self" had been the bookmakers' favourite to head a shortlist of five, which included Frayn's World War II novel "Spies", Norman Lebrecht's novel "The Song of Names", Paul Farley's work of poetry "The Ice Age" and Hilary McKay's children's book "Saffy's Angel".

Tomalin proclaimed herself "absolutely delighted" by the award but insisted she would have been equally happy to see her husband walk away with the prize.

"If you have as good a husband as I have -- if he had won I would have been absolutely delighted for him too -- as happy, possibly happier.

"How can you weigh up pride in your own achievement with pride in the person you love best?"

Frayn said his wife was a worthy winner: "I have to say I always thought Claire should get the prize. I'm sure it's the right choice."

Tomalin's winning biography reveals the personal life of Pepys from his marriage to predilection for young girls.

Pepys -- a confidant of Kings Charles II and James II -- is best known for his eye witness testimony of London's great fire in 1666.

Philip Pullman last year became the first children's writer to win the Whitbread prize for his fantasy novel "The Amber Spyglass".


Tomalin wins Whitbread book of the year

'No blood on carpet' as biographer beats husband to £30,000 prize

Fiachra Gibbons, arts correspondent
Wednesday January 29, 2003
The Guardian

In the end the wife won it. Claire Tomalin last night won the £30,000 Whitbread book of the year award for her biography of Samuel Pepys, just as her husband Michael Frayn had predicted all along.

Frayn, one of her two chief rivals for the overall prize after winning the best novel category himself for his slim and elegant wartime thriller Spies, had threatened to start a bread roll fight if she did win, but in the event no baguettes were thrown.

Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye and chairman of the judges, said the rules of the competition forbade a fairy tale ending. "We were not allowed to share the prize so there were no twee 'Ahh, they're married, isn't that lovely' moments," he said.

"Nor did we want to share it with someone she wasn't married to ... Tomalin was the overwhelming winner. It was her against herself really."

The couple, both 69, have kept up an entertaining double act in public since they were shortlisted for the prize, with Frayn insisting from the start that Tomalin's bestselling reappraisal of the 17th century diarist, womaniser and civil servant was the weightier and more deserving of acclaim. She reciprocating by saying she hoped he would win.

But even with such magnanimity, Frayn admitted the unique position London's most distinguished literary couple had found themselves in was playing havoc with their social lives. "I must say, it's a great social difficulty with our friends."

Tomalin, the favourite, generally responded to such exemplary gentlemanly behaviour with guffaws and the occasional, "Oh, do shut up!"

She had previously won the Whitbread first book prize at 40 for her life of the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. That victory came a year after her former husband Nick Tomalin, a foreign correspondent with the Sunday Times, was killed by a Syrian rocket on the Golan Heights.

She met Frayn, a former Guardian journalist who is perhaps better known as the writer of such plays as Noises Off and Copenhagen, at a lunch for the Society for the Discouragement of Public Relations, a satirical club set up by her first husband. They married in 1993 after spending the previous 10 years together.

Hislop said there were some dissenting voices but there was "no blood on the carpet. It wasn't unanimous but it was an overwhelming vote. There were a couple of dissenting voices. Everyone thought the Frayn book was beautifully written. Both the novels [Frayn's and Norman Lebrecht's] were about boys during the second world war, and both had their supporters".

While Frayn's Spies was about two boys who suspect one of their mothers may be a German agent, the winner of the first book award, Lebrecht's The Song of Names, focused on the relationship between a swottish only child and a refugee from Warsaw.

The assistant editor of the London Evening Standard had more than one supporter on the panel, Hislop admitted. "Despite the fact that journalists hate each other - and Norman - it's a really good book," he joked. He revealed that he had argued strongly for the poet Paul Farley and his collection, The Ice Age.

But it was the way that Tomalin had "filled in the gaps" in Pepys's eventful and bawdy life that had really impressed the judges. His notoriously frank diaries, first published 150 years after his death, covered only nine years of his life, he said.

"What really impressed our biography panel was that although Tomalin was not first in the race to get a biography out, and she must have watched others ahead of her and wondered if she should go on, hers is the most definitive."


Never-ending stories

As new editions of her books are published, Claire Tomalin describes the loose ends and fresh discoveries that dog - and sometimes delight - the conscientious biographer

Saturday November 29, 2003
The Guardian

It was always a troublesome project and involved me in years of problems. I began the research for my 1987 biography Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life in the 1970s: all the old file boxes are there on my shelves to remind me. The subject was a rich and satisfyingly complex one, and there were plenty of unpublished papers and people ready to offer their recollections. So it started well; but I was finding my own life difficult, and I lost heart and gave up.

After a while the contracts were cancelled, advances repaid. Then in the mid-1980s I was persuaded back to work. A good deal of the writing was done at my father's house in the south of France and my dear father, a DH Lawrence scholar himself, did everything possible to help me, but also made no secret of his low opinion of Mansfield and her work.

He was shocked that I discussed Mansfield's gonorrhea, a subject his generation held to be unmentionable in public. From my point of view, it was the very fact that it could not be mentioned that had made it so terrible for Mansfield: she did not know what had happened to her body, and by the time she found out she had become infertile. She spent the rest of her life regretting the child she could not have.

Mansfield has often been seen as one of the bad girls of literature. And it's true that she was made of ambiguities. The best of her writing strikes to the heart, sharp and clear; there are also stories that don't work. No doubt she would have discarded them herself had she lived long enough to make such decisions, since she was critical of her own output.

In the conduct of her life too, she was all energy, wit and intelligence, adored for her charm and beauty; and also ruthless to friends and lovers, and devious in her dealings. Her appetite for experience led her to play the part of the wild colonial girl to its limits: fate dealt out a horrible punishment, and from the age of 21 her existence was determined by her medical condition. She was not only infertile but subject to persistent pain, and her lungs were attacked by tuberculosis. She died at 34.

To the world she showed a brave modern face. The new cover of my book - reissued next month with two more of my biographies, all with fresh jackets - uses the only portrait of Mansfield known to be done from life. Bold in colour and conception, it has its own story. It was painted by Anne Estelle Rice, an American artist settled in Europe, who had lived in Paris with the modernist Scottish painter John Fergusson and learnt from him and his friends, the Fauves. She and Mansfield became friends in Paris in 1912. In 1918, when Mansfield was already very ill, Rice found her a comfortable hotel in Cornwall, and there she began on the portrait. The last meeting between the two women was not many months before Mansfield's death in January 1923.

At that time the National Portrait Gallery did not consider any portrait until 10 years after the death of the subject. So Mansfield's admirers waited until November 1932 to approach the gallery. Theodora Bosanquet, secretary and librarian to the International Federation of University Women, wrote to the director, Henry Hake, offering to present Rice's portrait. He had never heard of Mansfield and misspelt her name in his letters and notes. Officially the decision as to her eligibility to be hung in the gallery rested not with him but with the trustees, although they were likely to take some note of his advice.

He was not encouraging to Bosanquet, but she had powerful allies. She had been Henry James's secretary, and her memoir of him was published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf's Hogarth Press in 1924. The Woolfs were among the 31 writers and public figures who wrote letters of support to the gallery, recommending that it should acquire the portrait of Mansfield. It was an impressive list, including HG Wells, GK Chesterton, Edward Garnett, JL Garvin, Rose Macaulay, Winifred Holtby, Kate O'Brien, Rebecca West, Laurence Binyon, Viola Meynell, Walter de la Mare, JC Squire, Michael Sadler, Humbert Wolfe, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Lady Rhondda and Charles Morgan.

Michael Sadler, master of University College, Oxford, mobilised a Christie's expert who testified to the quality of the portrait. Virginia Woolf wrote two letters to the chairman of the trustees, Sir Evan Charteris. While a little vague - she had not seen the painting herself and was confused about the date of Mansfield's death - she was warmly supportive. This was in December.

Bosanquet kept in touch with Hake, who told her the trustees would meet in February 1933 and consider the portrait then. She had established that the £150 asked by Rice would be paid by the supporters of the plan, so it would cost the gallery nothing. One of the trustees, Lord Conway, head of the Imperial War Museum, was offered an early viewing of the portrait. He declined, telling Hake he had no time to spare, adding: "I don't know anything about Kath Mansfield."

The trustees duly met. Although the chairman, Charteris, had replied politely to Woolf, he did not attend the meeting, which was accordingly chaired by the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres, a Conservative politician with an interest in the fine arts - he had written on Donatello. Two more earls were present; also the poet Sir Henry Newbolt and the historian GM Trevelyan, at 56 the youngest trustee. Hake, although carefully briefed by Bosanquet, described Mansfield as an "essayist and critic", and it is clear that none of the trustees had heard of her, let alone read any of her work.

Pencilled into the minutes of the meeting are the words "portrait too bad - prefer drawing or photograph". Hake wrote explaining to Bosanquet that the trustees considered it their "duty to posterity to scrutinise closely the quality of any portrait submitted and, in their opinion, this portrait is so definitely unsatisfying that they would feel reluctant to accept it even if they should finally decide that KM's achievement in letters entitled her to a place in the gallery". He asked if there were any other drawings, paintings or photographs; Ottoline Morrell offered her snapshots, but nothing further happened. The trustees were distracted by an impending royal visit to the gallery.

When, later in the year, the question of portraits of women was discussed, Trevelyan expressed the view that "the necessary woman was virtually impossible to find" - rather surprisingly adding, "unless Mrs Pankhurst were still alive" (she had died five years earlier). The Earl of Crawford gave his considered opinion that only one woman in England qualified for a place in the National Portrait Gallery, and she was the Queen.

Although Mansfield's works were at this time being read all over the world, the portrait remained unsold until 1940, when Rice offered it to the National Art Gallery of New Zealand, Mansfield's native country. They stumped up the £150. Its despatch was delayed by the war, and only in February 1946 was it hung in Wellington. I'm told it is no longer on display there.

I found all this out after I became a trustee of the NPG in 1992, when I began to press for a photograph of Mansfield to be hung in the 20th-century gallery. It took several more years to achieve that, but one did appear in 1996, although it was still felt necessary to buttress her by her husband John Middleton Murry. Photographs are light sensitive, which means she is not always on display, but at least she is now a permanent part of the collection.

I wrote Mrs Jordan's Profession , my 1994 biography of the 18th century actress and mistress of King William IV, in a canter of excitement and enjoyment, and the picture research was as enjoyable as the writing. There was a great deal of pictorial material, not only because she had been one of the most successful actresses of her day but because of her connection with royalty and the 10 grandchildren she gave King George III. Remarkable pictures came to light in unexpected places. Sometimes I had to swear secrecy as to their whereabouts. Others were in surprising locations, like the splendid swagger portrait of her son Adolphus, dressed as the Corsair, which belongs to Viscount Falkland and hangs in Brooks's club.

After the book appeared in hardback I kept hearing about more pictures. My publishers came to dread my calls as I urged them to tuck extra illustrations into the successive reprints of the paperback but they were extremely obliging. I was especially pleased to find an Edridge drawing of Mrs Jordan's second son Henry, who died young in India and so was missing from the great family group portrait.

Another that pleased me was of her kind, sensible daughter Lucy, who was not one of the royal brood, but from an earlier liaison, born in 1789; it meant she did not get painted as a child. She was intelligent and always supported her mother; she often went on tour with her, a good companion, looking after her and cheering her up; but in 1810 Lucy prudently married a 50-year-old colonel who soon became a general. She had a large family and appears in her portrait as the most respectable Victorian lady in widow's weeds, wearing spectacles for her short sightedness. If you look carefully at the Hoppner portrait of her mother that hangs in the NPG and is reproduced on the new cover of my book, you will see that Mrs Jordan is holding a pair of spectacles: short sightedness ran in the family. One of Lucy's sons lived until 1921, a living link between the Regency and the Bright Young Things.

Jane Austen remains a single portrait person and the tiny drawing her sister Cassandra did of her is finely displayed in the National Portrait Gallery. The most curious and surprising information that came to me after the publication of Jane Austen: A Life in 1997 was brought by a remarkable searcher of archives, Robin Vick. Examining the records of London apprenticeships in the 1740s he discovered that Austen's aunt Philadelphia - her father's elder sister - had been apprenticed on May 9 1745 - it must have been her 15th birthday - to a Covent Garden milliner, Mrs Hester Cole, for five years. Philadelphia was an orphan, and Covent Garden in the 1740s must have been a tough and testing place for an unprotected pretty girl to be set to work. While she was there, her brother George - equally hard working, but in a different sphere - was at Tonbridge school and then St John's College, Oxford, studying for the church.

At the end of Philadelphia's apprenticeship she went to India to find a husband; but while the young Austen made a reference to the Indian episode in an early story, there is no mention anywhere in Austen family papers of Aunt Philadelphia serving as a milliner's apprentice. Jane knew her aunt well, and was especially friendly with Philadelphia's daughter Eliza: did she know her mother's story? Did she tell Austen?

It casts an entirely new light on the family history. Austen's famous interest in money was rooted in the economic facts of women's lives as she saw them; she was poor herself, she showed sympathy for poor women, she took an interest in women who had to earn their own living and she understood why women married for security without love. Her two aunts, Philadelphia and the younger, Leonora, who sank almost without trace into obscurity in north London and died there in 1784, apparently unnoticed by her family, must have haunted her imagination - and continue to haunt mine.

Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life, Mrs Jordan's Profession and Jane Austen: A Life are all reissued on December 4


A life in books

Under their skins

With her award-winning, groundbreaking biographies of Pepys, Jane Austen and most recently Hardy, Claire Tomalin has become a formidable literary figure in her own right

Interview by Aida Edemariam
Saturday November 18, 2006
The Guardian


In Several Strangers, her collection of a lifetime's reviews and essays interspersed with carefully controlled memoir, Claire Tomalin remembers her eldest daughter telling her that it was only when she was 40, after her first husband had died, and when she published her first book and became literary editor of the New Statesman, that "I became recognisably the person I am now". Sitting in her Richmond kitchen and gazing out across her well-tended lawn, alert for marauding squirrels, she says it again. "I was so struck by her saying that."

She was, of course, many things before, but the Tomalin she became is a figure at the centre of English letters: a formidable editor who gathered writers, many now household names, around her; a biographer who made her reputation by rescuing the stories of overlooked women, catching a new feminist wave; half of one of the literary marriages of the age (to the playwright and novelist Michael Frayn). By finding a new way to write familiar lives - well buttressed, but empathetic and approachable, too - she has succeeded on her own terms in a male world. You soon see why. She may stare softly into the distance, but the slightest wooliness focuses a fierce brown gaze. Her conversation is warm and enthusiastic, but stiffened by lightly carried intellectual rigour, underpinned by a kind of involuntary honesty.

Her new biography of Thomas Hardy begins with Hardy's own turning-point - the death of his wife Emma and the enabling of his best poems - and, by doing so, recasts the accepted view of him. The novels recede, and music and marriage and poetry, all important to Tomalin herself, step forward. Tomalin is laughingly impatient with those who identify her with her subjects. "Every book I've written, almost, people have said, 'well of course she sees herself as Mary Wollstonecraft', 'she sees herself as Nelly Ternan' [Dickens's mistress, about whom she wrote The Invisible Woman]. Why I write biographies and why people read them is to get inside someone else's skin. One life is not enough. What I learnt from Pepys [her biography of whom won the Whitbread in 2004] was what it was to be a man" - the restless ambition, the huge sexual drive - "and I shall be ever grateful to him, because he showed how it was in a way that not even novelists have been able to."

At the same time, a full and blessed but often difficult life seems to have conferred a fineness of insight on her writing: delicately she traces the importance of Jane Austen's one proper brush with sexual vulnerability, or the trials of women moving, in The Invisible Woman, through "a morally uncertain world of purely private dangers". She is quick to defend women, and occasionally fellow feeling forces through: "I know of no other account of marital rage and jealousy to match this one," she writes of a Pepys row. "Anyone who has lived through anything similar, in whichever position in the triangle, will recognise its truth and force."

Tomalin's childhood could have been happier. Her parents separated when she was seven, triggering a protracted custody battle. "I have no recollection at all of them being happy or companionable together." Her elder sister was a child of their love, but her father did not want a second child, and, feeling that he was for a long time cold to the new arrival, she "withdrew into writing poetry and reading books". Her mother, a composer and music teacher, always worked, so "I took it for granted that women did things in life", and gave her poetry: read it to her, presented her with a complete Shakespeare when she was 11, "and I read it and I read it and I read it". She still has the copy - inscribed, inside the faded pink-red covers, "Claire Delavenay, from Mummy. June 20, 1944." Her mother loved Hardy, she writes in the acknowledgements to her new biography, "and set his 'Faintheart in a Railway Train' to music". Poetry is still immensely important to her, and she considers it a treat that Penguin has asked her to introduce a Penguin Classics selection of Hardy's poems; she's thinking of following it with a selected Milton.

At 13, she rejected the historical romances other girls read and saved up to buy Eileen Power's Medieval English Nunneries. Years later she thought of writing a biography of the vivacious Cambridge historian, but it had already been done, and done well. She also read, and reread, JE Neale's biography of Queen Elizabeth: it "was my favourite book for a very very long time". And she read the Bible, less for the language than for "the stories. It's one tissue of biographies. Abraham and Moses and Samuel and David and Solomon, and Ruth, and Jezebel - I really was entranced by the Bible." And Dickens, and Thackeray's Vanity Fair. "So I really lived a lot in versions of the past."

Teenage rebellion took the form, partly, of demanding the custody of her father, a French academic who worked for the BBC, the UN in New York and Unesco in Paris, rather than her mother. Her parents' solution was to send her to the liberal Dartington Hall School, whose headmaster said ("and this makes me sound worse than I was, because I wasn't actually sleeping with boys or anything"): "You won't get pregnant, will you, because it might mean the school will close down." But he and her English teacher also suggested she apply to Newnham College, Cambridge, a year early.

"By the time I went up to Cambridge I was extremely quiet and well behaved, although I now meet people who remember me as not like that at all." When she returns these days, she feels "a great sort of pang", though at the time she was not particularly happy. "There were 10 men to every girl, so one got this completely wrong impression of one's position in life", which was quite enjoyable, she says, but did make for "a lot of complicated relationships with boys". "The main thing that happened was that my tutor in my first year said, I think you can get a first. The thought had never, ever crossed my mind. It was quite an odd thing, to be told that - I suppose it sort of fired me up and gave me confidence."

She met Nicholas Tomalin in her final year, and a year after they moved to London they married, coincidentally on Hardy's wedding day. A year later she was pregnant with the first of five babies. "One of my most vivid memories of the mid-1950s," she wrote, in a 1994 review of Janet Malcolm's biography of Sylvia Plath, who was three years behind Tomalin at Cambridge, "is of crying into a washbasin full of soapy grey baby clothes - there were no washing machines - while my handsome and adored husband was off playing football in the park on Sunday morning with all the delightful young men who had been friends to both of us at Cambridge three years earlier. I had wanted to do something with my life - I thought I had some capacities, and here they were going down the plughole with the soapsuds." She ascribes some of Plath's troubles to this shock, felt by a whole generation of clever women. Men at the publishers Heinemann gave her 7/10 for good looks, and therefore a part-time job as an editorial assistant, and as a reader, which she could do at home, keeping her mind alive as she breastfed.

Then came dark years. Her third child died in infancy. Her husband, she has said, had affair after affair, "became a bolter". She got a job as deputy literary editor of the New Statesman, but a final baby, Tom, was born with spina bifida. Having "a severely handicapped child alters your life for ever", she says, and she had to leave. What confidence she had was increasingly battered - but a piece in the New Statesman had attracted such interest among publishers that she hired a nanny and embarked on her first biography. Then, in 1973, Nick Tomalin, who had become a celebrated foreign correspondent, was killed on the Golan Heights. Her book appeared a year later. The Whitbread biography prize had already gone to another book, so the first book prize was invented for it.

"I wish Nick were alive," she says. "But our marriage was in a really bad state, and it was like being given a second chance." She was persuaded to return to work, given the literary editorship of the New Statesman, and she took to the job and the life with gusto. Her writers included Clive James, Hilary Spurling, Jonathan Raban, Victoria Glendinning, Craig Raine, Shiva Naipaul, Paul Theroux; her deputies included Timothy Mo, Julian Barnes and Martin Amis, with whom she had a relationship. She observed the ambition of these younger men, but felt unthreatened by it. "I was a lot older than them, and they were working for me, so they were good friends and it was great fun." It was a hugely welcome "sort of youth - because I hadn't had much youth". She worries a bit now about what effect this had on her girls particularly, who were teenagers at the time and "incredibly supportive", but perhaps having to be too grown-up for their age.

She left the New Statesman to write about Katherine Mansfield, but missed editing, so when the job of literary editor of the Sunday Times was offered in 1979, she took it. But things darkened again. Her second daughter committed suicide, and her mother slipped into dementia; she worked hard to cope. At the paper she was dealing with a stable of first-class writers: John Carey, John Vincent, Anita Brookner, Christopher Ricks. She sees herself as coinciding with a golden age in literary journalism, a time of intellectual rigour and high ideals, of denial of celebrity, although she quickly points out that she's now 73 years old, "and of course I think things aren't as good now". Her contemporaries now, as writers, are Jenny Uglow, Spurling, Glendinning, Richard Holmes, Michael Holroyd - "it's our gang. We all sort of note each other's problems and pretty well understand what's going on ... I think we were a lucky generation, from the time we came down from university - there were lots of opportunities, there was lots of money about. I think life is much much harder for people now." Life at the Sunday Times soured a bit when Andrew Neil took over; when Rupert Murdoch moved the paper to Wapping, Tomalin quit to become a full-time writer.

She had met Frayn in the late 50s, at a meeting of the satirical Society for the Discouragement of Public Relations, part-organised by Nick Tomalin. "The falling in love," as she puts it, "came after 15 years of friendship." Eventually he left his wife for her. They work in two gabled rooms overlooking the garden and separated by another room full of files. Among the insights that enliven her biographies is an understanding of the nitty-gritty of being a writer, the subterranean dramas. She identifies, for example, Austen's overwhelming "need for everything to be settled to let imagination flower", and the catastrophic results when she was torn from her home. She understands, too, that "writers don't make good spouses. When I am writing I'm not a good wife. I shut myself away, and all my emotions are directed towards what I'm trying to write." Increasingly their cycles are converging: in 2002 Frayn's novel Spies came up against Pepys for the Whitbread, and this autumn they celebrated her Hardy and his The Human Touch together.

Tomalin has never made a secret of how much she misses the sociability of journalism. "I wish I saw more people," she says now. "It's lonely. I would like to have a more social life than I have. I also think, if you're very happily married, you make a world together, and that means perhaps you don't see so much of other people. We are so lucky - but then, who is so safe as we? Nobody's safe, are they? If I didn't have Michael, obviously I would have to cope, but you form a habit of happiness, in a way."