Brenda Niall reviews 'A Life of My Own' by Claire Tomalin

When a biographer tells her own story, the rules change. Because the subject is the self, the problem is not so much a search for the unknown, but what to tell about the known and how to tell it. One of Britain’s finest biographers, Claire Tomalin, has spoken of her pleasure in ‘investigating’ other people’s lives. What happens when she turns to her own life? What will be told and what withheld?

Tomalin’s memoir of a brilliantly successful life as journalist, literary editor, and author of eight biographies is more than a career study. It is a search for emotional truth in her painful, deeply troubled relations with her parents, and with her first husband, the philandering charmer, Nick Tomalin. The personal and the professional are woven together in a life remembered with remarkable resilience and magnanimity.

Reading Samuel Pepys, Tomalin says, made her aware of the seamlessness of experience. Unwanted by her father, she was conceived ‘not only without love but through the gritted teeth of [his] murderous loathing’ for her mother. Her parents divorced when she was eleven, after a ‘poisonous’ marriage, mostly spent apart from one another. Rivalry for parental affection meant that the two daughters of the marriage were never close to one another. Yet Tomalin doesn’t look back in bitterness. Memories of emotional neglect co-exist with knowledge of her mother’s intense love, a background that was culturally privileged, and eventual reconciliation with her father.

Read the rest of this article by purchasing a subscription to ABR Online, or subscribe to the print edition to receive access to ABR Online free of charge.

If you are already a subscriber, click here, or on the ‘Log In’ tab in the top right hand corner of the screen, and enter your username and password to log in. If you have logged in but are still seeing this message your subscription to ABR Online may have expired. Please contact us or click here to renew your subscription to ABR Online. More information about ABR Online can be found on our Frequently Asked Questions page.

Leave a comment

Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.

NB: If you are an ABR Online subscriber or contributor, you will need to login to ABR Online in order to post a comment. If you have forgotten your login details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.