One of my TBRs for Jane Austen July was Claire Tomalin’s autobiography A Life of My Own. Tomalin wrote a biography of Austen, which I liked, and I also read (and liked) her biography of Nelly Ternan (who was Charles Dicken’s secret lover) last year. A rather tenuous link to the challenges of Jane Austen July, but who cares? I enjoy reading biographies and therefore thought the autobiography of a writer of biographies would be an interesting read – and it definitively was. I think I’ll eventually read some of Tomalin’s other biographies, as I do enjoy her writing very much.
Tomalin belongs to the generation of my mother. She’s actually a few years older than my Mum, but I found a couple of episodes in her life that resonated somewhat with my own experiences (although in general her life was nothing like mine – I’m not a well-known editor and author to name just the most obvious difference). Tomalin was born to an English mother and French father, who divorced when she was a child so that she sometimes lived with one, sometimes with the other parent (though mostly with her mother, who was a composer of music). Tomalin studied English at Newnham College, Cambridge. She married young and had 5 children one of whom died shortly after birth. She worked as a literary editor for the newspapers New Statesman and The Sunday Times before she started writing biographies full time at 53. She lost her first husband, a journalist, who was killed covering the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Later in life she had a second marriage.
Her autobiography is a mix of narrating what happened with a lot of name-dropping (but not obnoxiously so) and some introspection. I would have preferred a bit more of the latter, but that’s just a quibble.
One bit I could specially relate to was that she got glasses when she was twelve, which I did too, although my reaction was the opposite to hers. Here’s Tomalin’s account:
At the same time, it was discovered that I suffered from short sight and I was given my first pair of glasses. I detested having to wear them and left them off whenever I could; and I was especially disappointed to find that the stars, which had appeared to me as fuzzy shining shapes, became merely small dots in the sky. I still often take my glasses off during a walk in the country, to see it with a softer aspect, a vagueness I find congenial.
Claire Tomalin, A Life of My Own, Viking 2017, p.55.
I’m also short-sighted. When I got my first pair of glasses at 12, I was amazed at how clear and shiny the world was after having seen everything as a murky blur for quite some time. I remember that as I was going to pick up my glasses with my parents, I saw a dingy brown shopfront with grey writing above the shop window. This shop was opposite the optician’s shop and when I first put on my glasses, I looked out straight at that very shopfront and was absolutely astonished at the lovely chocolate-colour and the bright crisp white lettering on that building. I couldn’t believe it – I took off my glasses and put them on again to check. And then I spent the entire afternoon hanging out of the window of the house where we were staying just looking. Cars were especially noteworthy. They also were so crisp and bright, not just coloured blurs on wheels. I absolutely adored my glasses (still do) and never take them off (except when I’m sleeping). Quite different from Tomalin’s experience but I find her appreciation of “vagueness” intriguing.
During her studies at Newnham, someone introduced her to Moby-Dick:
He also urged me to read Melville’s Moby-Dick, and I bought myself a small edition of that very long book, dating it January 1953 […] I tried and failed to get on with it, but kept my copy for six decades and, when I finally read it in 2015, I found that George was right: it is a great and noble book, presenting many men of different faiths who live tolerantly together, different topics, chunks of history, distant seas, complex feelings and sensations.
Claire Tomalin, A Life of My Own, Viking 2017, p.105
I also read Moby-Dick at university (in 1996 as I noted in my paperback). But I loved it straight away and it is one of my favourite books, up with Toni Morrison’s Beloved or The Lord of the Rings. I’ve still got that paperback and maybe it’s time to revisit it.
She writes about grief, how it changes your perception and relation with the “pleasures offered by the world” (p. 254) which is relatable to anyone who’s ever lost a loved one. You get over the grief eventually (although it can spike now and then), but you never forget them and in time you focus on the good times and it makes you appreciate your life and relationships more deeply, I find.
She was 53 when she left her job at the Sunday Times and became a writer of biographies:
Working on a biography means you are obsessed with one person and one period for several years. Another life is bound up with yours and will remain so for the rest of your own life – that at least is my experience. […] Your interest is so strong it can be called a passion.
Claire Tomalin, A Life of My Own, Viking 2017, p.284.
This kind of struck me and made me ponder my own situation, because I’m currently 53 but I’m not going to leave my job and start a new career. I haven’t got a passion like Tomalin except for reading but who’s going to hire me to read? Also, as a job, reading might become a slog and that would be just terrible.
Luckily, although my job is not my passion, it’s a good job, so no need to drop everything and start anew. It’s also quite secure, even during the pandemic, and I like the reassurance that a secure job provides. My colleagues are mostly very lovely people and the job has a lot of different facets, so it doesn’t get tedious (some bits are boring, but you get that with most jobs). It does sometimes get stressful and annoying, but on the whole it’s quite doable and often even enjoyable. I tend to moan on the blog about the things that go wrong, but it’s also kind of fun to deal with roadblocks (to a degree, not if it happens all the time). Also, my job pays well and has good benefits which is nothing to sneeze at (especially if you have a degree in the humanities which can make it hard to find a good job). I can even afford to work only 4 days a week instead of 5. That’s the best decision I ever made (10+ years ago), even if it cost me 20% of my salary – the additional free time is so, so worth it). Sometimes I think that it’s a pity that I haven’t got a job that’s also a passion, but then I think “count your blessings, it could be much, much worse”. There are so many dreadful and underpaid jobs – I generally think passion about jobs is overrated. It’s great if you’ve got it, but it’s very possible to be content in a job without being passionate about it. Though it’s helpful if you have something to be passionate about in your free time.
But to return to A Life of My Own: it’s very good and I enjoyed it a lot. I always like it when other people’s experiences broaden my view of the world and cause me to reflect on my own life. That’s why I read autobiographies, memoirs and biographies.
Keep safe, world.