Tomalin, Claire 1933-

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Tomalin, Claire 1933-


Born June 20, 1933, in London, England; daughter of Emile (a scholar) and Muriel (a songwriter) Delavenay; married Nicholas Tomalin, September 17, 1955 (died October, 1973); married Michael Frayn, June 5, 1993; children: (first marriage) Josephine, Susanna, Emily, Thomas. Education: Cambridge University, B.A.; Newnham College, Cambridge, M.A. (honors), 1954.


Office—57 Gloucester Cres., London NW1 7EG, England. Agent—David Godwin Associates, 55 Monmouth St., London WC2H 9DG England.


Reader and editor for publishing firms in London, England, 1955-67; Evening Standard, London, staff member, 1967-68; New Statesman, London, assistant literary editor, 1968-74, literary editor, 1974-77; Sunday Times, London, reviewer, 1977-79, literary editor, 1979-86.


National Portrait Gallery (trustee), Royal Literature Fund (registrar), Royal Society of Literature (honorary fellow; council member, 1994—), Wordsworth Trust (trustee), English PEN (vice president).


Whitbread First Book Prize, 1974, for The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft; NCR Book Award, Hawthornden Prize, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, all for The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens; Whitbread Award in biography category, Whitbread Book of the Year Award, and Samuel Pepys Award, 2002, all for Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self; Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self was named a New York Times Editor's Choice for 2003.



The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1974, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1975, reprinted, Penguin (New York, NY), 1992.

Shelley and His World, Scribner (New York, NY), 1980.

(Compiler) Parents & Children, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1981.

Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life, Knopf (New York, NY), 1987.

The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, Knopf (New York, NY), 1991.

The Winter Wife (play; produced in Sheffield at the Nuffield Theatre, 1991), Nick Hern Books (London, England), 1991.

Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King, Viking (New York, NY), 1994, published as Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Actress and the Prince, Knopf (New York, NY), 1995.

Jane Austen: A Life, Knopf (New York, NY), 1997.

(Author of prefatory note) Evelyn Schlag, Quotations of a Body, Ariadne (Riverside, CA), 1998.

(Editor, and author of introduction) Mary Shelley, Maurice, or, The Fisher's Cot, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1998.

Several Strangers: Writing from Three Decades, Viking (New York, NY), 1999.

Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.

Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man, Viking (New York, NY), 2006.

Contributor to Punch and other English periodicals.


Claire Tomalin is perhaps best known for writing biographies of prominent literary figures from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Loraine Fletcher, writing in the New Statesman & Society, commented that Tomalin's biographies often concern those who have been "obscured by prudent contemporaries or written out of the record by academics." Writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, James King explained that "central to [Tomalin's] books is a concern with how the experience of females is fundamentally different from that of men."

Tomalin began her career as a biographer in the early 1970s, when she was approached by publishers to do a full-length biography on Mary Wollstonecraft, after Tomalin published an essay on the 18th-century feminist in New Statesman. Noted for her 1792 book Vindication of the Rights of Women, Wollstonecraft was a controversial feminist in her time, arguing that women should be afforded equal education and should be as self-supporting and independent as they wished. Her daughter, Mary Shelley, went on to write the classic novel Frankenstein. Ellen Moers in the New York Review of Books criticized The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft as a "slanted, carping, and unreliable" account of the feminist's life. But Arthur M. Wilson, writing in the New York Times Book Review, found that although "not very fond of Mary, Claire Tomalin is tolerant and just. In her hands we are able … to know much more about Mary Wollstonecraft than any one person did in her lifetime and indeed more than she knew about herself."

In Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life, Tomalin focuses on the secretive side of British short story writer Mansfield, "a theatrical and mercurial creature who was addicted to disguise and impersonation, mendacity and deception," as Pearl K. Bell noted in the New York Times Book Review. Tomalin begins her account of the author's short and stormy life with a description of "Mansfield's masks and performances, her lies, her sexual ambiguities, her ‘dizzying’ changes of face and heart," according to Hermione Lee in the London Observer. Lee remarked that Tomalin's biography "departs from and surpasses its rivals" in its coverage of the friendship between Mansfield and D.H. Lawrence. "This is so powerful," Lee wrote, "I almost wished it had been the book's only subject." Bell concluded that Katherine Mansfield is a "vivid and crisply authoritative book," while John Gross in the New York Times believed that "perhaps Mrs. Tomalin's greatest achievement is that the parts cohere, that we are left with a portrait as consistent as Mansfield's own inconsistencies allow."

Tomalin explores the mystery of whether or not the actress Nelly Ternan was the mistress of British novelist Charles Dickens in The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens. "Tomalin, in her brilliant, compassionate and sometimes indignant biography, has brought off something very difficult," wrote Penelope Fitzgerald in the London Observer, proclaiming: "She gives us, for the first time, Nelly Ternan's own point of view." Gathering material and proof for this story was difficult because Dickens took great pains to keep his public image untarnished. Dickens burned all his personal letters and diaries, and the children of both Ternan and Dickens destroyed all correspondence and any other evidence that might have been considered incriminating. Tomalin, "a careful and judicious writer," declared Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, "[uses] her gifts of sympathy and insight to flesh out the bare bones of her detective work."

Dora Jordan, the eighteenth-century actress profiled in Tomalin's Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King, is considered one of the greatest theatrical comediennes of all time. David Cannadine in the London Review of Books contended that Jordan was "a remarkable female personality … whose life was more dramatic than any of the parts she played … and which still possesses the power to captivate, to move, to shock and to anger." For some twenty years, Jordan was the lover of Prince William, the Duke of Clarence, later to become King William IV. Although she bore him children, the Prince left Jordan suddenly when court pressure to find a suitable woman to be his queen became unbearable. Writing in the Spectator, Helen Osborne called Mrs. Jordan's Profession an "altogether enthralling biography" and "a wonderful book about a remarkable actress." Times Literary Supplement contributor Pat Rogers noted that "it is hard to find a fault in [Tomalin's] performance. It is one her subject would have esteemed, for its technique, brio, and human warmth."

Tomalin features another remarkable woman in her 1997 biography Jane Austen: A Life. Following in the wake of numerous biographies about Austen, "there is little new evidence to discover," indicated Nigel Nicolson in Spectator, instructing that "to discover new territory the authors [of new biographies] are bound to reach out further and further from the central figure. Thus Claire Tomalin writes." Jane Austen is "a thoughtful, studied, well-sourced" biography that relies on "fresh contextual material" to "[show] what critics have long suspected: the social world Austen moved in was culturally extensive," affirmed Malcom Bradbury in New Statesman, praising: "Tomalin's … unrambling prose gives clear evidence and plain points, and stays fairly close to home." "She not only depicts a life that was considerably more worldly than commonly supposed, but also delineates an emotional experience ‘full of events, of distress and even trauma,’ which permanently shaped Austen's apprehension of the world," recognized New York Times Book Review critic Kakutani, who also hailed the critical literary remarks Tomalin presents "astutely … deftly … [and with] no condescension toward the reader, no diagrammatic plot summaries, no labored introduction of well-known characters" as "so illuminating that the reader is left wanting more."

Although "little new information is provided" in Jane Austen, according to Washington Post Book World contributor Joan Aiken, "new insights are given on existing facts…. Tomalin, while sticking firmly to facts, never lets her readers forget that what she describes is the 18th century, over 200 years distant, in its opinions and habits, from our own viewpoint…. [It] convey[s], very strongly, the constant shortage of money, the straits, the struggles, the shifts and contrivances that the emerging middle-classes were going through at that time." This "straight" biography allows readers to "make [their] own guesses about the mental activities of historical characters, and not have them dealt out … ready-made," applauded Aiken, who determined the work "provides a rich vein of information about the large entangled family network, the Leighs, Austens, Lloyds, Knatchbulls, Bridges and Palmers." Kakutani commended Tomalin: "Writing in vivid, authoritative prose, she does a masterly job of delineating the complex emotional mathematics of the Austen clan, showing us the bonds of rivalry, affection and dependence." L. Elisabeth Beattie's Chicago Tribune review lauded Jane Austen an "eminently readable yet painstaking portrait" that "can safely be called Austen's definitive biography."

Tomalin tackled the biography of one of history's most prolific diarists in Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self. Pepys, an administrator for King Charles II in the latter half of the seventeenth century, kept a ten-year diary documenting all aspects of his everyday life and the goings-on of Restoration London. In an article for the Bookseller, Tomalin commented on Pepys's unprecedented chronicle: "I feel that as a writer he was using his own experience as a way of showing what human life is like. Scientists of the day were observing the physical world, and in the same way Pepys was observing the pattern and texture of human life." Roberta Taylor quoted Tomalin in an article for Contemporary Review as calling Pepys "‘the most ordinary and the most extraordinary writer you will ever meet’. Through her words we feel we have done just that." "If some of her claims for his eminence as a writer or for his place in human psychology are a bit extravagant," remarked a critic for the New York Times Book Review, "Pepys is so captivating and her picture of his Britain so brightly drawn that you can ignore her theses and still hugely enjoy her book." Atlantic Monthly contributor Philip Hensher described the book as "a magnificent triumph." Hensher further commented: "Her research has been not just scrupulously thorough but dazzlingly imaginative…. Tomalin puts together a few scraps of evidence, tentatively and imaginatively explores the implications, and then stops, admitting the impropriety of venturing any further. It is supremely respectful and convincing."

Tomalin's biography of English novelist Thomas Hardy, described by an Economist reviewer as a "work of supreme sensitivity and control," begins in an unconventional manner: with the death of his first wife Emma when the two were in their seventies. Her passing triggered a torrent of poetry from Hardy, which ultimately became some of his most respected work. Tomalin follows with a retrospective of Hardy's life, from his humble upbringing, through his career as a novelist and marriage to Emma, to his second marriage and his declining years. Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man was called "a priceless resource for the general reader and the Victorian scholar" by Booklist reviewer Bryce Christensen. Noting that Tomalin "always builds a good story," a Kirkus Reviews critic concluded that "this slow but touching biography of the mild-mannered provincial architect from Dorchester who created seething novels about inequity and thwarted ambition is no exception." Raymond Carr wrote in a review for Spectator that the "great strength of this book is its treatment of the women who shaped Hardy's life." A Publishers Weekly contributor found the biography "finely honed" and a "gripping account of Hardy's long, troubled marriage to Emma Gifford."



Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 155: Twentieth-Century British Literary Biographers, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1995, pp. 305-309.


Atlantic Monthly, November, 2002, Philip Hensher, "A Seventeenth-Century Modern: Samuel Pepys Did Not, In Fact, Tell Us Everything," p. 118.

Booklist, November 15, 2006, Bryce Christensen, review of Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man, p. 17.

Bookseller, July 12, 2002, "The Man Who Studied Himself," review of Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, p. 30.

Chicago Tribune, March 16, 1998, L. Elisabeth Beattie, review of Jane Austen: A Life.

Contemporary Review, April, 2003, Roberta Taylor, review of Samuel Pepys, p. 245.

Economist, November 11, 2006, review of Thomas Hardy, p. 96.

Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 2006, review of Thomas Hardy, p. 1119.

London Review of Books, October 20, 1994, David Cannadine, review of Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King, p. 35.

New Statesman, October 17, 1997, Malcom Bradbury, review of Jane Austen, p. 45.

New Statesman & Society, October 21, 1994, Lorraine Fletcher, review of Mrs. Jordan's Profession, p. 38.

New York Review of Books, February 19, 1976, Ellen Moers, review of The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, p. 38.

New York Times, March 22, 1988, John Gross, review of Katherine Mansfield, p. 21; March 26, 1991, Michiko Kakutani, review of The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, p. B2.

New York Times Book Review, January 5, 1975, Arthur M. Wilson, review of The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, p. 5; May 15, 1988, Pearl K. Bell, review of Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life, p. 15; November 25, 1997, Michiko Kakutani, review of Jane Austen, p. E8; December 7, 2003, review of Samuel Pepys, p. 10.

Observer (London, England), November 1, 1987, Hermoine Lee, review of Katherine Mansfield, p. 27; October 28, 1990, Penelope Fitzgerald, review of The Invisible Woman.

Publishers Weekly, December 4, 2006, review of Thomas Hardy, p. 47.

Spectator, October 29, 1994, Helen Osborne, review of Mrs. Jordan's Profession, p. 31; September 27, 1997, Nigel Nicolson, review of Jane Austen, p. 41; October 21, 2006, Raymond Carr, review of Thomas Hardy.

Times Literary Supplement, October 21, 1994, Pat Rogers, review of Mrs. Jordan's Profession, p. 4.

Washington Post Book World, October 26, 1997, Joan Aiken, review of Jane Austen, p. 1.