Review: ‘A Life of My Own’ by Claire Tomalin

My rating: ⭐️⭐️☆☆☆

For transparency, I must declare upfront that I knew nothing of Claire Tomalin before reading this book. She was an unwitting participant in my digital book experiment.

I’ve long resisted the idea of Kindles, eBooks or iBooks (now Apple Books). I’m a tactile creature. I love the touch and feel of a paperback or hardback – the inky, papery smell of it, the weight of a book in my hands, the flimsiness of each page and the crisp, snap-py, woosh-y sound as you turn them. And I’m philosophically opposed to spending unnecessary time in front of a screen.

Yet I’m also a pragmatist, and there’s no denying that books can be an inconvenient additional weight in your luggage when travelling. So, in the interests of economy and portability, I was keen to explore Apple Books and try reading one on both a laptop and a smartphone.

Why did I choose this title?

Well, I do love a memoir. It’s fascinating to read how other people navigate life’s curveballs and blindsides, highs and lows, triumphs and tragedies; particularly how they respond emotionally and process these events intellectually. A well-written memoir is like a window into a person’s soul, a shared intimacy and a privilege. And as Claire Tomalin is an acclaimed, award-winning biographer, I thought her memoir would be a paragon of the genre.

The book starts slowly with an opening chapter devoted (perhaps unnecessarily?) to the early lives of Tomalin’s parents and their toxic relationship in the years before and after her birth. There are hints as to the impact of such a hostile environment on the young Claire. Still, as an adult, she shirks any detailed examination of this, leaving questions unanswered and conceding only that she ‘developed a stronger sense of the randomness of things.’

We then follow Claire through her schooling during the war years and late 1940s, a period in which discontinuity was a feature of her life. She was ‘shuffled about because of the war’, ‘often with no idea of why or where [she] was going next, losing any friends [she] might have made’. Books became her ‘portable companions, reliable, constant.’

In 1951, Tomalin entered Cambridge University expecting ‘to be mentally stirred and surprised, to find some new and tremendous intellectual stimulus.’  To her disappointment, independent thought was not encouraged. Students were told what to think; given information that ‘would be invaluable during [their] future careers as schoolteachers.’ Despite graduating with a First, she received no career guidance and, after deciding against both civil service and teaching, submitted to her father’s wish that she attend secretarial training college in London – a prudent pathway for young women at that time.

By her admission, Tomalin ‘had become dull and without any particular ambition.’ Abandoning her imagined future as a poet, she concluded that she ‘did not have an original poetic voice and stopped writing’. Sadly, this decision left her with ‘an emptiness … which has never quite been filled.’

In 1955, Claire landed her first job in publishing as a secretarial/editorial assistant. Over the next four decades, with relentless determination and undeniable talent, she set about furthering her career – firstly, as a publisher’s reader, then book reviewer, literary journalist, literary editor, sometime broadcaster and finally, biographer. She did so while managing an increasingly chaotic and, at times, traumatic, personal life – a marriage scarred by numerous infidelities and physical abuse, long periods of sole parenting, raising a child with disabilities and multiple bereavements – before finding love and happiness again in her sixties.

The book consistently hints at the social and cultural climate of the times yet offers no critical examination of it. Anecdotes about the literati and references to influential books and writers, songs and composers, feature prominently with the intention (I presume) to add colour and interest to the narrative. I found it gratuitous and distracting – an extravagant exercise in name-dropping – more so because I am unfamiliar with many of the names and characters. Other passages, such as those describing the purchase and renovation of Tomalin’s home in Gloucester Crescent, are simply tedious and could have been omitted.

Personal highs and lows – of most considerable interest to me – are strangely recounted in a matter of fact, detached way. Tomalin writes superficially about her thoughts and reactions to significant and life-changing events but avoids any detailed reflection or analysis of her emotions. She hints at this approach in the introduction:

I have tried to be as truthful as possible, which has meant moving between the trivial and the tragic in a way that could seem callous. But that is how life is. Even when you are at the worst moments and would like to give all your attention to grief, you still have to clean the house and pay the bills; you may even have to enjoy your lunch. One of my aims in writing was to insist on the seamlessness of life – something I saw presented by [Samuel] Pepys in his diaries, in which he gives the texture of the days as he lived them, work and play mixed together, never pretending that he felt as he should, or behaved better than he did.

But this was a major disappointment to me. I never got a sense of how Tomalin felt or how these events shaped her. I turned the last page realising that I didn’t know her at all.

And therein lies the fundamental difference between a memoir and an autobiography. The former is less obsessed with factual events and more concerned with emotional truth, then and now; the latter, founded in chronological facts – events, places, reactions, movements and other relevant information.

I think this book is miscategorised as a memoir. To my mind, it leans far more towards autobiography. I was expecting one thing; it delivered something else entirely. Hence, my dissatisfaction.

Regardless, it is the work of an accomplished writer, with a long and distinguished career and a fascinating personal life. And that might be enough to tempt you.

Results of the Apple Books experiment

For the reasons mentioned earlier, I’ll never give up reading actual books. They’ve been my constant and reassuring companions for so long that I draw comfort from the mere sight of them lined up on my shelves.  But I do think digital books have their place and here’s why:

  1. They’re super portable and convenient. Since I never leave home without my smartphone, I always have access to my preferred reading material without carrying the extra weight and bulk of a paperback or hardback. Or I can read the same material on my laptop if I choose. Great for travelling or commuting on public transport.
  1. Apple Books lets you tailor the appearance of pages and text to your preference or requirements – screen brightness, font, font size, background (screen) colour and scrolling view. Smartphones even have an auto-night theme. These features circumvent any difficulties you might otherwise have reading small print, on a small screen or in low light.
  1. You can bookmark pages, so when you reopen the app on any device, it returns you to the last page read.
  1. You can also highlight text and make notes as you go, then access them via a list which includes the relevant page number and the date on which you made the highlight or note. Great for book reviews or research purposes.
  1. As a general rule, Apple Books cost less than paperbacks (bookstore bargain bins aside).
  1. They don’t take up space in your bag, on your shelves or elsewhere in your home.
  1. And you’ll have them forever … or as long as you maintain an iTunes account.

So, why not give them a try?

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