UEA Autumn Literary Festival: Claire Tomalin

On the stage is a tall pile of books giving an indication of Tomalin’s illustrious literary career. She is best known for her biographies of historical literary figures, including Charles Dickens and his lover Ellen Turner, but here she is sticking closer to home for this discussion of her latest work: her autobiography. Before Tomalin arrives, the lecture theatre fills with a sea of silver hair demonstrating the book’s obvious appeal to Tomalin’s contemporaries who might be able to take the trip back with her into the England of their youth.

However, this by no means diminishes the interest that the usual inhabitants of Lecture Theatre 1 could have in Tomalin. If her book is anything as dynamic and fascinating as she in real life it’s sure to be a delight for readers of any age. In fact, for a younger audience it serves as a personal account of what growing up was like in an era we never got to experience.  

Though her autobiography A Life of My Own was released last year, this discussion with Professor Christopher Bigsby is still principally and justifiably focussed on this work. Her life and career are just as interesting as those of the subjects of her previous biographies. Furthermore, by writing this book and speaking to this audience she is providing us with a source that she often laments not having for her other books; here she is giving direct testimony, something future generations can read as a primary source about what a modern woman’s life was like in post war Britain.  

In a way the autobiography can be seen as penance, as her career was built on delving into the private lives of people who are no longer here to defend themselves. Now she is laying out the painful and private elements of her own life – though admittedly with the parts that would hurt or embarrass others cut out. The discussion with Bigsby spans, like the book, her entire life, beginning all the way back with the uneasy revelation that the day she was conceived, her father had felt such hatred for her mother that he had contemplated pushing her off a cliff – a fact he himself revealed in his own autobiography.

It seems she learned from the pain her father’s memoir caused her as she refused to write about her own children as characters. The only child who she discusses in detail is her son with Spina Bifida, but this choice seems more as an inspirational example of someone who doesn’t let his disability get in the way of his life. She told the audience of the rather remarkable feats he achieves such as travelling alone despite being wheelchair bound. It also seems to be somewhat of a political decision to include these details; she was applauded when she emphasised the importance of help for families with disabled children and called the recent cuts to disabled allowance ‘disgusting’.

Throughout the talk Tomalin gained both applause and laughter from an enthralled audience, proving that her abilities as a dynamic storyteller span beyond the written word. She speaks in such an intriguing and enthusiastic way that you can’t help but be drawn in. At one point Tomalin recounted how her autobiography came about: an editor told her she should write a story, initially she responded that she didn’t write fiction but then it dawned on her ‘I have a story to tell’. This talk certainly proved that.

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Emily Taithe

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January 2022
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