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Claire Tomalin Moves 'Between The Trivial And The Tragic' In 'A Life Of My Own'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In telling the story of her own life, my guest, Claire Tomalin, has tried to tell a larger story of British women of her generation. She was born in 1933. In her new memoir, "A Life Of My Own," she describes herself as having been carried along by conflicting desires to have children and a worthwhile working life. She eventually had both. She gave birth to five children, worked for British publications as a book reviewer and editor and, later in life, found her true vocation as a biographer, writing books about Jane Austen and Charles Dickens and the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Tomalin says her story should be cheering to anyone who is finding it hard to establish a career they find congenial.

She also writes about grief. One of her children was born with growths covering his body and died in infancy. One of her daughters took her life after suffering profound, terrifying depression. In 1973, her first husband, the British reporter Nick Tomalin, was killed in Israel by a Syrian missile while covering the Yom Kippur War. And because she thinks it's important for people to know what it's like to be the parent of a disabled child, she writes about raising her son Tom, who was born with spina bifida, leaving him unable to ever stand or walk. Tomalin remarried at age 60 to the British playwright Michael Frayn.

Claire Tomalin, welcome to FRESH AIR. I really love your memoir. And I'm going to ask you to read the first few lines of your introductory note.

CLAIRE TOMALIN: (Reading) Writing about myself has not been easy. 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 you would like to give all your attention to grief, you still have to clean the house and pay the bills. You may even enjoy your lunch.

GROSS: I think that will give our listeners a sense of where you're going to be going (laughter) in this book and also how well you write. Did writing biographies help you understand the story of your own life and find the parts that you thought may be of interest and value to others?

TOMALIN: I suppose it did encourage me to try and write about my own life. I think particularly working on Samuel Pepys, the diarist - the 17th century diarist - because what is so extraordinary with him is that he shows life is all one from the very first page when he talks about the political situation and mentions his wife having her period. And that moment, you know that this man really is involved thoroughly in what we are all involved with - the mixture of things that is our life. And so I sort of thought I would try and approach my own life somewhat in that way, seeing what a mixture things are.

GROSS: In your introductory note, you write about how you were carried along by conflicting desires to have children and a worthwhile working life and how long it took you to get going with your work. You went to Cambridge University when there were few women there. Then when you started applying for jobs, you applied to the BBC. Tell us what you were told about applying as a woman to the BBC.

TOMALIN: Oh, yes, yes. They had a management trainee program which sounded pretty good to me, so I wrote in applying for it. And I had done very well at Cambridge. And I simply got a letter back saying, dear, Ms. Delavenay, it is not the policy of the BBC to consider women for the general trainee course. And I'd added in my letter, well, perhaps secretarial work. And they said, you could apply for a secretarial job, but I don't think you would get it (laughter). So that was a pretty smart put-down from the BBC.

GROSS: Why didn't they think you would get it?

TOMALIN: I never asked them (laughter). I really don't know. Perhaps they just thought I was unsuitable in some way.

GROSS: And you were judged on your looks, too. Weren't you graded a 7 out of 10?

TOMALIN: Well, that was very funny, yes. I then applied for a job in publishing. And I was to be interviewed by the man who'd be my boss if I got the job. And I had to go through an outer office for my interview, and there was a younger man working there. So I went and sat down in front of and talked to the man who was - who might be my boss. And as we talked, the younger man came in with a piece of paper silently and put it down in front of his boss and - the man who would be my boss - and went out of the room. I had no idea what it was. I didn't even think about it again until several months later when I was working with them and we were all friends. They explained that they'd agreed he would give me marks out of ten for my looks. And it was 7 out of 10 (laughter). It was very funny.

GROSS: And that was good enough to get the job.

TOMALIN: (Laughter) Just about, yes.

GROSS: So you married when you were young. You were 21, and your husband Nick Tomalin, who was a journalist, was 23. And since you write about the conflicting desires to have children and a working life, I'm interested that you wanted to have six children. That seems to mitigate (laughter) against a career.

TOMALIN: (Laughter).

GROSS: I mean, six is really a lot. Why did you want six? How did you think - if you succeeded in having six, how that would affect the other things you wanted to do in life?

TOMALIN: Well, it's a good question. We both wanted to have six children. We both had divorced parents and had had some difficulties in our childhood and some loneliness, I suppose. And we somehow both felt that the idea of a large family was very attractive. And I don't think it occurred to us that it would make any problems. Before you've had a baby, (laughter) you don't know what hard work it's going to be. You don't know that you're going to have no free time at all for several years. So you can sail into this situation.

GROSS: Well, you had two daughters. And then you had a baby who was born with sores or growths over his whole body. Why that happened - no one ever explained what the cause was. No one ever was able to explain. This baby died very soon. Can you talk a little bit about the quality of grief for a baby that lived so briefly?

TOMALIN: It was extremely painful because he was brought to me wrapped up. So I saw his head and held him. And this was - I give birth very easily, so, you know, I wasn't at all traumatized by the birth myself. And he had dark hair and dark eyes, and of course I loved him. He was my baby. And I knew there was something wrong. And I would sort of urge him to fight. I said, fight, little one. Fight. I want you to live. And my little girls came in to see him.

And then after some days, one of the nurses - I think she was an Australian nurse - did something which she was not supposed to do. She unwrapped the baby. She said, I think you need to see your baby properly. And so I saw all these terrible growths around his shoulders and his chest. And of course the doctors were - I think she got into trouble, but I defended her because I thought she did the right thing.

Anyhow, after a bit, they said it would be better if I went home to be with my little daughters. But I could express milk and come in. And say we did this for not - it was barely a month he lived, but it seems very long in memory. And then he died. And yes, I don't even like remembering it. And so I thought then it's like falling off a horse. I better have another baby straight away, or I shall lose my courage. And in fact I did. And my daughter Emily was born on Daniel's birthday a year later, so that was pretty good.

GROSS: So at the same time you were having all these children, your marriage wasn't working out. Your husband Nick became a famous reporter in England. He was gone a lot of the time. He started having affairs. And you write, my role now was as the boring suburban wife with too many children who held him back. So if you thought he saw you that way, did you start to see yourself that way, too?

TOMALIN: Well, I find it hard to remember. I was terribly upset when I realized he was having affairs. And I did realize that there was an awful lot of baby life going on and breastfeeding and all that and that he was very charming, clever, handsome. He was editing the London Star in London, surrounded by brilliant young men and women who adored him. And the contrast, I suppose, between that and the fun he was having and what was going on at home, even though to me the babies were interesting and delightful, was very great. And I suppose it was pretty simpleminded of me not to understand that.

GROSS: So but did you start to see yourself as a boring suburban wife?

TOMALIN: I don't think I did (laughter). I was beginning to do some book reviewing - children's book reviewing, the first offer you get usually in those days if you're a woman. Colleagues from Cambridge who were becoming literary editors sent me books to review. And yes, I didn't think I was worthless, and I had a lot of friends, too, very good neighbors. We were living in Greenwich at that point - lots of young families. I remember the very respectable husband of one of our neighbors said when Nick ran off, oh, somebody's had the courage to do what we all want to do. But he never did such a thing himself. But (laughter) you could see what it's like when you've got young couples together.

GROSS: You write, the collapse of our marriage was not all his fault. We were too young to marry. You were 21. He was 23 when you got married. And I was not the right wife for him. I was too serious, too critical. I was charmed by him, but I did not adore him, and he fell in love with girls who either did adore him or who knew how to convey adoration. I saw him changing into an almost unrecognizable person, and I had no idea how to respond.

What about responding to the women he was having affairs with? Were you angry with them, and did you wonder how they could have affairs with a married man?

TOMALIN: Yes, I didn't feel friendly towards them. (Laughter) I remember one of them coming to dinner in a white skirt, and I spilled coffee all over it (laughter).

GROSS: Accidentally or on purpose?

TOMALIN: On purpose (laughter).

GROSS: Oh, really? Wow.


TOMALIN: That's not in the book. You're making me remember things that are not in - but it's true. I did not adore him. I see there is a difference. There is a big difference between getting on very well - we got on very well. We were - we had fun together. We enjoyed things together. And he loved the children, but he tended to forget about that of course once he was running off with some other young woman and suddenly saying he wanted a divorce and the whole marriage had been a mistake and...

GROSS: Well, you say he kept leaving home and then returning.

TOMALIN: Well, he did that fairly often, yes, yes.

GROSS: Your parents had divorced when you were young. How did that affect your decision to try to keep the family together in spite of the fact that he was not only having affairs; he was leaving you for other women and then coming back?

TOMALIN: Well, I suppose I resisted the idea of divorce. On the other hand, when he said he wanted the divorce, I did finally say all right. I mean, he told all his family, all my family. But he always changed his mind, you see. He'd suddenly say he'd made a mistake, and he'd start bombarding me with love letters and sending me flowers and rings. And it was a great deal of up-and-down behavior. It was difficult to deal with.

But what I felt in the end over these periods of years was that each time there was a crisis, it made me think, I must become independent. I must get really good work of my own. I must get more interesting jobs. And I did so that - there is a sort of passion there that the more he departed and, you know, decided he wanted a separate life, the more I was encouraged to think about building up my own career. And that was very good for me.

GROSS: This kind of astounds me. Your father sent your husband a letter in which your father told your husband that that he, your father, hadn't been able to live with your mother and he, your father, was not surprised that Nick, your husband, couldn't live with you. What (laughter)?

TOMALIN: Yes. I think the behavior of my father and my father-in-law was really awful. There was a sort of male ganging up. I remember my father-in-law telling me that his son, my husband, had found true love at last with one of these other girls. (Laughter) I thought, thank you very much. Yes, there was bad male behavior certainly.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Claire Tomalin. She's best known for her biographies of people like Dickens and the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. But now she's written her own memoir, and it's called "A Life Of My Own." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Claire Tomalin. After years of being a book reviewer and editor in England, she became a biographer with acclaimed biographies of people like the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and Charles Dickens. Now she's written about her own life in a memoir called "A Life Of My Own."

At some point, your husband Nick became more violent to you. He hit you. You needed stitches on your lip once. After you had a brief affair - and that followed after him having had several affairs - he hit you again, and he tried to run over the man you'd had the affair with.

TOMALIN: (Laughter).

GROSS: I'm curious about the decision to stay with a man who could be violent 'cause you write you had to adjust to the fact that he could be violent, and you prepared yourself for more possibilities of that.

TOMALIN: Well, I mustn't exaggerate it. He did, yes. The first time he hit me was when someone had told him I was having an affair. I was having a very, very mild affair with another journalist. And he came back into the house. I was standing under the kitchen door with a roller for a roller towel. I don't know if you have those in America in the kitchen. And I - and he came up with his wrist raised to hit me, and he bashed his fist down, and I ducked, so he hit the roller towel and broke it. And I've kept that roller towel (laughter) ever since as a memorial. I have it on my kitchen door now.

GROSS: Why do you want to be reminded of that moment?

TOMALIN: I suppose I thought it was quite funny. But also it was a moment of when I actually realized something - that I was living with a man who thought it was all right for him to have affairs but it wasn't all right for me. That's quite a...

GROSS: And what did you do with that realization?

TOMALIN: Well, I've sort of kept it. It seemed to me it was part of the ethos of the time perhaps. It stayed with me and amused me. I like to have physical objects that remind me of moments in my life.

GROSS: Was that moment a turning point?

TOMALIN: I suppose it was in a sense that I saw that, you know, there was a tradition - there was a moral tradition which was being enacted here OK for men, not OK for wives.

GROSS: So we've been talking about how your marriage went through a very rocky period with your husband leaving and having affairs, then coming back again. After you reunited again in 1970, you decided to have another baby. Why did you decide to have another baby when you knew that there was something shaky in the foundation of your marriage?

TOMALIN: Well, I suppose I just wanted to have another baby. I also thought it would be lovely for my daughters. And I remember sort of thinking if I - if we have a baby in the family now, it would be really nice for them. And I suppose I had a very strong sense of the family. I - the reason I always took Nick back was that I thought the family was so important. And when Tom was born, it worked so well even though he was handicapped. And by then, we had a wonderful young nanny who came to help. And it was a very happy group. It was a good family.

GROSS: Your baby Tom was born with spina bifida. Would you explain what that is?

TOMALIN: Spina bifida happens when the spinal cord doesn't close properly. And so it comes in various degrees of severity. And in Tom's case, it was quite severe. And after he was born, almost immediately I was told I must decide whether I wanted them to operate to close the open place on the back. I'd never heard of spina bifida, and I don't think Nick knew anything about it either. And this was our son. And I said, well, if we decide not to have the operation, what will happen? And they said, well, he may be worse off. He may be more severely handicapped. So I said, well, you're not giving me a choice then, are you? Clearly you've got to operate. You've got to close his back.

And I think it wasn't really quite the truth they told me because I think - because I have a friend who had a similar baby about a year later, and they were told, don't have the operation. The baby will live for a few months. You will love the baby, and then the baby will die, and then you can have more children. It was their first baby. So we had the operation. We had two operations for Tom. And then various other things had to be watched like hydrocephalus in the head.

GROSS: That's, like, a swelling of the brain.

TOMALIN: Yes. And I remember I used to have to go and see the brain surgeon regularly with Tom. And you learn such odd lessons, don't you? I mean, I was endlessly anxious. And this brain surgeon was a very sweet man and saw Tom a lot. And he said to me, you're so lucky to have Tom. I would love to have children, and I don't have any children. And I've always thought about that man (laughter) and how he envied me, my situation, you know? He didn't think it was a terrible disaster having a handicapped son. He thought I was really enviable to have this beautiful baby. He was a very beautiful baby, too.

GROSS: So you mentioned your friend who had a baby with a similar problem was told, don't have the operation; your baby will live a few months and then will die.

TOMALIN: Yes, yes.

GROSS: And you'll have other children.


GROSS: And you write that you wondered if your son Tom could possibly have a life worth living. Do you think that the doctor should have offered you the chance to have what's sometimes described as a merciful death for your son?

TOMALIN: Well, no. I'm not going to say that because Tom is now 48 years old, and he's - extraordinary character. He's the courage of a lion. And he's battled with such bravery through life that he's an example to many people. So I'm not going to say that.

GROSS: My guest is Claire Tomalin. Her new memoir is called "A Life Of My Own." After a break, we'll talk about her first husband's death while he was covering the Yom Kippur War and how she fell in love and remarried much later in life. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Claire Tomalin. After writing biographies of Dickens, Jane Austen and the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, Tomalin has written a memoir called "A Life Of My Own." Through her story, she tries to tell a larger story of British women of her generation.

She was born in 1933. She describes her conflicting desires to have children and a satisfying working life. It took a while, but she eventually had both. She gave birth to five children. One died in infancy. When we left off, we were talking about her son Tom, who was born with spina bifida, a birth defect in which the baby's spinal cord has not fully developed or has not closed properly in the womb.

Tom has never been able to walk or stand. And you wrote at some point you stopped taking him to the playground because it was painful for him...


GROSS: ...And for you to watch the other children being able to do things that he'd never be able to do.

TOMALIN: Yes. I can remember him looking at the other children. And quite recently he said to me - I was talking to him about this, and he said, well, I believed then that when I grew up, I would be able to walk. And it literally broke my heart when he said that. It hadn't sort of crossed my mind. But of course children have no idea what is coming for them or what there is in the world. It was quite natural that he should think that. And when he was in his teens, it was a bit heartbreaking because he would see the other boys and teenage boys and girls doing things which he couldn't join in. He has had a hard life, a very hard life and quite a lonely life except for his family.

GROSS: Your husband Nick, who had, you know, in the '70s become a pretty famous journalist in England - he went on a reporting trip to Israel just after the start of the Yom Kippur War when Syria and Egypt launched a surprise attack on Israel on Yom Kippur, which is the holiest day of the year in the Jewish calendar. And he told you that he thought he'd be safe. He told you, I wouldn't go anywhere dangerous now with four children; but the Israelis know how to look after journalists, and I'll be perfectly safe with them.

While driving toward the front lines, he was killed by a Syrian heat-guided missile. And one of the things that really horrified you about his death was the idea of him dying alone. Could you talk a little bit about why that was such a horrible thought for you?

TOMALIN: I don't think anyone should die alone. I think when you're dying, you really do need someone with you. And it's - the German reporter who was there rang - telephoned me after he got back and said that he heard Nick calling out, saying, ich sterbe. Of course he didn't call out ich sterbe. He didn't speak German. So what he called out was, I'm dying. And - terrible, terrible that he should die alone, awful. I don't like to think about it to this day - terrible thing.

So I absolutely insisted on his body being brought back to England. They wanted to bury him out there. And I said, no, he's got to come back, otherwise for the children. If they don't see - couldn't see his body but they could see the coffin and his parents also - otherwise, it would be just as though he'd gone off once again and just not come back. There had to be a funeral. There had to be somewhere where he was buried. That seemed to me very important. I mean, these sort of formalities are important in life I think.

GROSS: You write it changed your life when you realized you were now in charge of it. How did it change your life?

TOMALIN: Well, yes because I was now in charge. I could now decide a lot of things, like what sort of car to buy. I bought my first car that was my car, (laughter) which was absolutely wonderful. And I was - then John Gross, who was at the New Statesman, said, I must come. He wanted to go to the Times Literary Supplement, and he thought I should come and be literary editor for the New Statesman. And I had to decide whether to do that, whether to take a job or whether I would stay at home with the children. And I talked about this with everyone, and we all sort of debated about it. And I decided - and I think the children agreed - that it would be better for me to have a job.

GROSS: Why did you think it would be better to take the job?

TOMALIN: Because I think mothers who stay at home and live entirely through their children - I mean, some people are very happy doing this, but I didn't think it was a very good idea. By then, my daughter - my eldest daughter, Jo, was actually ready to go to Cambridge. So they were - you know, they were big girls.

GROSS: So your first biography was a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, the early feminist who wrote "A Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman," which was published in 1792 and argued that women were the equals of men. How did this historical look at feminism and Wollstonecraft's life affect your understanding of your own life? Did it? And I should mention your biography of her was published in the mid-1970s.

TOMALIN: Well, it was rather interesting. I wrote it because when I was taking maternity leave to have Tom, the editor of the New Statesman - I'd been working already as deputy literary editor. And he said, well, take maternity leave, and come back after the baby's born, but please keep writing pieces for the New Statesman while you're taking your maternity leave. And that's how I wrote a page about Mary Wollstonecraft for the New Statesman. And when it was published, I got letters from agents, publishers saying, you must write a biography of her. And so I didn't know what to do.

And Nick and I sat down together with a piece of paper and pencil each. Pros and cons - should I go back to the New Statesman, or should I try and write this book? And we both concluded that I ought to try and write the book. And so that's why I decided to do that. The book is sort of associated with Nick in that way. I was - it was helpful to me, that - his advice. And in fact, when he was killed, I was just finishing writing the book. So it was - the book was sort of bound up with that period of the end of his life, and it was quite emotional.

GROSS: So did Mary Wollstonecraft's writing and how she lived her life affect how you lived your life after your husband was killed?

TOMALIN: Well, studying her was amazing to me because I discovered this woman in the 18th century who seemed to be living a life very, very much like mine. She was living in North London. She was working on a magazine. She was having difficult love affairs, as it were, or - and once she had a baby, she was having to deal with trying to work and have a baby. And this walking the same streets of London that she had walked, it seemed absolutely amazing to me. And she was so vivid in her letters and her writings. And she went - was going over to Paris to see the French Revolution, and I of course went over to Paris, learned quite a good deal of the French family.

And so I - it sort of reinforced my interest in women's history, and it made me think much more deeply about how little really useful information we got about women's lives in the past, how - you know, we had biographies of queens, and we had sort of books about actresses. But really close looking at what women's lives in the past were like was rather - in rather short supply. And I thought that is something I would really like to get my teeth into.

GROSS: Did her biography also give you a sense of strength or courage in pursuing an independent life?

TOMALIN: Yes, it did. And she was so interesting because she was a rather sort of severe, hardworking young woman who threw herself into all sorts of work. She worked as a governess. She tried to run a school. She even helped one of her friends whose family was very poor doing sewing work. And she nursed people. She took on practically every job that a woman of her generation could take on. So she qualified herself to comment on the situation of women.

And then she had this extraordinary love affair. She went to Paris during the revolution. And she didn't believe in marriage, so she had a baby with this - her American lover. And she had a bad time with him. He was (laughter) faithless to her. And so she's done - she sort of slightly turned into a romantic heroine. She is completely fascinating figure to me still.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Claire Tomalin. She's a biographer who's written books about Mary Wollstonecraft, the early feminist, and Charles Dickens. Her new memoir is called "A Life Of My Own." We're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Claire Tomalin. She was a longtime book reviewer and editor for publications in England, and then she became a full-time biographer. Her biographies include books about Charles Dickens and the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Now she has a memoir called "A Life Of My Own."

I want to ask you about another tragedy in your life. Your second-oldest daughter, Susanna, got profoundly depressed in 1979 while she was attending Cambridge University.

TOMALIN: No, she was at Oxford.

GROSS: At Oxford - I'm sorry. Thank you. And then she took her life in 1980.


GROSS: And you found her depression - it sounds like everyone who knew her found her depression unfathomable because it was such a sudden, inexplicable change from how she had been in the past. Have you ever found any explanation? And I know that with schizophrenia, for instance, it often sets in in somebody's teenage years for reasons I don't really understand. But I've, you know, I've learned...

TOMALIN: I don't think she was schizophrenic.

GROSS: ...That that's true.

TOMALIN: No, I don't think she was schizophrenic. I remember her telling me that she'd been questioned by doctors to see, and she thought they were trying to see whether she was schizophrenic. I don't think she was. I think she was profoundly depressed.

I've just been looking again at Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar," and it suddenly struck me - this is just this last week - that what she describes in that book, the depression she falls into, is very like Susanna, what Susanna fell into, inexplicable to the family, to the friends. But they had something in common, I think. And it amazed me suddenly seeing that what Sylvia Plath described so brilliantly. How she described her own descent into depression I don't know, but she was wonderful. And I thought Susanna was like that.

In all my efforts to help her, to comfort her, to cheer her, she would say, well, it may make you feel better, but it doesn't make me feel better. And the first time she took an overdose I describe in the book. I found her. We got her to hospital. She was in intensive care, and I watched all those lines, you know, show you how the breathing and the heart and everything - and I saw her reviving. And when she seemed better, I went out into the corridor in the hospital, and the male nurse came out and said, don't rejoice. She will do it again. That was pretty grim, wasn't it?

GROSS: It turned out to be true, though.

TOMALIN: It was true, yes. It was true.

GROSS: You know, and in her suicide note, she wrote that she was sorry, but, quote, "it could get worse."

TOMALIN: Yes, that's right, but I suppose that...

GROSS: So I guess she was really afraid of that.

TOMALIN: Well, I think that's right. And another friend of mine who suffered from depression said, if you haven't had depression, you don't have any idea what it's like. This was a Roman Catholic friend of mine. She said, it's worse, I'm sure, than being in hell.

And I think if you think of Virginia Woolf, who had this recurrent depression and then killed herself - I used to think if we'd saved Susanna, that if we'd managed to save her, I think she might have perhaps lived another 10 or 15 years and done some more of the - she was - she could have been a very good writer. She wrote some very good poems. And even if she'd, like Virginia Woolf, then killed herself later - if only she'd had some more of her life because she was - of course all mothers think their children are wonderful.

But she was an exceptional person. And it was recently her 60th birthday. And her wonderful boyfriend she'd had, who is happily married with family in his 60s, sent me an email on the morning of Susanna's 60th birthday and said, all over the world, people are remembering how clever and lively and wonderful Susanna was. Isn't that an extraordinary thing?

GROSS: Yeah. You write, I should have protected her. How can you protect somebody from their own depression?

TOMALIN: Well, that's the trouble. It's very difficult. And I didn't succeed.

GROSS: Your write, the grief has to be set aside, but it does not go away. It arrives each morning as you wake, lies in wait in the familiar routines of the day, takes you by surprise. Does it still?

TOMALIN: I think writing the book has helped. A lot of people have written to me about that passage, people who've lost someone they loved, and said, yes, that is how it is and sort of sharing with people the experience. I don't grieve in the same way that I used to grieve year after year. I am pretty well at peace. But it still - of course, it hits one to you hear a piece of music, you see something that reminds you - just - I see her face. I see her beautiful blue eyes. I remember her being born.

And I remember how my two little daughters - when I had my first daughter, I wanted to have a second daughter so that they could be friends. I was so pleased when Susanna was born, and they were. They loved each other. It's been very hard for her elder sister too because they were very close. So, of course - of course the pain is less, but she's certainly not forgotten. She's not forgotten by her friends.

GROSS: Why don't we take a short break here? And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Claire Tomalin. She's a biographer who's written books about Mary Wollstonecraft, the early feminist, and Charles Dickens. Her new memoir is called "A Life Of My Own." We're going to take a short break. Then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Claire Tomalin. She was a longtime book reviewer and editor for publications in England, and then she became a full-time biographer. Her biographies include books about Charles Dickens and the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Now she has a memoir called "A Life Of My Own."

So, you know, we've talked a lot about raising your family and about your first marriage, which had a lot of rocky periods. And then your husband was killed while covering the Yom Kippur War. He was killed by a heat-seeking missile, a Syrian missile. At the age of 60, you remarried to the playwright Michael Frayn, who's best known for - in America, anyways, I think he's best known for "Noises Off." He was married when you started seeing each other, and you write you tried to end it several times. But finally, his wife was understanding, and they separated. And you married Michael Frayn. Since you had been through your husband having so many affairs and then coming back to you, what was it like for you to be the woman who was having the affair with a married man?

TOMALIN: Well, that's a very good question. Of course, it was very difficult and painful. And it went on for quite a long time. And as I say, we tried to stop seeing each other. We went through all sorts of processes of agreeing we wouldn't see each other, and somehow we just kept not being able to bear not seeing each other. And all the more so that Michael and Jill, his wife, had three daughters - just the way I had three daughters - wonderful, wonderful girls.

So it was very agonizing. And I can't say I feel I behaved very wonderfully. But in the end, Jill did decide that she thought it was best if they separated. And I'm happy to say that we are now all on a - I'm very close to his daughters. I love them dearly - and his grandchildren. And Jill and I are on reasonably cordial terms. And the pain of all that process, I think, has been worked through. It's not for me to say it's wholly worked through, but I don't think I can say much more about it than that.

GROSS: I don't know if this is anything you can crystallize, but I was wondering if you could talk about the quality of love as an older woman, compared to the quality of love in your 20s when you married your first husband. And I ask that in part because, like, sexual lust isn't - do you know what I mean? - isn't part of the equation in the same way when you get married when you're 60, as it is when you get married...

TOMALIN: Well, I'm not sure that I would...

GROSS: ...In your 20s.

TOMALIN: ...Agree with that (laughter).

GROSS: OK, fair enough.

TOMALIN: I think sexual love is very fundamental - is a very important part of life. And for me, I was certainly - in some ways, more important when I was 60 than when I was 20.

GROSS: That's a very interesting answer (laughter). So you're 85 now?


GROSS: Your book strikes me as a very honest book. I don't really know you, so I'm not the best judge. But as a reader (laughter) - as a reader, it strikes me as an honest book.

TOMALIN: It's certainly meant to be an honest book, yes.

GROSS: Yeah. And I'm wondering if that level of honesty is something that you feel freer to have in your mid-80s now. Like, you know who you are now. You know what your life has been. You don't have to impress anybody. You don't have to worry about your reputation. It's already made.

TOMALIN: I do feel that. And also, to be brutally honest, of course, a great many of the people I'm writing about, they're all dead, so they can't answer back. They can't say, oh, you've got that wrong, Claire. And I realize that's rather unfair, isn't it? But that's how it is. Because I've lived a long life, I can see it's easy for me, isn't it? I mean, in some cases, I have asked the people. I've sent people what I've written and said, is this all right? Apart from Susanna, whom I'm glad I wrote about because I think she was wonderful, I said to my daughter, I'm not going to write about you much. But then about Tom, I did write. And my youngest daughter Emily said, Tom won't like what you've written, you must read it to him.

So when the book was in proof and could still be changed, I said, I've written about you, would you like to hear? And he was in hospital at that time. And I went in, marked up the proof and I read it to him. And he really liked it. He was really pleased. And I think he saw that I had written about him with the love I feel for him and the admiration I feel for him. And I think he felt, actually, that it was something good, that there he was described.

GROSS: I want to quote you again - "when you have seen many of your friends and family die, it is not so hard to think calmly about your own coming death. You will be following the path they have already taken. You need no belief in an afterlife to feel comforted by that thought." Why do you find that thought comforting?

TOMALIN: That I'd be following after those who died before me?


TOMALIN: Well, it's not logical because I think when you die, you cease to exist. But all the same, you can't help thinking that by the time you reach my age, 85, so many people you love have died, you can't help seeing that, as it were, they've gone out through a door. And the idea that you, too, will soon go out through that same door, it's not a literal belief, but it's a way of seeing it which makes some sense to me. And then I think of words with writing about it - (unintelligible) with earth and stones and trees, the idea that what's left of you is still part of this wonderful earth in which we live. Even if you're reduced to ashes or whatever, you have been part of it. And in some sense, you will always be part of it.

GROSS: Well, Claire Tomalin, it's really been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much. And I'm glad you decided to write your own story.

TOMALIN: Thank you. It was a delight talking to you.

GROSS: Claire Tomalin's new memoir is called "A Life Of My Own." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...


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