Claire Tomalin Essay - Critical Essays

Tomalin, Claire


Claire Tomalin 1933-

English biographer, essayist, critic, and playwright.

The following entry presents an overview of Tomalin's career through 2002.

A skilled literary critic and biographer, Tomalin is noted for providing balanced, insightful portraits of celebrated female authors and historical figures whose often tragic lives reveal the stultifying social limitations and perils faced by gifted women. In works such as The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (1974), Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life (1987), The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (1990), an award-winning biography of author Charles Dickens's mistress Nelly Ternan, and Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King (1994), a study of Victorian actress Dora Jordan, Tomalin draws attention to the ways in which exceptional women have been ignored, marginalized, or otherwise alienated by their contemporaries. Though Tomalin does not consider herself a dogmatic feminist, her writings serve to redress the neglect of her female subjects, often providing subtle reinterpretations of historical events where new facts are unavailable. Tomalin's Jane Austen: A Life (1997) is considered by some critics to be a definitive biography of the iconic English novelist.

Biographical Information

Born in London, England, to scholar Emile Delavenay and songwriter Muriel Herbert Delavenay, Tomalin received her early education at the Hitchins Girls' Grammar School. She attended secondary school at Dartington Hall and then entered Newnham College, Cambridge, where she received a bachelor's degree in English and a master's with honors. She married journalist Nick Tomalin in 1955, the same year that she began a twelve-year career as a reader and editor for three London publishing houses, Heinemann, Hutchinson, and Cape. In 1967 she joined the staff of the Evening Standard, and in 1968 moved on to the New Statesman, where she worked as an assistant literary editor until 1974 and literary editor until 1977. At that time Tomalin became a reviewer for the Sunday Times of London; from 1979 until 1986 she was the newspaper's literary editor. After publishing an essay on Mary Wollstonecraft in the New Statesman, Tomalin was approached by several publishers to write a full-length biography of the eighteenth-century feminist. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft won a Whitbread First Book Prize in 1974. Tomalin's most honored work, The Invisible Woman, won the NCR Book Award, the Hawthornden Prize, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Tomalin and her first husband, who died covering the Yom Kippur War in 1973, had four children. Tomalin later remarried to author Michael Frayn in 1993.

Major Works

In The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, Tomalin describes the unsavory aspects of this early feminist's life but also praises her courage in speaking out for women's rights. Tomalin pointedly assesses the tragic irony of Wollstonecraft's death as a result of infection following childbirth. Tomalin's second book, Shelley and His World (1980), is an introduction to the work of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft's son-in-law. Katherine Mansfield presents a biography of an early-twentieth-century writer whose influence has far outlasted her short life and surprisingly small oeuvre. Though the facts of Mansfield's life have been recorded in earlier biographies, Tomalin provides new insight into her subject's character. She describes Mansfield's childhood as a middle sibling in a privileged household in New Zealand and her education at a progressive school for young women in London. Mansfield was acquainted with several important literary figures of the time and is even thought to have been the model for the character of Gudrun in D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love. Tomalin posits that Mansfield, an ardent feminist, ultimately died at age thirty-four due to her determination to be sexually independent despite societal expectations. Unfortunately, in a time before contraception and antibiotics were available, one of Mansfield's lovers infected her with gonorrhea. Misdiagnosed by her physicians, the infection became systemic, weakening Mansfield's system so extensively that when she was exposed to tuberculosis, she became ill with the disease. Despite her poor health, she continued to produce short stories that Eudora Welty, Virginia Woolf, Carson McCullers, and other esteemed writers would later claim influenced their own work. Mansfield's close relationship with Ida Baker, a devoted and much abused servile friend, is the subject of Tomalin's play The Winter Wife (1991). In The Invisible Woman, a literary detective story, Tomalin examines the life of actress Nelly Ternan, the storied mistress of Charles Dickens. While previous studies of Ternan have focused on her influence on Dickens's work—she is believed to have been the model for several of Dickens's most famous heroines, including Lucy Mannette in A Tale of Two Cities and Estella in Great Expectations—Tomalin instead focuses on Ternan herself, particularly the life she led before and after her thirteen years as Dickens's companion. Tomalin concludes, somewhat controversially, that the middle-aged novelist and much younger actress likely crossed into a sexual relationship, rather than maintaining a merely platonic friendship. Ultimately, the true nature of their involvement can only be surmised since members of both families, and Ternan herself, destroyed most of the documents that would have settled the matter. Tomalin's feminist reading of Ternan's life also includes harsh criticism of Dickens, who cruelly rejected his wife, and realistic depictions of the difficult lives of Victorian actresses, whom society generally considered little more than prostitutes.

Mrs. Jordan's Profession provides a biography of Dora Jordan, the late-nineteenth-century English actress who became one of the most respected comediennes of her day, despite her precarious social standing. For twenty years Jordan was the mistress of the Duke of Clarence, the future King William IV, with whom she had ten children, all the while maintaining a successful career so that she could lend financial support to her children and contribute to the payment of the Duke's many debts. By all accounts their domestic arrangement was felicitous, and they were able parents to their children. At the behest of the royal family, however, William abruptly left Jordan in 1811. Though he provided for her and his children's support, a son-in-law began to incur fraudulent debts in Jordan's name, forcing her to flee to France in 1815, where she died less than a year later, impoverished and alone. Despite her tragic end, Jordan enjoyed a life denied to most women of her era and dubious class, including wealth, public acclaim, and a loving, royal relationship. With Jane Austen: A Life Tomalin presents a biography of one of the most honored and beloved novelists in English literature. Though Austen's life has been examined in numerous studies and little primary material remains to be scrutinized, Tomalin provides a discerning feminist perspective that offers insight into the mind and motivations of Austen. The most accomplished of six sons and two daughters born into a parsonage in Hampshire, Austen was raised in a household filled with masculine influence; her father also ran a school for boys in their home. Tomalin writes persuasively about Austen's concern with economics in her novels and the hardships that women of her period endured, particularly entering into marriage solely to secure a living for themselves. Tomalin focuses particularly on the profit that Austen earned from her novel Sense and Sensibility, noting that the money provided Austen with a small measure of independence that would have otherwise been denied. Unfortunately, Austen's death at age forty-two prevented her from receiving the adulation her works eventually earned. Several Strangers: Writing from Three Decades (1999) consists of essays and criticism written by Tomalin over three decades, from 1971 to 1995. One section examines aspects of the lives and work of gifted women writers, while another chronicles her own life as a literary journalist in London. In 2002 Tomalin published Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, a biography of the seventeenth-century British naval administrator who became known for his extensive diaries which provide both vivid and intimate accounts of English life in the 1600s.

Critical Reception

Tomalin has been widely regarded as a perceptive, highly competent literary biographer whose understated feminist perspective illuminates her works without narrowing their focus. With very few exceptions, her biographies have been well received by reviewers, including many who have praised her even-handedness and ability to provide fresh examinations of well-worn subjects. Though several critics have found minor shortcomings in Tomalin's treatments of Mansfield and Austen, notably her failure to explore the implications of Mansfield's gonorrhea and alleged plagiarism as a whole, and the omission of a religious influence in Austen's life, most reviewers have dismissed such issues as trivial in view of Tomalin's overall accomplishments. As critics have frequently noted, Tomalin's works are assiduously researched and painstakingly documented; most of her biographies reveal previously unexplored aspects or premises of their subjects' lives. Tomalin's concern with the fundamentally different experiences of men and women, and the way these differences influence the lives of women, has been credited with providing a genuine sense of the real lives of her female subjects.

Principal Works

The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (biography) 1974

Shelley and His World (biography) 1980

Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life (biography) 1987

The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (biography) 1990

The Winter Wife (play) 1991

Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King (biography) 1994; also published as Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Actress and the Prince, 1995

Jane Austen: A Life (biography) 1997

Several Strangers: Writing from Three Decades (essays and criticism) 1999

Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self (biography) 2002


Nicolas Walter (review date 15 May 1981)

SOURCE: Walter, Nicolas. “Shelley Right and Wrong.” New Statesman 101, no. 2617 (15 May 1981): 18-19.

[In the following excerpt, Walter presents a favorable review of Shelley and His World, calling the work “excellent” and “refreshing.”]

Shelley was so wrong about so much. Despite his famous claim, poets are not the legislators of the world, and he was more unacknowledged than most, both during his short life and long after his death. His published books of fiction were dreadful in every sense. His first published book of verse was withdrawn and destroyed because it included a plagiarised poem. His first published work of non-fictional prose got him...

(The entire section is 662 words.)

Frances Partridge (review date 31 October 1987)

SOURCE: Partridge, Frances. “A Short Life and a Restless One.” Spectator 259, no. 8311 (31 October 1987): 34.

[In the following review, Partridge commends the veracity of Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life, but concludes that Tomalin's cool, objective tone stands in stark contrast to Mansfield's frenetic life.]

There is a particular pleasure in discovering from his biographer that an artist's character has the same flavour as his work. Turgenev comes to mind. The opposite state of affairs—a wide discrepancy between the two—is less common. One thinks of Wagner, and I wonder if Katherine Mansfield also qualifies. Her rather small output has, rightly in my...

(The entire section is 833 words.)

Gabriele Annan (review date 17 March 1988)

SOURCE: Annan, Gabriele. “Going Every Sort of Hog.” New York Review of Books 35, no. 4 (17 March 1988): 28-9.

[In the following positive review, Annan argues that it is “hard to find fault” with Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life.]

Katherine Mansfield's contemporaries, including, though reluctantly, Virginia Woolf agreed that she was brilliant. Woolf, admired her besides for going “every sort of hog,” while she herself remained regretfully respectable. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Mansfield is that she managed to construct for herself, a century or at least half a century too late, a classically Romantic career. Born in 1888 into a prosperous New...

(The entire section is 2097 words.)

Merle Rubin (review date 25 May 1988)

SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “Troubled Lives of Two Gifted Women Writers.” Christian Science Monitor (25 May 1988): 20.

[In the following review, Rubin compares and contrasts Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life with Marion Meade's biography, Dorothy Parker.]

An accident of publication dates has connected two women writers, both famous in the 1920s, both highly esteemed as practitioners of their craft, both personally unhappy and self-destructive. Each came from a provincial background to a great metropolis—one from New Zealand to the London of Bloomsbury and D. H. Lawrence, the other from the wilds of New Jersey to the Manhattan of the Algonquin Round Table. Both...

(The entire section is 630 words.)

Clancy Sigal (review date 29 May 1988)

SOURCE: Sigal, Clancy. “Unwonderfully What She Was.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (29 May 1988): 8.

[In the following review, Sigal praises Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life as a “level-headed biography,” but notes that Tomalin tries too hard to portray Mansfield's life as a “feminist tragedy.”]

Only a passionately self-absorbed actress like Meryl Streep or Diane Keaton could do justice to a film of the writer Katherine Mansfield's life when inevitably, alas, it will be made. Only a Streep or a Keaton would be equal to Mansfield's exquisitely neurotic mixture of melodramatic posing, reckless ambition (without quite the talent to match),...

(The entire section is 612 words.)

Sydney Janet Kaplan (review date July 1988)

SOURCE: Kaplan, Sydney Janet. “Rescuing a Reputation.” Women's Review of Books 5, nos. 10-11 (July 1988): 18-19.

[In the following review, Kaplan offers a positive assessment of Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life, concluding that Tomalin's book improves upon previous Mansfield biographies by Antony Alpers and Jeffrey Meyers.]

Katherine Mansfield was born on October 14, 1888 in Wellington, New Zealand. It is fitting that Claire Tomalin's long-awaited biography [Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life] should appear this year, the centennial of Mansfield's birth. Katherine Beauchamp (Katherine Mansfield was her pen-name) had a comfortable, privileged...

(The entire section is 2167 words.)

Anne L. McLaughlin (review date fall 1988)

SOURCE: McLaughlin, Anne L. “Out of the Milk Jug.” Belles Lettres 4, no. 1 (fall 1988): 17, 19.

[In the following review, McLaughlin compliments Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life, but regrets Tomalin's failure to fully examine the implications of Mansfield's illness on her psychological perspective and work.]

Katherine Mansfield, who virtually created the modern short story in English, once wrote that she felt “like a fly who has been dropped into the milk jug.” After her death in 1923 at the age of thirty-four, Mansfield's husband, John Middleton Murry, dropped her reputation into a milk jug of sentimentality through his criticism and editing of her...

(The entire section is 822 words.)

Donna Rifkind (review date autumn 1988)

SOURCE: Rifkind, Donna. “Live Fast, Die Young.” American Scholar 57 (autumn 1988): 628-32.

[In the following review of Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life, Rifkind provides a summary of Mansfield's life and finds shortcomings in Tomalin's feminist perspective and overestimation of Mansfield's artistic commitment.]

Katherine Mansfield's brief literary career yielded only a collection of short stories, some letters, and a private journal, yet her position in the pantheon of English letters is surprisingly solid. Many critics have in fact considered that position to be unjustifiable. Mansfield's friend D. H. Lawrence insisted “she was not a great...

(The entire section is 2875 words.)

John Mortimer (review date 3 November 1990)

SOURCE: Mortimer, John. “Mystery of the Young Passenger.” Spectator 265, no. 8469 (3 November 1990): 40-1.

[In the following review, Mortimer commends The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens as an engaging “work of literary detection.”]

‘A lady who had been upon the stage from her earliest childhood. … once said to me, “Oh, but I have never forgotten the time. … when my baby brother died, and when my poor mother and I acted three nights … with the pretty creature lying upon the only bed in our lodging before we got the money to pay for its funeral.”’ When Dickens made this speech at a charitable banquet of the...

(The entire section is 1341 words.)

Merle Rubin (review date 25 February 1991)

SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “Revisiting Dickens (and Friend).” Christian Science Monitor (25 February 1991): 13.

[In the following excerpt, Rubin offers a positive assessment of The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens.]

Charles Dickens was an instinctive Romantic who focused his powerful and intensely poetic imagination on the grim realities of lower- and middle-class urban life in the heart of the 19th century. As his most recent biographer, Peter Ackroyd, points out, Dickens possessed in full degree the 19th century novelist's confidence in the writer's ability to describe the real world in all its solid detail. Yet for Dickens, Ackroyd...

(The entire section is 787 words.)

Frederick Busch (review date 31 March 1991)

SOURCE: Busch, Frederick. “Lives Acted Out in Secrecy: How and Why Nelly Ternan Became the Mistress of Charles Dickens.” Chicago Tribune Books (31 March 1991): 4.

[In the following review, Busch praises Tomalin's skill at constructing a biographical portrait in The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens.]

The story of Ellen Lawless Ternan is quiet, fascinating, poignant—and minor. Yet it probably matters more, in the immensities of history, than your story or mine. For Nelly, as she was called, can be seen as something of a source for Charles Dickens' Estella in “Great Expectations,” his Bella Wilfer in “Our Mutual Friend” and his...

(The entire section is 1321 words.)

Garry Wills (review date 16 May 1991)

SOURCE: Wills, Garry. “The Angels and the Devils of Dickens.” New York Review of Books 38, no. 9 (16 May 1991): 8, 10-11.

[In the following excerpt, Wills commends The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, despite the flaws he sees in Tomalin's interpretation of Dickens's fascination with younger women.]

Nicholas Nickleby was adapted for the stage, almost immediately after it was written, by the kind of theatrical troupe that figures in Dickens's novel as the Crummleses. One actual family of the time, with a pronounced Crummles aspect, was led by Thomas Ternan, who married an actress he had worked with on the road, Fanny...

(The entire section is 1582 words.)

Hermione Lee (review date 10 June 1991)

SOURCE: Lee, Hermione. “The Man Who Didn't Sleep.” New Republic 204, no. 23 (10 June 1991): 35-8.

[In the following excerpt, Lee offers a positive review of The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, which she compares to Peter Ackroyd's simultaneously published biography of Dickens.]

When Peter Ackroyd's 1,200-page biography of Dickens appeared in England, a friend of mine, a biographer herself, wanted to read it on a plane journey to Ireland. It was obviously unmanageable as hand-luggage, so she put it on her kitchen table, got out her bread knife, and sawed it in half. “It made two perfectly serviceable biographies,” she...

(The entire section is 1717 words.)

David Cannadine (review date 20 October 1994)

SOURCE: Cannadine, David. “Odd Union.” London Review of Books 16, no. 20 (20 October 1994): 35.

[In the following review, Cannadine offers a mixed assessment of Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King, noting that Tomalin's documentation is “inadequate.”]

The task of rescuing women from the chauvinistic condescension of male posterity has thus far been unevenly undertaken and incompletely accomplished. Writers and actresses, suffragettes and nuns, servants and prostitutes, have fared relatively well. But upper-class women—Clio's own sisters, cousins and aunts—have received much less attention. Studies of aristocratic...

(The entire section is 2271 words.)

Loraine Fletcher (review date 21 October 1994)

SOURCE: Fletcher, Loraine. “The Royal Rat.” New Statesman and Society 7, no. 325 (21 October 1994): 38-9.

[In the following review, Fletcher compliments Tomalin's writing in Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King, though she argues that Tomalin's conclusion is inadequate.]

Claire Tomalin's biographies hum with love and anger—an anger civilised and well-researched, and all the more effective for that. Her women's lives were obscured by prudent contemporaries or written out of the record by academics, and we know by now how well she will beat the conspiracy.

She has never found a more appealing subject than...

(The entire section is 824 words.)

Pat Rodgers (review date 21 October 1994)

SOURCE: Rodgers, Pat. “The Adorable Dorothy.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4777 (21 October 1994): 4-5.

[In the following review, Rodgers evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King.]

Claire Tomalin has made her name principally as the chronicler of the insulted and the injured. Her representative women began with Mary Wollstonecraft, wilfully misunderstood before and after her premature death. Then came the secret life of Katherine Mansfield, and more recently the uncovering of the invisible woman, Ellen Ternan. But now Tomalin has shifted her gaze to Dorothy Jordan [in Mrs. Jordan's...

(The entire section is 1881 words.)

Helen Osborne (review date 29 October 1994)

SOURCE: Osborne, Helen. “Between the Acts.” Spectator 273, no. 8677 (29 October 1994): 31-2.

[In the following review, Osborne asserts that Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King is a “fitting memorial” for Dora Jordan.]

With the severeness of a somewhat prim school-marm, Claire Tomalin warns us in the introduction to this altogether enthralling biography that there is a special tone which creeps into eulogies of actresses, presenting them as lovable wayward creatures and striking them stone dead in the process. It is an encouragement that Mrs Jordan's Profession will be no stage-struck hagiography of the best...

(The entire section is 1479 words.)

Colette Brooks (review date 26 June 1995)

SOURCE: Brooks, Colette. “Behind the Scenes.” New Republic 212, no. 26 (26 June 1995): 38-40.

[In the following review of Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King, Brooks finds shortcomings in Tomalin's conception of fate and her portrayal of Dora Jordan as a victim.]

At midpoint in her account of an ill-starred eighteenth-century love affair, after the general outline of a ruinous end has been rendered and we await presentation of the particulars, Claire Tomalin offers a summary judgment of her subject's fate: “We can see, with hindsight, that it would have been better if she had never met him.” The remark has a curiously...

(The entire section is 2318 words.)

Gerald Weales (review date fall 1995)

SOURCE: Weales, Gerald. “Here Comes Mrs. Jordan.” Sewanee Review 103, no. 4 (fall 1995): 111-14.

[In the following review, Weales offers a generally favorable assessment of Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King, but finds fault in Tomalin's disinterest in Dora Jordan's theater career.]

“Nobility, gentry, citizens, princes—all were frequenters of the theatre and even more or less acquainted personally with the performers. Nobility intermarried with them; gentry, and citizens too, wrote for them; princes conversed and lived with them.” So Leigh Hunt wrote in his autobiography, recalling the London theatrical scene as...

(The entire section is 1314 words.)

Peter Holland (review date 19 October 1995)

SOURCE: Holland, Peter. “Not Having It All.” New York Review of Books 42, no. 16 (19 October 1995): 62-4.

[In the following review, Holland argues that Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King is a “superb” biography, praising Tomalin as an accomplished and “modest writer.”]

While staying in Leeds in July 1782, Tate Wilkinson, the successful manager of a theater company touring the north of England, received a message asking him to visit Grace Phillips, an actress who, as Mrs. Francis, had once played Desdemona to his Othello. He found Grace and her three children in dire straits: newly arrived from Ireland and...

(The entire section is 4136 words.)

Simon Jarvis (review date 12 September 1997)

SOURCE: Jarvis, Simon. “Sponge Cakes or Don Juan.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4928 (12 September 1997): 3-4.

[In the following excerpt, Jarvis lauds Jane Austen: A Life, comparing it favorably with David Nokes's simultaneously published biography on Austen.]

“To be burned.” These were the words which Cassandra Austen wrote on a bundle of her sister Jane's letters in 1843. But why did the letters have to be burned? Perhaps because Jane Austen had expressed improper resentment at having to move to Bath. Or perhaps because she had expressed improper excitement. Or perhaps these letters concealed something far worse, that is, better: facts so unexpected,...

(The entire section is 1816 words.)

Nigel Nicolson (review date 27 September 1997)

SOURCE: Nicolson, Nigel. “Not Fanny Price, More Mary Crawford.” Spectator 279, no. 8826 (27 September 1997): 41-2.

[In the following positive review, Nicolson compliments Tomalin's Jane Austen: A Life and David Nokes's biography on the same subject.]

It is not difficult to explain the continuing popularity of Jane Austen's novels: they are love stories that improve with every reading. More puzzling is the constant demand for new biographies of her, when there is little new evidence to discover. Here we have two experienced biographers re-arranging the same documents with such skill that each could say of the other, ‘I wish I'd thought of that.’ But any...

(The entire section is 1107 words.)

Malcolm Bradbury (review date 17 October 1997)

SOURCE: Bradbury, Malcolm. “A Woman for All Seasons.” New Statesman 126, no. 4356 (17 October 1997): 45-6.

[In the following review, Bradbury discusses the vicissitudes of Austen scholarship and offers a positive assessment of several new biographies on Austen, including Jane Austen: A Life.]

“Jane Austen,” wrote the Old Master, Henry James, “was instructive and charming … For signal examples of what composition, distribution, arrangement can do, of how they intensify the life of a work of art, we have to go elsewhere.”

This was a common judgment in its day; but for a century we have been upturning it. Today nobody can dismiss Miss...

(The entire section is 1234 words.)

James Wood (review date 23 November 1997)

SOURCE: Wood, James. “Sense and Sensibility.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (23 November 1997): 3.

[In the following excerpt, Wood asserts that Jane Austen: A Life is “a triumph of seasoned sympathy” and compliments Tomalin's biographical portrait, despite the lack of documentation on her subject.]

English fiction flows from Jane Austen's pelisse as surely as Russian fiction does from Gogol's overcoat. She founded character and caricature at the same time, which is the essentially satirical, essentially English approach to fictional people. From her, Dickens learned that characters can survive on one attribute and still be fat with life. From her,...

(The entire section is 1602 words.)

Brooke Allen (review date February 1998)

SOURCE: Allen, Brooke. “An Elusive Acquaintance.” New Criterion 16, no. 6 (February 1998): 74-7.

[In the following review, Allen offers a positive assessment of Jane Austen: A Life.]

It seems that the Jane Austen boom that began a few years ago has not yet run its course: its latest manifestation is an absorbing new biography by the British biographer Claire Tomalin. A mere three hundred pages, written with spare elegance and grace, Jane Austen: A Life is a welcome throwback to a time when biographers did not feel it necessary to stuff their tomes with every dull and unnecessary detail of their subjects' lives. Tomalin, who has also written books on Mary...

(The entire section is 1901 words.)

Honor Moore (review date 9 February 1998)

SOURCE: Moore, Honor. “A Heart Not Mended.” New Leader 131, no. 2 (9 February 1998): 18-19.

[In the following review of Jane Austen: A Life, Moore commends Tomalin's evocation of Austen's life and times, but finds shortcomings in Tomalin's failure to probe the links between Austen's life and fiction.]

The arrival of Claire Tomalin's latest biography [Jane Austen: A Life] sent me back to the unadulterated fictions that were composed some 200 years ago by the unmarried daughter of a clergyman as she sat in a corner of the parlor—and supposedly shoved the manuscript she was working on beneath a blotter whenever someone entered the room. By the time I...

(The entire section is 1598 words.)

Marilyn Butler (review date 5 March 1998)

SOURCE: Butler, Marilyn. “Simplicity.” London Review of Books 20, no. 5 (5 March 1998): 3, 5-6.

[In the following excerpt, Butler praises Jane Austen: A Life, but finds shortcomings in Tomalin's failure to examine the influence of contemporary literary works on Austen's development as a mature writer.]

Do we need another Life of Jane Austen? Biographies of this writer come at regular intervals, confirming a rather dull story of Southern English family life. For the first century at least, the main qualification for the task was to be a relative—Henry Austen, ‘Biographical Notice’ to Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1818), the Rev. J. E....

(The entire section is 2924 words.)

Nancy Mairs (review date May 1998)

SOURCE: Mairs, Nancy. “Single Blessedness.” Women's Review of Books 15, no. 8 (May 1998): 13.

[In the following review, Mairs asserts that with Jane Austen: A Life, Tomalin creates “a social and familial context for her subject more substantial than most.”]

Most novels, no matter how much I've enjoyed them, don't beg to be reread; and of those that do, the majority rests in the “someday” pile. Some I have read obsessively during one phase of my development and then set aside forever. In junior high school, I raced through a historical romance, Anya Seton's Katherine, time and again; a little later, it was Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Were...

(The entire section is 1433 words.)

Richard Jenkyns (review date 4 May 1998)

SOURCE: Jenkyns, Richard. “Janeism.” New Republic 218, no. 18 (4 May 1998): 33-8.

[In the following excerpt, Jenkyns compliments Jane Austen: A Life, noting that Tomalin “is ready to risk some psychological speculation, but this is done with tact and restraint.”]

Charles Dickens was born in Hampshire, but when you cross into the county from Sussex the sign reads: “Hampshire—Jane Austen's county.” Only one other English county identifies itself by a literary son or daughter in this way; but then Warwickshire does have Shakespeare to boast about. Jane Austen's star seems to rise on and on. The recent spate of film adaptations may be over, but they...

(The entire section is 4833 words.)

Helen Pike Bauer (review date fall 1998)

SOURCE: Bauer, Helen Pike. “The Short and Graceful Life.” Cross Currents 48, no. 3 (fall 1998): 404-06.

[In the following review, Bauer praises the accomplishment of Tomalin's research in Jane Austen: A Life.]

In writing her new biography of Jane Austen, [Jane Austen: A Life,] Claire Tomalin faced a formidable task. We have very little of Austen's writing apart from the novels. If she kept a diary, we have no record of it. Her sister, Cassandra, burned almost all of the letters in her possession; most that survived were later destroyed by a niece. Moreover, the reminiscences written by Austen's brothers are spare and discreet; they commend Jane's virtue and...

(The entire section is 854 words.)

Jocelyn Harris (review date summer 1999)

SOURCE: Harris, Jocelyn. Review of Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin. University of Toronto Quarterly 68, no. 3 (summer 1999): 796-801.

[In the following excerpt, Harris compares Jane Austen: A Life to David Nokes's biography of Austen, finding Tomalin's work to be the superior of the two.]

What riches—two biographies of Jane Austen in one year! David Nokes begins his flamboyantly: ‘Bengal, 1773. It is the rainy season in the Sunderbunds. Inside his lonely makeshift hut the Surgeon-Extraordinary sits writing a letter home to his wife in England. The livid orange sun is sinking over this dismal region of fetid salt-flats, swamp and jungle....

(The entire section is 2084 words.)

William Scammell (review date 11 December 1999)

SOURCE: Scammell, William. “Sensibility and No Nonsense.” Spectator 283, no. 8940 (11 December 1999): 48-9.

[In the following review, Scammell evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Several Strangers: Writing from Three Decades.]

‘What is it the best writers do? They infuse the world with their energy, making it more real, more immediate, more troubling than most of us can be bothered to notice most of the time.’ That firm answer to a large question is the penultimate sentence in this enjoyable collection of Claire Tomalin's essays and reviews [Several Strangers: Writing from Three Decades], written for a variety of journals over three decades. She...

(The entire section is 1155 words.)

Alex Clark (review date 8 December 2000)

SOURCE: Clark, Alex. Review of Several Strangers: Writing from Three Decades, by Claire Tomalin. Times Literary Supplement, no. 5097 (8 December 2000): 32-3.

[In the following review, Clark compliments the “precision” and “clarity” of the essays and reviews in Several Strangers: Writing from Three Decades.]

A collection of book reviews might, at first glance, seem like turgid stuff; fragments of journalism tied not to great events that the reader can grasp on to, but to books that themselves have in some cases faded from view. The pleasure to be extracted from Several Strangers is, in consequence, both somewhat unexpected and wholly refreshing;...

(The entire section is 394 words.)

Ferdinand Mount (review date 28 September 2002)

SOURCE: Mount, Ferdinand. “From the Scaffold to Mr. Pooter.” Spectator 290, no. 9086 (28 September 2002): 58-9.

[In the following review, Mount commends Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self as a “delightfully readable” and well organized biography.]

It is a famous passage, but it needs to be quoted in full, for reasons I shall come back to:

To my Lord's in the morning, where I met with Captain Cuttance. But my Lord not being up, I went out to Charing-cross to see Major-Generall Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered—which was done there—he looking as cheerfully as any man could do in that condition. He was presently...

(The entire section is 2364 words.)

Further Reading


Altick, Richard D. “Mr. Dickens and His Friend.” Washington Post Book World (24 March 1991): 10.

Altick evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens.

Auerbach, Nina. “Best Performance by a Mistress.” New York Times Book Review (21 April 1991): 12.

Auerbach argues that Tomalin's study of Nelly Ternan in The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens is interesting but ultimately unsubstantial.

Barry, Kevin. “Still Clueless.” New York Times Book Review (7 December 1997): 46....

(The entire section is 442 words.)