Claire Tomalin Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.