A Life of My Own, by Claire Tomalin

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The three of us would live in two rooms, a bigger one in which we slept, and a small kitchen/living room. To me, it all seemed agreeable, and for the next two years we lived above the pianos, with the sound of Beethoven sonatas filling our ears. Dorrie must have sometimes played and taught work by other composers, but Beethoven came before all others, and she gave me an early education in his piano music that has kept me listening to it ever since. Serious as she was about music, she was also high-spirited and sociable. She liked to organize parties and play jokes, and soon after we moved into her house she gave a nightingale party, telling her friends there was a nightingale in her back garden, and my sister and I were given the job of keeping her guests indoors while she slipped out into the garden with a special nightingale whistle to amaze them. She never made us feel unwelcome, although it must have been hard not to have her house to herself. This was the summer of 1943. I was ten.

I have previously hugely enjoyed Tomalin’s biographies of Samuel Pepys, Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft and the young H.G. Wells, so I had pretty high hopes for this autobiography, published in 2017 when she was already 84 (she turned 90 in June). And it pretty much fulfilled them.

Tomalin is the daughter of an English musician and a French writer, who married too young and were already on the verge of separation when she was conceived. She too married young, finding a journalist chap while a student at Cambridge, and the relationship deteriorated into on-again-off-again until he was killed covering the Yom Kippur war, exactly fifty years ago last month. But they had five children, two of who died, one as a baby, the other in her early 20s; and their surviving son has a serious disability. She tells us much less about her second husband, Michael Frayn, which is a little disappointing. But there is still plenty of personal material to draw on, with her literary endeavours a secondary theme.

The hilarious contact lens scene from Noises Off was inspired by something that actually happened to Tomalin while on holiday with Frayn.

From the 1993 film. Interestingly the words “contact” and “lens” are not mentioned in the script – the actors show what has happened without actually telling us.

Writing of her time at Cambridge, she says that she gave up writing poetry because she felt she was not good enough at it; but this “left an emptiness in my life which has never quite been filled.” I find that rather sad. Her biographies are superlative, but I guess she feels that there was something more creative that was possible and that she missed out on. There is still time. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2017. Next on that list is All Things Made New, by Diarmaid MacCulloch.