1 October 2017 Susannah

Claire Tomalin and Biographies

Claire Tomalin and her new biography

In the lectures I give, I love to provide background to a novel or poem by telling my audience something about the life of its author. I find it fascinating to know about the man or woman behind the work, to discover how they came to write, what their love lives were like, what interesting quirks of personality they displayed. I read many literary biographies as part of my research for lectures, but also for pleasure. And in my view the best biographer alive today is Claire Tomalin, so I was delighted to see that she has just written a memoir which is a biography of herself, called A Life of My Own. I once had the privilege of meeting Claire – she was working on her Pepys biography at the time, and it was fascinating talking to her. Her own life has not been an easy one, including the deaths of two of her children, and the death of her first husband, leaving her working as a journalist to support the children. As a writer she has gained huge praise and won major literary awards.

Jane Austen: A life by Claire Tomalin

Jane Austen: A life by Claire Tomalin

Claire told me that when she works on a biography she does an enormous amount of walking, literally following in the footsteps of her ‘subject’. I loved the image of Claire traipsing the English countryside, trying to see what someone who had lived a few centuries before might have seen, getting a feel for the landscape that shaped that writer. Her Jane Austen: A Life is the best biography available on Jane Austen, her Samuel Pepys: the Unequalled Self won the Whitbread Biography Prize, and I really love her Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man because she is so good on Hardy’s poetry. The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nellie Ternan and Charles Dickens involved ground-breaking detective work, and her biography of Dickens is particularly good on the women in his life (poor things!). Her other biographies include one on NZ writer Katherine Mansfield, one on Shelley and his world, another on Mary Wollstonecraft, and the excellent Mrs Jordan’s Profession. Sadly, it seems she is not planning to write more biographies (she is 84), but she has left the world of literary biography much richer for her efforts.

There are of course other fabulous biographers who have tackled the lives of writers – Richard Holmes, Victoria Glendinning, Richard Ellmann, Claire Harman, Andrew Lycett, Juliet Barker, just to name a few. Do you have any favourites? I’d love to hear your suggestions of good biographies of authors. Tell me by leaving a comment.

  Susannah Fullerton: Of Claire Tomalin and Katherine Mansfield
  Susannah Fullerton: Memoirs to Read

   Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin
   Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin
   Thomas Hardy, The Time-torn Man by Claire Tomalin
   The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nellie Ternan and Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin
   Mrs Jordan’s Profession by Claire Tomalin
   The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft by Claire Tomalin
   Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin
   Susannah Fulleton Finding Katherine Mansfield: Audio CD

I only recommend books I have read and know. Some of these links are my affiliate links. If you buy a book by clicking on one of these links I receive a small commission. It doesn’t cost you anything extra, but does help cover the cost of producing my free newsletter.


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Featured image credit- Author Claire Tomalin signing a copy of her Charles Dickens biography at the Hexham Book Festival, April 27, 2013, By summonedbyfells – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32657452, and bookcover image from https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/288883/a-life-of-my-own/
Body image credit- Jane Austen: A Life book cover image from Goodreads, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/50376.Jane_Austen

Comments (12)

  1. Stacey

    Hi Susannah – I would love to learn more about Agatha Christie. Do you have any biography recommendations?

    • Susannah Fullerton

      There is a good biography of her by Laura Thompson, and of course if you want to learn about Agatha’s fascinating visit to Australia, then you can read the chapter about her in my book ‘Brief Encounters: Literary Travellers in Australia.

  2. Margi Abraham

    Love Claire Tomalin biographies and her own is next on my reading list. I am currently reading Susan Cheever’s “personal” biography of Louise May Alcott which is also excellent. What a family! Speaking of families, an absolute favourite is Lives Like Loaded Guns by Lyndall Gordon about Emily Dickinson and hers. It was such a thrill to visit the homes of both these wonderful women writers on your literary tour of the North- East of North America in 2015, Susannah.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I agree that ‘Lives like Loaded Guns’ is totally fascinating. I was interested thst the staff at the Emily Dickinson museum were not enthusiastic, because I found it really convincing. I have not read Susan Cheever’s biography of LM Alcott, so will add that to my list. Thanks for the recommendation. Both are such interesting women!

  3. Melody

    I discovered a series of books written in upstate New York in the late 19th century by philanthropist and supporter of the Arts and Crafts movement Elbert Hubbard, of the Roycroft campus in East Aurora, NY. His books were called “Little Journeys to the Homes of the Great” and he wrote about visiting the homes of writers and artists and what their homes taught him about the person who lived there. It’s old-fashioned now, but still a nice read. I see his stories as a forerunner of your talks, Susannah.

    “Famous Women” includes Elizabeth Browning, Charlotte Bronte, Christina Rossetti, Madame de Stael, Empress Josephine, Mary Shelley and, of course, Jane Austen. “Great Lovers” includes Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Osbourne, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, Dante and Beatrice, and many others.

    Unfortunately I think the books are mostly out of print (I buy them secondhand when I visit the Roycroft Estate in East Aurora, NY — my sister lives nearby).

    • Susannah Fullerton

      What an intereting series, and a shame they are out of print. Thanks for letting me know about them, and the interesting choice of authors.

  4. Brian Doyle

    You’ll love it, Claire Tomalin is an exceptional person and very brilliant writer, her bio is riveting.

  5. Toni Pollard

    There is David Logdge’s Author,Author a novel/ biography on Henry James .

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I loved Author Author, as I have loved all David Lodge’s books. Of course it only covers the last years of Henry James’ life, but was very moving and I learned a lot from it.

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