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Renowned author Claire Tomalin confessed she had secretly been house hunting in Winchester while researching her book on Jane Austen a decade ago. She declared that she had grown to love the city when she returned to the Guildhall in January to talk about her remarkably frank memoir A Life of My Own. She was aided in this by inquisitor John Miller, himself no slouch when it comes to writing biographies of the great and the good. Miss Tomalin has written no fewer than nine biographies including those of Shelley, Dickens and Hardy and now her own life story has aroused enormous interest.
Her parents separated when she was six and she spent her formative years in boarding schools and went up to Cambridge to read English. A frustrated historian she revels in immersing herself in the lives of those that she documents.
Married young, her children were born in quick succession, one with spina bifida, and she struggled to bring up a young family with an absentee husband, Nick Tomalin, who she describes as a bit of a bolter. He encouraged her to write her first book – before he took off with yet another paramour – and was killed while reporting for the Sunday Times on the Golan Heights.
Needing a steady income to support her family, Claire became Literary Editor of the New Statesman and in 1979 became Literary Editor of the Sunday Times, walking out with her entire department when the move to Wapping became so toxic.
Two of Miss Tomalin’s most influential books were on women who had previously been unseen. The Invisible Woman was about Dickens’s secret lover Nelly Ternan, and Mrs Jordan’s Profession, about an actress who was the mistress of King William IV, who bore him 10 children. Her biography of Samuel Pepys won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award (in competition with her second husband playwright and novelist Michael Frayn) and brought great acclaim and she delighted in steeping herself in his writings.