“We were in the car and he just hit me… We had a rocky marriage but damn I loved him”


This will be sad news for the many readers of Claire Tomalin, but her last book will be, she says, probably the last chapter of her author’s life. I speak to the award-winning writer on the eve of the publication of her 10th Biography, A Quick Study of HG Wells, and ask her if she has dwelled on her next topic. She laughs.

“No, that’s the answer to that,” she said. “I am 88 years old. I think this will probably be the last book.”

Tomalin is one of the most famous biographers of his generation. His subjects – almost all writers – have included Austen, Hardy, and Dickens. Its beginnings, the years 1974 The life and death of Mary Wollstonecraft, won the Whitbread First Book Award (now the Costa Award) and in 2002, Samuel Pepys: The Unparalleled Self was a huge success, winning another Whitbread Award, this time for Book of the Year. For this award, Tomalin beat her husband, novelist and playwright Michael Frayn, who was also in contention with his book, Spies.

Now she has written about the socialist thinker and novelist considered the father of science fiction. Despite the title, Young HG Wells follows him until his forties, “my excuse being that he still seems and behaves like a young man,” says Tomalin.

How does she choose her subjects?

“It must be someone whose character I know enough to know that I find them attractive and interesting, and maybe I feel like what has been done before does not answer all the questions I ask. want answers. “

In addition to scrutinizing the lives of others, she also put Claire Tomalin in the spotlight.

A life of mine (2017) is a brilliant dissertation – beautifully written but also filled with extraordinary and sometimes disturbing detail.

She received Shakespeare’s collected works for her 11th birthday, read it “with passionate pleasure” and began producing her own sonnets. She thrived in Cambridge, taking a first in English, although she spent much of her sophomore year “making love” with her boyfriend. At the age of 58, she learned from her father that on the day of her conception he had regretted her marriage so much that he seriously considered killing his mother by pushing her off the cliff they were walking on. in Cornwall. .

Of the five children she had with her first husband, journalist Nick Tomalin, one died in infancy and another committed suicide as an adult. Nick, who was killed in the Golan Heights by a Syrian missile in 1973, once hit Claire so hard with the back of her hand that she needed lip stitches.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have said that, except I think it probably happens quite often and people don’t talk about it,” she says. “We were driving in the car and he just crashed.

“He didn’t intend to do what he did and he was upset that he did. We had a rocky marriage, but he was also a wonderful man. My God, I loved him and was heartbroken when he was killed.

We’re talking the day after she returned to London from Ibiza, where she and Michael were staying with Frayn’s daughter, director Rebecca, who has a home there.

It was the couple’s first overseas trip in a long time and she admits she is tired, even though she seems cheerful. She says she and Michael are both fine and take a long energetic walk every day.

“We are very lucky,” she said. “We have a large garden – I am an avid gardener – and we live in a beautiful place near the Thames in Richmond. “

Before becoming a full-time author, Tomalin was a successful journalist: literary editor at the New statesman then Sunday Times, working with, among other illustrious names, Martin Amis (with whom she had a brief affair) and Julian Barnes.

As befits a former literary editor, she keeps abreast of new fiction – current favorites include Maggie O’Farrell, Anne Tyler and Nicci French.

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In the preface by Young HG Wells, she quotes an essay by George Orwell from 1941: “Wells is too sane to understand the modern world”. What does she think he would do with today’s world?

“Well, we’re still a monarchy,” she said. “It would have horrified him.”

And what does she think of it?

“I think things are pretty bad,” she says, and now she looks a bit weary. “I’m European, I’m half French, so the idea that we’re not part of Europe seems absurd to me.

What I’m reading now …

Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit

“I was reading this on the plane back from Ibiza in preparation for a radio program.”

What I read next …

Earth Renewed: Reworking the Campaign by Peter Hetherington

“It’s on a subject that concerns us all – how we should treat the campaign.”

Young HG Wells is published by Viking at £ 20


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