Claire Tomalin’s literary biographies — of Thomas Hardy, Samuel Pepys, Charles Dickens and Katherine Mansfield, among others — aren’t so much massive biographies of record as fresh, engaging, revisionist takes on her subjects. In “A Life of My Own,” Tomalin, now 85, turns her critical eye on her own history, revisiting her not always smooth path through a challenging childhood, difficult marriage and early widowhood to a rewarding life of her own. “In taking on this self-imposed task,” she writes, “I was driven partly by curiosity: what would I learn about myself?” Plenty — and so do we.
Tomalin brings to her memoir a pro’s practiced ability at threading the personal, the professional and the contextual with details that sing. Born in London in 1933 to Émile Delavenay, from Savoy, and Muriel Herbert, from Liverpool, Claire Delavenay’s early years were marked by “discontinuity” — frequent relocations stemming from her parents’ bitter divorce and evacuations during World War II. After her father left, her mother gave up a promising career as a pianist and composer for a routine office job to support herself and her two daughters. Tomalin repeatedly expresses gratitude for her “admirable courage and good sense.” It’s a model she clearly found helpful when facing her own tribulations years later.