In recent years, non-fiction books, in particular biographies, have become extremely popular: not just misery memoirs and celebrity confessions but superbly researched and stylishly written accounts of real lives, historical reassessments, thoughtful travel writing and enthralling explanations of scientific discoveries (which usually have a colon in the title, as in Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time or The Riddle of The Compass: The Invention That Changed the World and so on): their quality is often outstanding and prizes such as the Costa (formerly Whitbread) or the Samuel Johnson have rewarded authors who often achieve satisfyingly large sales figures. Kate Summerscales’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2008, was the Galaxy British Book of the Year 2009 and is still prominent in the UK best-seller lists.
Claire Tomalin is one of the most eminent biographers of recent years and has been awarded many prizes for her work. Her subjects include Katherine Mansfield, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Jane Austen. Lesser-known but equally fascinating characters have been examined in The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens and Mrs Jordan’s Profession, which told the story of Dora Jordan, an actress who became the mistress of the Duke of Clarence, later William IV. While Tomalin clearly feels special empathy with her women subjects, recently she has produced acclaimed biographies of two men – Samuel Pepys and Thomas Hardy.
Tomalin has the ability to convey vividly to her readers exactly what life must have been like for the people she is describing. She interprets letters and reported conversations sensitively without claiming too often to know exactly what someone was thinking and feeling at particular moments. Enlightening discussions enrich the narrative ; talking of the restrictions under which a woman like Jane Austen lived, she points out that during the winter months in the country, lanes and paths would be so muddy that, while men could stride about in their boots, or get about on horseback, women were often confined to the house for long periods. Parties and dances, which may seem like plot devices, were invaluable for the release of energy and high spirits. Concise but acute literary analysis sits easily alongside and complements the social commentary: on Persuasion she comments:
Persuasion is an extraordinary book on many counts. In one light it can be seen as a present to herself……….. to all women who had lost their chance in life and would never enjoy a second spring. But it is also a remarkable leap into a new mood and a new way of looking at England. The friendly characterisation of the naval officers….. points approvingly towards a society in which merit can rise. There is a remarkable portrait of a distinctly new woman, Mrs Croft, tough, humorous, middle aged and clearer headed than her husband the Admiral; and right in her judgements where the defenders of old-fashioned values of prudence, rank and family turn out to be wrong.
Summing up the life of Thomas Hardy, she writes, movingly:
He knew the past like a man who has lived more than one span of life, and he understood how difficult it is to cast aside the beliefs of your forebears. At the same time he faced his own extinction with no wish to be comforted and no hope of immortality. He wrote honest poems, almost every one shaped and structured with its own thought and its own music. They remind us that he was a fiddler’s son, with music in his blood and bone, who danced to his father’s playing before he learned to write. This is how I like to think of him, a boy dancing on the stone cottage floor, outside time, oblivious, ecstatic, with his future greatness as unimaginable as the sorrows that came with it.
A new biography of Dickens is read, according to Rachel Cooke in The Observer (25 September 2011),
with a mounting sense of amazement (and sometimes horror), the small things taking hold of you as much as the large. It is wonderful.
Discussing issues which previous biographers covered up or chose to ignore, Tomalin declares “It’s not a matter of forgiving. That would be an impertinent thing to say. But it is a case of trying to understand.” (The Observer ibid)
The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1974
Shelley and His World Thames & Hudson, 1980
Parents and Children (editor) Oxford University Press, 1981
Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life Viking, 1987
The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens Viking, 1990
The Winter Wife (play) Nick Hern Books, 1991
Mrs Jordan’s Profession Viking, 1994
Jane Austen: A Life Viking, 1997
Maurice, or the Fisher’s Cot by Mary Shelley (editor) Viking, 1998
Several Strangers: Writing from Three Decades Viking, 1999
Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self Viking, 2002
Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man Viking, 2006
The Poems of Thomas Hardy (editor) Penguin, 2007
The Poems of John Milton (editor) Penguin, 2008
Charles Dickens: A Life Viking 2011