Claire Tomalin

Claire Tomalin is the author of The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (1974) and Shelley and his World (1980). She is literary editor of the Sunday Times.

Gnawed by rats, burnt at Oxford

Claire Tomalin, 10 October 1991

George Henry Lewes was a close contemporary of Dickens, born five years after him, in 1817, and dying eight years after him, in 1878. Both men worked themselves to the limits of their strength and endurance, and probably shortened their lives by doing so; both tend to be seen as prototypical Victorians, whereas they were formed by the Regency period and kept a certain flamboyance, together with a dislike of the insularity and hypocrisy to which they saw England succumbing. Dickens, the idol of the public, grumbled, and was forced into secret strategies; Lewes, with much less at stake, proclaimed his atheism and radicalism and braved out his unorthodox marital situations, though even he finally destroyed the letters and journals that would allow us to understand his private history as we should like to. He is best known as the consort and enabler of George Eliot, for which he deserves our homage. But he was far more than that. Although he has been the subject of earlier biographies, he has not been written about with the depth and sympathy that Rosemary Ashton brings to him.

The Sage of Polygon Road

Claire Tomalin, 28 September 1989

Mary who? was the person I mostly seemed to be dealing with in the early Seventies, when I wrote a biography of the extraordinary woman whose works have now been collected for the first time, nearly two hundred years after her death. And ‘Mary Who?’ is still the common form of her name, outside a small circle of specialists and enthusiasts. People stumble over the three simple syllables; its awkwardness has stood in the way of her fame. Pankhurst has an easy ring to it, and Mrs Pankhurst got a statue. When I set about organising a modest plaque on the site of the house in which Mary Wollstonecraft died in Somers Town, there was talk of naming flats or even a street after her: but again, those three syllables defeated too many people. Her nephew Edward Wollstonecraft, an undistinguished and illiberal businessman who emigrated to New South Wales, had a whole district of Sydney named after him, and Australians don’t seem to find it difficult to pronounce: so why do we have so much trouble with his aunt?

Scandal’s Hostages

Claire Tomalin, 19 February 1981

Madame – vous avez du caractère’, remarked a French gentleman travelling through Savoy in 1823 in the same carriage as Mary Shelley and observing her as she checked her small son Percy’s self-willed behaviour. She was pleased enough to report the compliment to Leigh and Marianne Hunt in a letter; and if she seems a little arch in liking compliments, she strikes the reader too as deserving them. This is the letter of an unusually intrepid and well-educated woman: it mixes affectionate chat about the Hunts’ children and hers with clear-headed comment on her present travels and memories of earlier, happier journeys. At one moment she is describing the Customs officers’ jokes about the seriousness of their work as they lift the lid of her box – Shelley had had books confiscated on the journey out; at another she recalls how the Montagne des Eschelles had given him the idea of his Prometheus Unbound; then she is surprised, entirely on her own account, by the people of Cenis making an annual August pilgrimage to a mountain top: ‘it belongs to that queer animal man alone, to toil up steep & perilous crags, to arrive at a bare peak; to sleep ill & fare worse, & then the next day to descend & call this a feast.’ Through these impressions she scatters idiomatic French and Italian with perfect ease: this is the pen of an undoubtedly quick and clever young woman.

Letter
Just to get it absolutely straight, I will quote what I wrote in my postscript, ‘The Death of Dickens’, to the paperback edition of The Invisible Woman (Letters, 26 January). The postscript began by giving two letters from Mr Leeson, who offered information that had come through his family about something told them by a church caretaker at Linden Grove in Peckham, which suggested that Dickens...
Letter

Defence of Shelley

19 February 1981

SIR: Audrey Williamson’s eccentric outburst (Letters, 19 March) seems to have been provoked by my review of a volume of Mary Shelley’s letters, but turns out to be a review of my books on Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft. A retrospective survey of one’s work is of course flattering, but it is difficult to believe from her remarks that Miss Williamson has actually read my books. She...

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