Claire Tomalin is a master literary biographer who makes the genre more compelling and interesting than any other writer I know. I’m two-thirds through her 2002 book on the 17th century diarist and naval administrator, Samuel Pepys. I offer some notes on her biographical method.
- As in Thomas Hardy: The Time Torn Man, she begins with the subject in action, a prologue which tells of a critical incident – in the case of Hardy, a moment of conversion; in the case of Pepys, a representative moment. For Hardy, it is the death of his wife, the loss which turns him into a great poet. For Pepys, it is a blazing argument with his wife, revealing him in all his pettiness, candour, and observational genius. The 17th century comes alive in the pages of Pepys’ diary – and thus in the biography – in a way it rarely can. With these tastes of the person her subject is to become, Tomalin returns to a more conventional chronological account in both cases.
- Except when she doesn’t. In Pepys, Tomalin abandons strict chronology for a thematic treatment in part two, covering the years of the diary, 1660-1669, the years she has unparalleled access to Pepys’s life. It works incredibly well. Thematic treatments of the whole of his life could feel overwhelming in scope, returning Pepys to a child at the beginning of each chapter. But here, we move forward and back over just a decade and each chapter has something of a feel of a short story about one aspect of his life – from “Families” to “Work” and “Death and Plague”. I wonder if most readers are even particularly aware of her innovation here; I suspect not, it reads smoothly and quite naturally.
- She generally calls him “Pepys” (in other works, she has been on first-name terms), except I notice on p. 58 she refers to an “unhappy period of Sam’s life”. I suspect this is unintentional; she may have tried it both ways and left this one unchanged.
- She has a brilliant ability to balance the different aspects of her biography – just the right amount of narrated events, historical and social background, family circumstances, psychological speculation. She evokes the era – the political events and the difference in everyday life – so well in chapter one while not letting it choke the story. She knows the telling details, catching my attention with this:
But every house, every family enjoyed its own smell, to which father, mother, children, apprentices, maids and pets all contributed, a rich brew of hair, bodies, sweat, and other emissions, bedclothes, cooking, whatever food was lying about, whatever dirty linen had been piled up for the monthly wash, whatever chamber pots were waiting to be emptied into yard or street. Home meant the familiar reek which everyone breathed. The smell of the house might strike a new maid as alien, but she would quickly become part of the atmosphere herself. (6)
She can write so well about a time and place because she seems to combine rigorous research with a flair for prose and enough confidence to speculate without being too apologetic.