The Art of Biography Writing with Claire Tomalin at Sydney Writers’ Festival

Claire Tomalin, Britain’s pre-eminent literary biographer, has authored books on Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Pepys and Jane Austen, among others. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Tomalin discussed research, her subjects, and the value of working with Caroline Baum, current Directorial Editor of Booktopia.

Tomalin’s work as a biographer didn’t begin until she was in her forties, she said, when she discovered the letters of Mary Wollstonecraft while on maternity leave from the New Statesman, where she was deputy literary editor. Prior to literary journalism, she had previously worked in publishing, and when she studied at Cambridge she had even fancied herself a poet, a career that promptly ended with Sylvia Plath’s arrival there.

Claire Tomalin, critically acclaimed biographer. Image Credit: Angus Muir for The Arts Desk.

After penning a one-page piece on Wollstonecraft for the New Statesman, publishers and literary agents urged Tomalin to write a book about, which was when Tomalin discovered the art of biography as her true calling. She has since spent the last four decades of her life (Tomalin is a sprightly 81) visiting writers’ houses in Switzerland and France, and delving into the Royal Archives at Windsor in order to ‘sink down into the mud’ and immerse herself in the lives of her subjects, who she describes as being as close as family.

All her subjects have taught her ‘lessons about how to live’, Tomalin said, reflecting the theme of the festival. Austen for example, demonstrated that an ordinary girl could taken on the aristocratic classes and land-owning gentry; Dickens, Tomalin said, was an advocate for the ‘little people’ — for the disabled and marginalised; and Dorothea Jordan, mistress and companion of William IV, showed incredible dignity under pressure. Above all, Tomalin said that her subjects have taught her about the value of work: that one can come from a very poor background and through work live a valuable and interesting life. Austen, Dickens and Hardy worked until the very end.

When asked about work ethic, Tomalin advised: ‘You have to be determined — you have to search with determination.’


Writer’s Edit would like to thank Sydney Writers’ Festival for the array of wonderful events hosted, and for providing us with access to them. Looking forward to next year’s already!

Donna Lu

Donna is a Brisbane-based freelance writer. She tweets @donnalu and her published work can be viewed here.

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